How to create atmosphere in a scene through parallel action #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

How to create atmosphere in a scene through parallel action

There’s a scene in Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects that gave me goosebumps, except the action responsible for said goosebumps had nothing to do with the plot. Here’s the gist:

The protagonist has returned to her hometown to chase a story. In the scene in question, she’s outside speaking with the town’s police chief, and in among Flynn’s word magic, this line appears:

“Across the street, an elderly man clutching a carton of milk was shuffling half-steps toward a white clapboard house.”

More of the actual story transpires, and then, for the last line of the scene, Flynn wrote this:

“Across the street, the old man had just reached his top step.”

What’s so interesting is that the old man doesn’t make any further appearances in the story. He has nothing to do with plot, not even in a foreshadowing kind of way, and yet, he gets not one mention in this scene, but two. That’s what’s key here, and that’s what I mean by parallel action. If Flynn had only mentioned the old man once, we would have gotten her hints about setting (only one person walking on the street reinforces how small the town is; the old man’s slower pace tells me something about the town’s pace; his age might also say something about the town’s median age.) We also would have better understood the protagonist (of all the things she could take notice of, she notices how long it takes the man to walk.) It’s the second mention that fascinates me, though: the carry-through on what happened to the old man. For me, this is what made a lasting impression. If the old man had only been mentioned once, no way would I have thought to blog about this technique six months after having read the book.

The mechanics of what Flynn did are easy:

  1. Introduce parallel action. For example, in a scene in my most recent book, I have a beer can rolling down a steep incline.)
  2. Further on in the scene, refer to the progress of the parallel action. In the same scene of mine, close to the end, a second can rolls past my characters.
  3. Repeat step two as needed.

How to create atmosphere in a scene through parallel actionNow, in my opinion, you can replicate a little of Flynn’s atmospheric brilliance in one of two ways: either the parallel action is there to enhance setting and our understanding of how the characters perceive things, which is what Flynn did, and/or the action serves as foreshadowing. I’ve done it both ways. In the case of the beer cans, they don’t affect my plot, but they do foreshadow.

Have you ever used a parallel action in this way? Can you think of any cool ideas for parallel action? Chat with me in the comments.

This post is part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop. So many great blogs to keep hopping through. Click here to join the hop and to see what other writing tips you can glean from this month’s edition.

82 thoughts on “How to create atmosphere in a scene through parallel action #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

  1. Hi, Raimey! I love Sharp Objects! That twist at the end really caught me off-guard!
    I love using parallel actions in a scene to set the mood or give the reader a feel for where the character is coming from, though I usually use them as foreshadowing as well. Just the slightest detail can sometimes deepen your scene description and really bring it alive for your reader.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have used this in foreshadowing, but didn’t know it was a technique with a name!! I have probably read stories using the parallel technique, but never noticed how subtle it enhances the POV or setting, etc. Thanks so much for pointing this out and explaining it so well. Thank you for hosting the blog hop!
    JQ Rose

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Definitely a good way to make the world feel “lived in”, that things are moving and continuing to move even when characters/audiences are not looking.
    Also a good technique for establishing the passage of time without being too formal.

    I think I have a tendency to try and focus my writing, out of concern that I’ll start rambling about something “interesting but irrelevant.”
    I think your examples are well taken, little references, not too long, just an observation, in contrast with a protracted study.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love parallel action when I see it. When I’m writing I know I’ve used it when I’m doing a really good job. I just haven’t planned it in – don’t know whether I need to plan or just let it happen. I must read Sharp Objects. Thank you for hosting this Blog hop.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am admittedly bad with setting a scene. I tend to keep things fairly focused on the characters at hand and rarely remember to pull in what’s going on around them. I need to work on that. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting points, Raimey. I really like it when parallel action does multiple duties – foreshadows, informs something about the world (pace of life, dangers, economic conditions, status.), and adds rich sensory detail. I’m going to make a note on my WIP for look for these opportunities. 🙂

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  7. I read this post in the morning and I wanted to wait until the end of the day before I replied.

    My thought as to why this drew you in and why those kinds of scenes draw me in too is the realism they create. In every day life we see little things that catches our eye. They are tiny little things like the little man with the milk. Most of us see these things every day and when we read them in a story we make a connection. It’s a little connection but that doesn’t matter. We still connect.

    When a writer can create something that a reader relates to that is a powerful moment. That scene becomes real to us and that realism translates to the story.

    This is one of those rare posts that made me think. Thanks for doing this.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Showing the passage of time, showing the character’s personality through what she observes are good reasons to parallel an outside action with the main action of a scene so long as the outside action or character matter to the main story line or help it move forward. You have a clear explanation of how this works in your manuscript. Thanks for sharing and thanks for all you do to assist your fellow writer. All best to you!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I tend to have parallel actions, but that’s usually only because it’s the only way I can keep my scenes beefy enough. If I just have one thing going on in a scene, my scenes tend to be too simplistic, but if I have a couple of things going on at once, I find my scenes flow much better. Thanks for the writing tip.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. What an interesting technique. I’ve never consciously tried to do this, but this is a great way to develop setting. I’m also going to start looking for examples in the books I read to see if/how other authors use it.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This is a new one on me. I hadn’t heard of parallel action before. I really like that idea though because I’m already a fan of using setting to add ambience to a scene. Good tips, Raimey!

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  12. David Foster Wallace does this–specifically in the short story “Mister Squishy.” Or he sort of does it. Sort of? It is a hard call, actually, at least in the example I am thinking of. Anyway, I’ll describe it. In the story, there is a marketing meeting going on in a room in a skyscraper, and at the same time someone outside is free-climbing the building, and there is, somehow, an air of menace, which you associate with the free-climber, because he is the only thing that seems odd about the scene. However (spoilers!!!!), the menace actually comes from inside the meeting–I think someone has poisoned some product samples, but I don’t remember for certain–and the free-climber is actually totally irrelevant. I think he unfurls an ad or something when he gets to the top of the building. So, in a way, it is an example of what you are talking about, and in another way, maybe not, because the free-climber provides something other than color and atmosphere and timing–he is also a menace red-herring. But! It did make the story memorable. I haven’t read it since it was published–and that was a long time ago now–and I still remember it pretty vividly.
    In my writing, I’ve sort of used this technique–again, sort of. I’ve written a couple of scenes in which some fairly important action is going on, but the POV character is distracted by something that seems irrelevant, and keeps checking in on that something–but then eventually that something proves to be important to the story also. So it isn’t quite the same as the example of the elderly man, because it isn’t there to provide color (and, I think, timing) to the scene. I do like the idea of doing that, though, and I’ll probably use it now. It could be sort of like a repeated line in a poem, or a refrain in a song, done just right.
    Anyway, this is a great article, and I will definitely be reading more of your blog. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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