Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Parallelism is a useful tool for enhancing syntax and even improving your story’s overall structure, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to use. In its most basic form, parallelism means using successive linguistic constructs that corresponded in terms of meter, meaning, grammatical structure, or sound. The intent is to add balance and rhythm to sentences, giving them a flow that can make them more engaging and more persuasive.
If that sounds too complicated, keep in mind that it’s a device we use all the time. This type of ‘echoing structure’ often feels neat and pithy, such as in the following examples:
- Easy come, easy go.
- Happy wife, happy life.
- Like father, like son.
- I came, I saw, I conquered.
- A penny saved is a penny earned.
- You’ve let me down, you’ve let the school down, and you’ve let yourself down.
- To err is human; to forgive divine.
- I am an engaging speaker and a top-notch chef.
Of course, these are simple sentences, and parallelism has a lot more to offer the dedicated author.Parallelism makes for smooth, engaging reading.Click To Tweet
Parallel grammar: the basics
A crooked sentence is pretty conspicuous. Sometimes it’s outright incorrect, as when a writer inadvertently shifts verb forms (‘On the weekends, I like to spend time with friends, exercise, and doing housework’). But imagine if I opened this article with a warped version of that first sentence: ‘Parallelism is a useful tool for enhancing syntax and you can use it to improve your story’s overall structure.’ There’s nothing grammatically incorrect about the sentence. It’s just clunky. In either case, it’s worth knowing where you should already be using parallelism.
Places to search out necessary parallelism at the sentence level include lists and phrases joined by conjunctions. Every item in a list should follow the format set up by the introduction to the list. As an example, look again at the first sentence of this paragraph. ‘Places to search out necessary parallelism… include _____ and _____.’ The items that complete this list have to both parallel each other (they need to be nouns) and they have to fit the introductory phrase. I could not say, for example, ‘Places to search out parallelism… include lists and conjunctions.’ Conjunctions are not precisely the location where parallelism is required; ‘the phrases joined by conjunctions’ is more precise.
The easiest way to check for parallelism in a list is to break the list into bullet points. In the following dense sentence, this exercise is useful:
The prophet observed dolefully the mutation of traditionally philanthropic religions into aggressive hoarders of wealth. The world’s ballooning ‘lowest class’, let alone the upspringing of oligarchies and the proliferation of obscenely rich people, their ruthless exploitation of the poor were not a good omen.
Even apart from how wordy the sentence is, the writer sets up a list and then fails to deliver one.
The prophet observed:
- the mutation of religions
- (new sentence) the world’s ballooning ‘lowest class’
- (let alone) the upspringing of oligarchies
- the proliferation of obscenely rich people
- their ruthless exploitation of the poor (were not a good omen)
I would still trim this sentence down by about 40%, but I’d advise the author to begin with parallel form:
The prophet observed:
- the mutation of traditionally philanthropic religions into aggressive hoarders of wealth
- the ballooning of the world’s lowest class
- the upspringing of oligarchies
- (and) the proliferation of obscenely rich people and their ruthless exploitation of the poor
From there, it’s easier to see which items on the list can be combined or shortened, and the overall flow and readability are improved even before trimming the fat.Lists rely on parallelism for clarity, but the longer the list, the easier it is to lose sight of structure.Click To Tweet
Watch, too, for asynchronous phrases on either side of a conjunction:
There were other rules which were not written in the Treehouse Club’s Book of Top Secrets, but the members of the club knew by heart.
The sentence sounds off because the phrases on either side of the word ‘but’ should be parallel:
There were other rules which were not written in the Treehouse Club’s Book of Top Secrets, but which the members of the club knew by heart.
In contrast, here’s an elegant passage from Frederick Buechner’s A Room Called Remember:
The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming.
Notice the interleaving of lists and the synchronicity of coupled phrases:
(The time is ripe for) looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who(, for better or worse,) we are becoming.
Parallel books: the next level
Using parallelism in your sentence structure is one of the fastest ways to add sophistication to your style. But there are other places for this literary device. The possibilities are so far-reaching, we’ll only cover a few here.
Parallel chapter titles can give your readers a sense of comfort as they move through the book.
Beginning each chapter the same way can keep your readers oriented, especially if your chapters have different narrators. The chapters in The Joy Luck Club begin with reference to family members within the first sentence or two. This has a certain poetic value, in addition to the pragmatic effect it has of cluing the reader in as to who’s talking. Stolen Beauty uses alternating structure for this purpose, but the inclusion of historical passages in italics at the start of each chapter offers a nice rhythm akin to parallelism. Many books will do this by beginning chapters with quotations. This works well if the quotations tie in to the chapter, whether overtly or subtly, as in American Gods.
Large-scale parallelism can imbue your book with a sense of purpose, clarity, or even poetry.Click To Tweet
Rendering motifs or other literary devices in parallel form can add complexity and poetry to your story structure. F. Scott Fitzgerald does this in The Great Gatsby with the rising temperature and rising tensions between Gatsby and Tom. Steinbeck does it in East of Eden with the names of the characters in the first and second halves of the book: Aron reminds us of Adam, Caleb reminds us of Charles, and together they remind us of Abel and Cain – the infamous duo of Genesis. Even the plot in the second half of the book reflects that in the first, and the effect is not unintentional: the parallel parts evoke a repetitiousness that Steinbeck uses to depict another biblical aphorism: there is nothing new under the sun. Finally, apart from the overt parallelism in the opening and closing passages of A Tale of Two Cities (‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ and the list of ‘I see’s at the end), the two passages mirror each other – both in style and in scope.
Making parallelism work for you
Parallel grammar is the easier task. Break sentences into parts and make sure the parts are not askew. Using parallelism in the grander scope of your story can be more complicated, but it also leads to grander improvements. As you map your story, set a goal to repeat a theme or symbol at regular intervals. Vary the form each repetition takes on, so that it will not be too obvious or cliché. Consider what elements of nature (moon phases, weather, geography, etc.) might develop in tandem to a plot element or a character’s growth arc. Consider giving two characters co-lateral growth arcs or having one character devolve as another matures.
There are myriad examples of parallelism in literature, and I’d love to hear your favorites. I’ll take examples of wonky sentences that need to be corrected, too. You can also check out What You Need to Know About Doubling and Doppelgängers and Why A Motif Could Be Just What Your Story Needs.