Mirroring Plots

We've already discovered several examples of plots which are parallel, in whole or in part. In addition to The Empire Strikes Back, I've talked at least a little about Thackeray's Vanity Fair (which splits awkwardly in two, between the Amelia Sedley plot and the Becky Sharp plot) and WutheringHeights, with its parallel love stories involving Catherine and Cathy, the wild older generation and the tamer, younger one.

Developing two independent main plot lines takes quite a lot of narrative space; it's mostly done in long—and I do mean long—fiction. Family sagas provide more than a few instances. For instance, Steinbeck's massive East of Eden involves two stories of conflict between sets of brothers over a single, wicked woman. In the first, one brother eventually marries the woman and fathers the two sons who are the protagonists of the book's second half, with the wicked mother as a pivotal figure if no longer the romantic interest. This book was arguably improved for the movie version by cutting the entire first half.

A contrasting and generally more successful technique is shown by Stephen King's It. Like East of Eden, it has a double plot line, one past, one present, basically concerning the same characters and the same situation. In one plot, the protagonists are children; in the other they've become adults. The stories are in-tercut—the narrative line switches back and forth between them, rather than handling them in sequence, one after the other. That helps maintain the whole novel's unity. Both stories rise to generally similar climaxes near the book's end.

So it's notjust space that's required: quite a lot of narrative muscle and control is needed, too, to bring off so complex a plot structure successfully without the book's breaking in half. Double stories that run concurrently or through alternating flashback narration tend to be easier to handle than those that run in sequence, one after the other with no intercutting. It's easier to build in connections and convergences among people and events existing in the same fictional time—both present at any given section of the story, even though in alternation—than when one set is dead and gone and over before the other set takes up.

The plots must be very carefully balanced to keep one from taking over and making the other seem weak and boring by comparison. Pacing has to be very carefully handled so one plot doesn't get lost while you're dealing with the other. Connections between the two plots have to be riveted in brass, using every kind of echo and mirror I've described in this chapter, and likely others nobody has even thought of yet, to keep the two plot lines from splitting the story completely apart.

If you intend to embark on a double, fully-mirroring plot line, remember these techniques of compensating—they may help.

Watch The Empire Strikes Back a few more times. Read Wuthering Heights or The Lord of the Rings. (Speak about parallel plot structures! It's got at least three, maybe four!) See how ambitious and able authors have kept strong, complex stories together with carefully chosen and positioned repetitions of scenes, people, and even whole plots.

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