Have you ever noticed how the narrative in a story seems to have repeating patterns or cycles? Does the narrative feature two separate storylines that seem very similar to each other? Is there a series of movies where the same sorts of things happen in each movie? There is a good chance you were seeing parallelism in storytelling. But what is parallelism and how can you identify it?
Defining “What is Parallelism”
We will provide a quick definition of parallelism that should make it clear what this word means and its relation with cinema. In general, it will apply to storytelling, so almost every example of parallelism you would see in a movie could just as easily be understood in only the screenplay.
What is parallelism?
Parallelism is when something in a narrative parallels something else that has happened, is happening, or is going to happen. Common examples involve main characters who share similar goals, things in a character’s past continuing in their present or future, or separate but concurrent storylines that share many vital similarities.
Parallelism characteristics include:
- Concurrent storylines sharing strong similarities.
- Shared themes and goals shared among the cast of characters.
- Repeated pattern of events, characters, or themes seen in multiple movies.
Parallelism in Film
There is no better way to showcase parallelism than to talk about it. As it is strongly tied to literature, parallelism can be understood in a storysense without the need for visuals. That said, visuals can help drive home just how parallel something is in your story.
One of the best examples of parallelism in film is the Back to the Future trilogy, which almost hinges upon parallelism. All three movies involve Marty McFly interacting with his family, either in the past, present, or future. In each movie, he is sent to a different time period than his own and runs into some version of Biff Tannen (Biff himself, a grandson, or ancestor). At the same time, Marty has to deal with being in a different but familiar Hill Valley, which often involves him looking at things that are paradoxically familiar and foreign all at once.
One of the most obvious parallels comes when Marty has to run away from some version of Biff. In 1955, it’s regular Biff and he has to commander a makeshift skateboard; in 2015, he has to run away from Griff by commandeering a girl’s Hover Board; in 1885, he tries to run away on foot from Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen and his posse, but fails. And even with the change in time periods, Marty and Doc Brown end up helping one another towards the same goal of fixing their main timeline.
While Back to the Future uses parallelism in its themes and events, let’s look at an example where it is rooted in the characters. In one of the best superhero movies--Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film--Peter Parker and Norman Osborne are both scientists who respect and admire one another. The same day Peter is bitten by a radioactive spider, Norman undergoes an experiment that changes his physique and mental state. Both Peter and Norman are changed physically and mentally, each one eventually donning personas that they use in public when showcasing their new abilities and attitudes. As the clip below demonstrates, they are not so different (kind of).
Both men are still respectful of the other, even though their personas keep them apart both physically and ideologically. In the end, both men changed in ways that affected their lives, loved ones, and the city they live in. Ultimately, Peter wins out by defeating Norman, but it is a bittersweet victory, as Norman dies and his son Harry blames Peter’s public persona, Spider-Man.
A more abstract way of implementing parallelism into your story is to connect themes from different sources. The mythology behind Superman is one of the most notable, as the last son of a doomed planet is sent to Earth to later become a major hero. The story of Superman is thus often used as a parallel to stories in the Bible, be it the story of Moses or Jesus.
If you want to be more “down to Earth” (but still a bit abstract) with your parallelism, you can use real life people and events to influence your story. This is another somewhat common way of utilizing parallelism, though its success and intention can vary wildly. One of Orson Welles’ best movies, Citizen Kane, is one of the most famous examples of this, as the movie took aim at William Randolph Hearst and his life--but none of it by name.
Parallelism can be done in many different ways, whether it’s during the screenwriting process or as you’re putting the movie together. For the most part, though, implementing parallelism starts as an idea that then grows from page to screen. Whether those parallels are big or small, your movie can ultimately benefit from them in the long run.
Themes in Literature and Film
Parallelism is just one technique that is used in both literature and film, which is why we encourage you to dig into these techniques and devices further, starting with themes. We go over the general idea of a theme, how to identify it, and how it connects to other tools seen in literature and film.