Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Why Parallel Lines in Story Matter

A narrative with only one line of inquiry going forth has not yet attained the status of story or that lovely nonfiction equivalent of story, the personal essay.

Such a narrative is at best a linear reporting of some quest for a consensus, for a greater understanding, or a recitation of events.  The closest approximation you can think of for such a line of narrative is a newspaper account of some event or some writer's interpretation of the event.

To make the grade as story, at least one more line of intent must be introduced, perhaps as an adjunct or satellite of the main line, perhaps as something with no sense of being an apparent relative.

The energy behind this logic is your memory of having learned about the qualities of parallel lines in geometry, wherein such parallel lines meet only in infinity.  For the immediate now, parallel lines, by their intrinsic nature, cannot meet; this in concert with the awareness of the metrics of narrative and its conventions, wherein parallel likeness are not only bound to meet, depending on the length of the medium, they meet in the last paragraph or the last chapter.

You--and for that matter we--learn of this quality of parallel dramatic lines as a result of our reading and as well from having the fact called to our attention, not always in the most pleasing of ways, by a teacher or an editor.

We--you included--have to assume the teachers and editors who call this fact to our intention are persons of good will, at least in the sense of them wishing to steer us into finding as eager and supportive a readership for our work as possible.  In the bargain, there resides the hope we will have noticed from our own reading how often multiple narrative lines add dimension, nuance, subtext, and the potential for clues to our individual compositions.

Now comes the introduction of subsequent parallel lines to the main narrative.  A good way to approach this concept is to say, "Against a background of X, Y takes place, producing an ambiguous-but-satisfying resolution of Z.

Against the background of, say, the American Civil War, a man and women from each of the two major sides become lovers, then realize they can not settle down to pursue their life goals in either the North or the South.

Thus two parallel lines set in motion.

Suppose we wish to introduce another, say the man's suggestion that they settle in southern Mexico, citing excellent advantages there for a satisfying life for both of them and as well any children they might bring forth into the world.

Now, we have three parallel lines advancing, the latest motivated in its entirety by the first two.

Well and good, except for the fact of this third line being a  form of deus ex machina or, if you will, a rabbit-out-of-a-hat solution.  The man has suggested it, but has really not had to earn it or have it appear that his choice was anything but the product of thought.  There was no risk, no sense of reversal.  The answer seems too pat, so we need a fourth line to keep the story moving along on those narrative tracks of tension and risk.

Let's try this as a fourth parallel line.  The She in the romantic pair has distant relatives in Canada, or has once visited there, finding it agreeable and more of a potential for a satisfying life than their settlement in Mexico would offer them.

This fourth line is what was lacking.  Now, He can object, finding fault with Canada, which prompts her to find fault with Mexico.  A few rounds of this argument has each digging in her and his heels to the point where they exchange acrimonious threats and even worse behavior, recapitulating among the two principals the same form of national schism that has rent asunder the United States before those shots were fired at Fort Sumpter, plunging this country into a bloodbath the likes of which has yet to be surpassed.

The strength of this version of the parallel lines is that it can end with the two individuals replication of the same politics and attitudes that forced them to consider the solution of moving to the northern or southern extremes of their native continent.

The apparent weakness is the close to heavy-handed symbolism, but this is a weakness with a potential for being resolved by the writing itself, the details relevant to the characters, and the narrative tone.

Many stories with four lines will not offer so easy a shot at an ending so laced with irony and nuance, nevertheless such closures are available to the point where many of the readers will be able to anticipate the one evident thing when they become aware of the four lines in motion.  That one evident thing, of course, is the point where the parallel lines jump track, then meet in an imaginative and satisfying mash up, where the outcome can be left as vague as wished or tied up with as many ribbons as possible.

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