How Parallel Narrative Multiplies Your Story Choices, by Linda Aronson
Very often things like flashbacks, flash forwards, non-linear narratives, multiple plots and ensemble casts are regarded as optional gimmicks stuck into the conventional three act structure. They’re not. Each of the six types I’ve isolated and their subcategories provides a different take on the same story material. Suddenly, one idea for a film can give you a multitude of story choices. What do I mean?
More than six ways to turn your idea into a film. Let’s imagine that you’ve read a newspaper article about soldiers contracting a respiratory disease from handling a certain kind of weaponry. You want to write a film about it. Conventional wisdom says create one storyline with one protagonist (a soldier who gets the disease) and follow that protagonist through a three act linear journey. There’s no question that you could make a fine film out of that. But there are several other ways to make a story out of the idea, and several different messages that you could transmit – by using one of the parallel narrative forms.
Would you like to create a script about a group of soldiers from the same unit who contract the disease together during one incident, with their relationships disintegrating or improving as they get sicker, dealing with the group dynamic and unfinished emotional business? That would be a shared team ‘adventure’, which is a kind of group story, so you would be using what I call Multiple Protagonist form (the form seen in films like Saving Private Ryan or The Full Monty or Little Miss Sunshine, where a group goes on a quest together and we follow the group’s adventure, the adventure of each soldier, and the emotional interaction of each soldier with the others).
Alternatively, would you prefer your soldiers not to know each other, instead, to be in different units, or even different parts of the world, with the action following each soldier into a separate story that shows a different version of the same theme, with all of the stories running in parallel in the same time frame and making a socio-political comment about war and cannon fodder? If so, you need what I call tandem narrative, the form of films like Nashville or Traffic.
Alternatively, if you want to tell a series of stories (each about a different soldier) consecutively, one after the other, linking the stories by plot or theme (or both) at the end, you’ll need what, in my book Screenwriting Updated I called ‘Sequential Narrative’, but now, to avoid confusion with an approach to conventional three act structure script of the same name, I term Consecutive Stories form, either in its fractured state (as in Pulp Fiction or Atonement), or in linear form (as in The Circle).
Alternatively, if you prefer to show the story in flashback, with a storyline in the present set in a hospital where one or more of the soldiers are patients and the story of what happened in the past being told as flashbacks, you need one of the flashback forms (there are three main forms and three minor ones). Finally, would you rather write about some soldiers who have never met being thrown together randomly when a catastrophic event occurs, then following them after the event? If so, the structure you would choose is what I’ve given the name Fractured Tandem, the form used in 21 Grams and Babel, which is like tandem narrative, but chopped up and reassembled, with all of the stories linked, triggered by that one catastrophic event, and the soldiers suffering the terrible accidental consequences.
As you can see, out of one idea we have a whole range of possible films. Hence, the rule now is no longer ‘use the conventional linear one hero model for your idea or get another idea’. Our rule now is: ‘content dictates form’.
I should stress here that I’m in no way hostile towards conventional three act structure. It’s the workhorse of screenwriting and I recommend and use it all the time. If your content suits it, fine. My point is simply that it’s not the only form. There are, and always have been, others. When trying to work out the best structure for your film, always double-check whether conventional narrative is more suitable. See Should I use conventional narrative instead?
New structures, a new mindset While parallel narrative is very exciting, it isn’t easy. Of course, no screenwriting is easy, but parallel narrative is particularly hard because it requires a change of mindset. It requires you to think in terms of many structures, not one, and it turns many of our notions about screenplay structure upside down. While, as I’ve said, it’s very much based on the conventional structure, doing things like multiplying, fracturing, truncating it or rearranging it, all in predictable ways, it frequently breaks rules we’ve got so used to that we don’t even realise they’re rules. For example, most forms of parallel narrative involve more than one protagonist, and some forms require you to make the same character a protagonist in one storyline and an antagonist in another, switching between the two. This is mind bending for many writers at first – it certainly was for me.
Also confusing for many is that most forms of parallel narrative involve several storylines,. For anyone who’s not been trained to jump between storylines or combine storylines within the same scene without losing pace or confusing the audience it’s a whole new skill (TV writers do it routinely, but it’s one of the hardest things to learn). Similarly, parallel narrative means learning new skills in economy of storytelling because if you are writing five storylines clearly the screen time available for each is very limited.
All that said, probably the most testing aspect of parallel narrative is that it forces us to dump that very comfortable idea that screenplay structure is fixed and unchanging. Films like 21 Grams, Run Lola Run, Inception and Memento have used parallel narrative to reinvent what popular film is and what it can do. They have also transformed our notions of what audiences will enjoy. There’s actually no way now that we can believe film structure is fixed and unchanging. It clearly isn’t. As we might have suspected, it changes to suit its times, just like other art forms. And, just like other artists, it’s not enough for us to keep recycling what was done forty, fifty, sixty years ago. We need to be inventive and original. And that in effect means that we have to be equipped to create not only films using the six parallel narrative forms that I have isolated, but also structural hybrids if we need to, just like the filmmakers who created 21 Grams, Run Lola Run, Inception and Memento, all of which are films that speak of and to their time and would have been incomprehensible to audiences sixty years ago.
If the idea of creating hybrids terrifies you, don’t let it (well, not too much anyway – any writer who is not panicking at this point needs to have their pulse checked, but don’t get too worried). The wonderful thing is that hybrids are doable (albeit with care) because there are clear rules governing the structural mechanics of parallel narrative, and (with care), we can mix and match. For example, a lot of time jump models open on a second act turning point (the protagonist’s closest moment to death emotionally, physically or both, followed by a decision to act), and then jump back to the protagonist’s disturbance. This is a very robust combination, and it appears over and over again in films all over the world. Just knowing about that mechanism means that if you wanted to create a parallel narrative film that had no structural precedents and needed to be a new hybrid, you would know that using that second act turning point followed by a jump back to the disturbance would probably work.
But of course, you can’t just learn one mechanism. Now that our rule is that content dictates structure, you need to learn the mechanics of all of the parallel narrative forms – so you know what suits your story material and where to look to find precedents for various elements of your hybrid. Yes, this is all hard, but it brings enormous rewards. Not only because it gives you a whole palette of new paints to work with as you write screenplays (perhaps even a whole set of new palettes if that’s not pushing the metaphor too far) but because, on a completely different tack, learning how to manipulate multiple storylines equips you for TV writing, which has always used them.
We’re so used to there being only one structure that we can forget parallel narrative uses several structures, according to content…All parallel narrative categories and subcategories achieve their impact by different structural means. However, it’s difficult for most writers to remember that, in parallel narrative, structure changes radically between different models. We are just not used to structure being something that CAN change significantly. We are trained to believe that the three act linear structure is what film structure IS and are so used to having only one structure that works for everything that structure is not really something we think about – except to make sure that we have a good three act linear model rising to a climax. But in the world of parallel narrative structure can vary enormously between forms. Some sorts of film (like The Hours or 21 Grams) work by creating three one act stories with a second act so truncated it barely exists. In others (like Run Lola Run), you may have three different versions of Act 2. In yet other forms, the time jumps will be catastrophic if you don’t jump stories at a very specific place in the action. In short, you cannot tell the story you want to tell unless you’ve got the right structure to tell it. Emphatically, you cannot do things like stick flashbacks in at random, or start repeating the same story over and over without addressing the structure of the whole film.
An analogy with architectural plans might be useful here. Conventional narrative structure is like a plan for one kind of building – let’s say a three bedroom house with a pitched roof. You can create all sorts of wonderful buildings with that design, as long as you wish to create a three bedroom house with a pitched roof. But if you want to create a building with a different purpose – an apartment building or a kindergarten or a town hall or a theater complex – you’ll need a completely different design, and your design for a theater complex or town hall won’t work for an apartment building, and vice versa. Unfortunately, a lot of writers coming to parallel narrative try to do this – using forms that just don’t suit their purpose – with predictably unhappy results.
As I’ve said, parallel narrative requires a different mindset. There is simply not space in a website to explain the structural differences between the different sorts of parallel narrative in the detail that it requires and it would be foolish to try. I have to refer you to The 21st Century Screenplay, using the website as an introduction to these exciting but challenging forms.
For Wordherders interested in exploring the use of parallel narrative techniques, Aronson has additional links that you may find helpful on her webpage.