Paula Picked a Plighted Path of Parallel Plots

KarensSeveral chapters into Paula Hawkins’ best seller The Girl on the Train, I note the thriller’s structure of three character point of view with parallel plots. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, by David Shafer, which I also read in the fall, follows the same three character parallel plot. Although the point of view and plot structure are similar, these two books are vastly different.

Shafer begins his novel in Mandalay, Myanmar which I recently toured via tablet, the safest way to sightsee an exotic setting with movie backdrop potential. Location organizes the three equally-weighted plots and is shown at the beginning of each chapter. After round one of each of the points of view, the reader knows which location indicates which character. Portland is Leo. Mandalay begins Leila’s story. New York is Mark’s departure point.

Ansen Dibell, author of Plot, identifies this structure as a braided plot where the “pace, tone and color” of each plot blends and adds to a deeper and richer whole. Shafer’s novel is also a tandem narrative according to Linda Aronson because each of the stories presents a linear progression in time. Although the plots begin separately, a convergence occurs three times: Mark and Leila meeting at Heathrow Airport, Leila escorting Leo from Whispering Pines Rehab, and Leila and Leo rescuing Mark from a motivational speaking gig gone bad. Elizabeth Sims appropriately calls this a swallowtail plot because the convergence and interaction of the characters continues for a significant portion of the story.

The characters in Shafer’s novel are unique and humorous. A Goodreads review describes my favorite character Leo as the “unhinged trustafarian.” He’s a trust fund baby and Harvard graduate who works at a daycare. The problem with having a favorite is I don’t want to read the other plots in this dark comedy, such as Mark, the “phony self betterment guru.” And yawn, I skim the chapters on the too serious, Leila, “disillusioned non-profit worker.” The balance of each characters lows and highs keeps the overall novel’s pace clicking along with plot and subplot.

For something completely different, Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train shows Dibell’s mirrored pattern of plots. The three women are connected as opposites, and at other times, as complements in emotion, life stages, themes and imagery. Each chapter in the story begins with a character’s name, day of the week, date and time of day. In the first chapter, the main protagonist, Rachel, travels morning and evening for five days on the train. The story’s motion feels like commuting, stopping, starting and sharing an awkward space with the same faces going the same way at the same time each day. The reader learns of Rachel’s alcoholic behaviors, cheers her sobriety and dreads what will come of her next drinking binge and her calls to ex-husband, Tom.

As for Rachel, her plot and Megan’s are true parallels in a geometric sense and never intersect. These two plots and points of view alternate for the first third of the book before Anna’s point of view presents. Anna intersects with Rachel and with Megan but at different time periods–one in the present and one in the past. Hawkin’s story illustrates what Aronson calls a fractured tandem, current time for Rachel and Anna but a past time frame for Megan. Aronson identifies this parallel plot structure as good for “unexpected, often tragic connections between disparate people.” That sentence pretty much sums up the book for me.

The technique of parallel plots is a time tested convention. Contemporary writers borrow from 16th century Shakespeare who copied from first century Greek philosopher, Plutarch. In “King Lear,” Shakespeare mirrors plot and subplot to intensify the drama. Both The Girl on the Train and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot benefit from the intricate weaving of plots and mirroring of characters.

Tags: parallel plots, writers craft, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, David Shafer, Linda Aronson, Ansen Dibell, Elizabeth Sims, Shakespeare, “King Lear”


    • Michael Mitchell on December 18, 2015 at 2:53 pm
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    So that is what Tarantino was doing in Pulp Fiction.

    • Kelly Bixby on December 16, 2015 at 10:06 am
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    Hi Karen. There is so much to learn about great storytelling. I look forward to your articles because your love for the craft is seen through your written explanations and shared examples. You are a wealth of information! Thanks for helping us aspiring authors recognize strategic options we can design into our manuscripts.

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