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:
- Introduce parallel action. For example, in a scene in my most recent book, I have a beer can rolling down a steep incline.)
- 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.
- Repeat step two as needed.
Now, 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.
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