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Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Parallel Storylines
October, 14 2003


Question:

In Lord of the Rings, Two Towers, Tolkien splits the story into two parts, one following Aragon, Legolas and Gimli as they follow the hobbits, and the other following Frodo and Sam. In the book, he divides both stories into separate parts, so that you read one part completely, then jump back in time and read the other part. The movie on the other hand, flips back and forth throughout.

It is my experience that the current 'method' in science fiction/fantasy stories is to flip back and forth, usually chapter by chapter, as opposed to just telling one story in a chunk, then telling another in a chunk.

You use this technique in both Alvin Journeyman and Heartfire. You flip back and forth between the story of Alvin in jail and Calvin off doing his things, first in France, then in Camelot.

Here is the problem (which prompts my question): While reading both your books, I became far more interested in the Alvin trial story than I did in the Calvin story. This didn't affect me in the early chapters of each book, but by the second half of the books, the story of the trials (the first in Vigor with the trial over the plow and the second in Cambridge with the witchtrial) became so interesting to me, that I was unable to stop reading. (That's the good news!) The bad news, every time I came to a chapter break, you flipped back to Calvin. Now... I was interested in that part of the story, however... in both cases the trial was SO COMPELLING that I simply skipped the Calvin chapters entirely.

The barrier to switching place and time in a story is that when you first get to that part in the book, it's like putting the brakes on while driving a truck up a hill. You lose your momentum, and it's hard to get going again. Once you do get going, fine... but the switching back and forth thing (when done often) can really lug a story.

In my novels I've had occasion to tell it in chunks, and I've had occasion to flip back and forth. Knowing the cost to a reader, (momentum shift) I place the changes in areas where I feel I can minimize that change in pace. In the end I prefer the chunks.

Finally, a separate yet related technical writing question: When writing those novels, did you flip back and forth as you WROTE them, or did you tell one in a stretch, then flip back to the other. Again, this is a question of momentum, only this time it's for the writer. I have found that even when I chose to flip back and forth chapter by chapter, when I write it I need to write the one series of scenes together.

-- Submitted by Jason F. Smith

OSC Replies:

You've clearly identified the tradeoffs. Tolkien didn't actually divide Two Towers into one half about Frodo and the other half about the others. He didn't write a trilogy. He wrote SIX volumes, and those two "parts" were each meant as a volume in itself.

The method that is more commonly used, to keep switching back and forth, is designed to keep both storylines alive - it is especially effective when the storylines interwine or interact (as mine did NOT, making this less effective for my book). You get some wrenching with each change, and people will always have their favorite storyline (though for some readers, Calvin was the more interesting). Your option to skip the Calvin stuff and concentrate on the one story is always an option - I read George R.R. Martin's huge opus that way, following one character's scenes through to the end, which means I really get a twisted telling of the story. But that's the reader's option!

So the cost of keeping both stories alive in parallel is that frequent wrench as the less-interesting story interrupts the more-interesting one.

But the cost of Tolkien's method - a whole volume about one storyline - is that you miss the parallelity of it completely. Tolkien did have a timeline, and so those who have read them in parallel can affirm that all the intersecting events (weather, battles, etc.) happen at the right time in both stories. But for long swaths of each volume, the other storyline is simply gone.

Tolkien compensated for this by having people in one storyline think about and wonder about what people in the other storyline were doing. But that can get pretty old, pretty fast ...

Basically, you pays your money and you takes your choice.

As for how I wrote them - I wrote them precisely in the order you saw them in the books. That is true of all my writing, with VERY rare (and flawed!) exceptions.


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