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Author Topic: Craft thread: How do you handle parallel action?  (Read 414 times)  

Offline zzz

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Craft thread: How do you handle parallel action?
« on: July 16, 2017, 09:39:56 PM »
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« Last Edit: October 17, 2017, 08:23:12 PM by zzz »

Offline Jeff Tanyard

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Re: Craft thread: How do you handle parallel action?
« Reply #1 on: July 17, 2017, 01:44:29 AM »
Do you use parallel action? Can you recommend novel that does?

First question:  I have before, though not in either of my published stories.  I happen to like the technique.

Second question:  The first book that comes to mind is Winter's Heart from the Wheel of Time series.  The climax of that book has shorter-than-usual scenes, broken up by asterisks, and they all take place more-or-less simultaneously.  The scenes are portrayed from several different characters' POVs.

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Offline C. Gold

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Re: Craft thread: How do you handle parallel action?
« Reply #2 on: July 17, 2017, 03:22:29 AM »
Don't be afraid of asterisks to indicate a scene shift. Better to have those than not.

I can give you an example of probably the absolute worst execution of parallelism in that the author went several chapters with one group of characters, then swapped to the other group, then another. Until the movie adaptation, I really never got just how much in parallel those sections were. Although that is also the best example of just how far you can stretch a chunk of time before swapping and still have a revered story. Even if the reader may not fully understand the timing of events, they get a rough idea that's good enough most of the time. (Ok fantasy lovers don't kill me but it's LOtR.)

If an easily identifiable event happens - you can start with showing the POV reaction to that event and go on from there. The reader will get that they are back in time a bit.

You can also shorten the chapters to speed the pacing and decrease the amount of time reversal.

You can make liberal use of the asterisk scene breaks to let you swap around if you don't want to make a new chapter for each one.

The other trick I've seen is to put a date and time at the beginning of each chapter. Usually I see this in sci-fi and historical romance.

In the book I was writing and put aside for now, I've got two separated groups and the exact timing doesn't really matter. As long as they both converge before the enemy army crosses the border, it's fine. So I went with regular POV chapter changes and didn't bother with conveying the timing.

Offline Herefortheride

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Re: Craft thread: How do you handle parallel action?
« Reply #3 on: July 17, 2017, 03:37:29 AM »
Don't be afraid of asterisks to indicate a scene shift. Better to have those than not.

I can give you an example of probably the absolute worst execution of parallelism in that the author went several chapters with one group of characters, then swapped to the other group, then another. Until the movie adaptation, I really never got just how much in parallel those sections were. Although that is also the best example of just how far you can stretch a chunk of time before swapping and still have a revered story. Even if the reader may not fully understand the timing of events, they get a rough idea that's good enough most of the time. (Ok fantasy lovers don't kill me but it's LOtR.)

If an easily identifiable event happens - you can start with showing the POV reaction to that event and go on from there. The reader will get that they are back in time a bit.

You can also shorten the chapters to speed the pacing and decrease the amount of time reversal.

You can make liberal use of the asterisk scene breaks to let you swap around if you don't want to make a new chapter for each one.

The other trick I've seen is to put a date and time at the beginning of each chapter. Usually I see this in sci-fi and historical romance.

In the book I was writing and put aside for now, I've got two separated groups and the exact timing doesn't really matter. As long as they both converge before the enemy army crosses the border, it's fine. So I went with regular POV chapter changes and didn't bother with conveying the timing.

I think you can write the story in a way that you feel reflects the appropriate timing and you can also ask beta readers about the relevate sections and when they feel the events are happening. After getting this feedback you might find the right groove.
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Offline VanessaC

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Re: Craft thread: How do you handle parallel action?
« Reply #4 on: July 17, 2017, 03:44:33 AM »
The main thing for me as a reader would be: is it clear?

I think most readers will be familiar enough with this happening on screen that it won't jar them, as long as the reader can follow the action. And I have definitely read books with parallel action. The important thing is to keep moving forward with the story.

One way to make it clear, mentioned above, is to use time / date at the start of the scene, although this would need to be consistent throughout, or start the chapter with the date and rough time, then head up each change of point of view with the character's name.

Not saying these are the only ways to do it, just a couple of ideas. Best of luck.  :)

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Re: Craft thread: How do you handle parallel action?
« Reply #5 on: July 17, 2017, 04:30:16 AM »
Someone mentioned a while ago that James Patterson favors choppy scenes. I can't vouch for how he handles it, but it obviously hasn't hurt his career.

To make the transitions between rapid changes less jarring, echo something from the end of A in the beginning of B. A sensory detail often does the trick. In A, the details of a life-or-death phone call are missed due to the deafening clatter of a train passing right beside the pay phone, and the sound as it fades, too late, is like the Reaper's chuckle; cut to B, where heavy machine gun fire tapers off, then stops entirely, and it's time to worry about what more lethal plan the shooters are enacting.

If absolutely no consistent element can be established, at least maintain the same POV zoom on both ends of the transition -- if A ends with the character doing a panoramic assessment of a bloody battlefield, begin B with a panoramic assessment of the petting zoo or wherever that scene takes place and get the continuity from degree of intimacy.

Most of my craft learning for the past few years has come from screenwriters. If you know how to make tight cuts work on film, you can make them work in a novel. It's just a matter of feathering in the necessary detail rather than encapsulating it in a scene heading.

Offline ADDavies

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Re: Craft thread: How do you handle parallel action?
« Reply #6 on: July 17, 2017, 08:30:19 AM »
As stated, clarity is the real issue. I do have a few novels with things happening in parallel and use the scene-break technique. In paperbacks you'd get a black line to indicate a scene switch and in ebooks, that would usually be an asterisk while you're writing it. This can be altered to something prettier when formatting (if you have Vellum it'll do it automatically).

Someone like James Rollins often has a ton of stuff happening continents apart. Check out the Sigma Force novels for some good examples. There are probably tons more examples, but that one springs to mind.
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Online Lorri Moulton

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Re: Craft thread: How do you handle parallel action?
« Reply #7 on: July 17, 2017, 09:06:36 AM »
I have about four different groups running around in a castle and I double space between changes in action within the same chapter.  So far, everyone seems to be keeping up with the story.  I write in third person, not multiple first person. 
« Last Edit: July 17, 2017, 09:08:12 AM by Lorri Moulton »

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Offline Sue Ann C.

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Re: Craft thread: How do you handle parallel action?
« Reply #8 on: July 17, 2017, 10:37:24 AM »
I agree with commenters who suggest labeling chapters to aid reader comprehension, and asterisks or line spaces to separate scenes within chapters. If individual scenes within chapters need labeling, I would be more inclined to break them up into separate chapters, but so long as you clearly separate them with asterisks or some other marking that would probably work. Readers will adjust quickly to your labels and scene separators.

In my novel, The Unraveling of Mrs. Noland, I used parallel actions and multiple 3rd person POVs, throughout.
To maintain clarity, I made each scene a separate chapter and labeled each chapter with the POV characters name. (The chapters are shorter than yours, under 1,000 words.)

When I sent the manuscript to my Beta readers, one of the issues I asked them to note was:

any chapters where you felt unclear about the timeline of events, or who was speaking, acting, or thinking.

The Beta readers werent shy about pointing out issues they thought needed fixing, but none noted any confusion about characters or timeline, nor did anyone who left a review on Amazon.

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Offline Sarah Shaw

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Re: Craft thread: How do you handle parallel action?
« Reply #9 on: July 17, 2017, 10:46:46 AM »
Parallel story lines are pretty common in novels. Usually they are handled with separate chapters. If it's not actually parallel story lines but just different POVs in a single story, separating with an extra line or three asterisks is acceptable as long as it's clear whose head you're in. I once read a book where the kindle formatting was poor and there was no transition between the viewpoint characters. It jarred me every time as I'd suddenly realize, 'Oh- we're following a different character now' and almost made me give up on what was otherwise a very good book.