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What are Parallel Stories?

The term parallel stories, also referred to as parallel narratives or parallel plots, denotes a story structure in which the writer includes two or more separate narratives linked by a common character, event, or theme. Parallel stories enrich a work and have been used by playwrights and novelists for centuries. As the shape of modern literacy continues to change, however, writers are increasingly experimenting with narrative form and voice. This has resulted in a recent increase in novels making use of multiple perspectives and parallel stories.

The essential characteristic of a novel with parallel stories is that it is nonlinear. A linear plotline follows one or more protagonists from the introduction of a conflict to its solution in chronological order. A nonlinear plotline jumps around, skipping between timelines and protagonists. The specific pattern will vary depending on the purpose of the parallel narratives, which may include building tension, creating dramatic irony, unraveling a mystery, revealing character motivation, or showing multiple perspectives. The varied structures of nonlinear narratives are often confusing to young readers. Helping students break down complex story structures can facilitate reading comprehension and literary analysis. The storyboards below provide suggestions for creating helpful visualizations of several types of nonlinear narratives.

Consecutive Stories and Multiple Protagonists

Variations of parallel stories go by many different names and follow a variety of patterns. The simplest of these is a basic two-plot combination in which two separate stories are told in the same novel. These may be told consecutively, one after the other, or they can be woven back and forth in a sort of “braided” structure. Generally, the events of the two narratives will overlap throughout the novel or combine in the novel’s climax or resolution. More complex story structures may contain three or more parallel stories, often containing a new narrative point of view in each plot segment.

The sample storyboard below illustrates the intersection of the consecutive stories in Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. The additional templates provide other structural variations for two-plot combinations. To create or alter these storyboard on your own, start with a T-chart and use the white square shape as an overlay to cover the separate boxes and merge them into one. The same can be done for the headings and text boxes by stretching a text box or adding free form text over a stretched square shape. To depict three or more parallel plots simply add columns to the chart.


Another common form of parallel story is the extended flashback. A few quick flashbacks placed throughout a story are not generally considered parallel narratives. Some stories, however, rely on flashbacks to tell a large portion of the story. These stories flip back and forth between the story’s present and past. This story structure is an effective way to build suspense as the flashbacks at first deepen and eventually elucidate mysteries in the present narrative. Flashbacks can also help highlight themes or character development that appear in the story’s present. To have students analyze connections between a flashback narrative and a story’s main narrative, make use of a T-chart or two-columns storyboard. For each significant element of the flashback plot, have students find a connection to the present-day plot. The example below illustrates the connections between the main narrative in Louis Sachar’s Holes and one of the novel’s flashback narratives.

Other works that rely heavily on parallel plots and flashbacks:

  • Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
  • Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen
  • Wonder by R. J. Palacio
  • The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
  • Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan
  • Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
  • The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
  • Hiroshima by John Hersey
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  • The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

Related Activities

Sources and Reference Links

How To Use Storyboards to Understand Parallel Plot and Nonlinear Narratives


Introduce Parallel Stories

Explain the concept of parallel stories to students, highlighting how they involve multiple narratives linked by a common character, event, or theme. Discuss the purpose and effects of using parallel plots in literature, such as building tension or revealing multiple perspectives.


Explore Consecutive Stories and Multiple Protagonists

Discuss the structure of consecutive stories, where two separate narratives are told either consecutively or braided together. Provide examples from literature, such as Mark Twain's "The Prince and the Pauper." Use storyboards to visually represent the intersection and overlap of the two plots, creating a T-chart or multi-column storyboard.


Analyze Flashbacks

Introduce the concept of flashbacks as a form of parallel storytelling. Explain how flashbacks can deepen suspense, elucidate mysteries, or highlight themes and character development. Choose a novel that heavily relies on flashbacks, like Louis Sachar's "Holes." Use a T-chart or two-column storyboard to help students analyze connections between the flashback narrative and the main narrative.


Create Visualizations

Provide students with storyboard templates that represent different structural variations of parallel plots, such as T-charts, multi-column storyboards, or overlays. Encourage students to create their own visualizations of parallel plot structures based on the novels they are studying.


Analyze Parallel Plots in Literature

Select works of literature that prominently feature parallel plots or nonlinear narratives, such as "Moon Over Manifest" by Clare Vanderpool or "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr. Have students analyze and discuss the impact of parallel plots on the overall story, character development, and themes. Use storyboards to visually depict key moments or connections between the parallel narratives.


Encourage Creative Writing

Inspire students to experiment with parallel plots in their own creative writing. Encourage them to develop multiple narratives that intersect or overlap in some way, using storyboards to map out the structure and visualize the connections between the different storylines.

Frequently Asked Questions about Parallel Plot and Nonlinear Narratives

What are some benefits of using parallel stories in the classroom?

Parallel stories can help students develop critical thinking skills by analyzing and comparing different narratives. They can also foster empathy by allowing students to see events from different perspectives. Additionally, parallel stories can make learning more engaging and interactive by providing opportunities for discussion, debate, and creative writing.

How can I use parallel stories worksheets in the classroom?

Parallel stories worksheets can be used to guide students in analyzing and comparing different narratives. They can include questions that prompt students to identify similarities and differences in plot, character development, setting, and theme. Teachers can also use parallel stories worksheets to encourage creative writing by asking students to create their own parallel stories.

Are there any age restrictions on using parallel stories in the classroom?

Parallel stories can be used with students of all ages, although the complexity of the stories and the analysis required may need to be adjusted based on the age and skill level of the students.

Can parallel stories be used to teach specific subjects, such as history or science?

Yes, parallel stories can be used to teach a variety of subjects. For example, parallel stories could be used to teach history by presenting different perspectives on historical events or to teach science by presenting different narratives about scientific discoveries.

Find more lesson plans and activities like these in our English Language Arts Category!
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