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This is my first question on Writers.se; I'd normally ask such questions on EL&U, but I'm trying to expand my horizons. Let me know if the question is off-topic. Happy to move it to EL&U or Literature if you prefer.

Is there a name for the writing style, common in fiction but not unknown in non-fiction, of interleaving chapters or sections of two or more independent narratives in a single work? Often the stories intersect towards the middle or end of the work; sometimes they stay separate throughout.

For a fiction example, see the short story Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal El–Mohtar over on Uncanny. Note the first section starts with Tabitha walks... and gets into her story for a few paragraphs, then abruptly ends. A new section starts Amira makes..., and the pattern repeats. In the third section Tabitha and Amira meet, tying the two separate narratives together.

For a non-fiction example, see The Moral Animal by Robert Wright, where even chapters are a treatise on the science of evolutionary psychology, and the odd chapters a high-level biography of Charles Darwin.

I believe this style is employed to create a continuous stream of "cliffhangers" in order to keep the reader engaged. Just as you're really invested in learning what happens to Tabitha and her curse, boom, in comes Amira and her glass hills. Then as soon as you've forgotten all about Tabitha and want to know what happens to Amira, boom again.

Is there a name for this interleaved-narrative style?¹ Anything else you can tell me about it, such as where it originated, how it was popularized, which genres it works best or worst for, and the general view or advice on it for writers from the professional writing community would also be helpful.


¹ I ask because I want to go on a Twitter rant about it :)

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    This is a great question and one that should draw some good answers from. It's also refreshing from the same few questions we have been mostly getting :) I hope you can find some solid answers! – ggiaquin16 Aug 24 '17 at 17:12
  • Yes, it is off topic. In fact, it is off topic for two separate reasons. First, it is asking for a single word. That is off topic. Second, it is asking about existing works of literature. That is off topic too. And since you were aware that it might not be on topic, you could have very easily looked up these rules before you posted. – user16226 Aug 25 '17 at 2:57
  • @MarkBaker In addition to the single word request, it also asks "... which genres it works best or worst for, and the general view or advice on it for writers from the professional writing community would also be helpful.", and those seem to be on-topic? – David Aldridge Aug 25 '17 at 8:53
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    @MarkBaker As I said, if it's off-topic, that's ok, understood, close it and I'll ask elsewhere. No hard feelings. In re the two specific problems you highlight: this question isn't about existing literature, it's about a technique employed in literature, about (what I believe to be) a common tool in professional writers' toolkit. I want the word for it so I can learn more about it, and to the extent you guys can tell me more about it, I invite that too:l. Basically I'm asking "what is this technique, what's it good for, what's it bad for, and what is he current guidance around it?". – Dan Bron Aug 25 '17 at 9:17
  • @DavidAldridge, it might if it were a clear focused question on the use of this method by writers, but the writing part of what cites is still too broad to be on topic. We look for specific questions on the craft of writing to which people can give specific answers. Asking for the name, history, and general advice on a technique is far too broad. – user16226 Aug 25 '17 at 11:21
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I've seen it called parallel narrative - which is probably more general than the structure you are referring to. The most common use of parallel narrative is when you have a multiple viewpoint novel, and each chapter (or every few chapter's) will alternate between the viewpoints.

There are benefits, such as giving you a wider view of the storyworld, letting you synthesize information that normally wouldn't be put so close together (which is likely why The Moral Animal is built this way), and giving you a convenient excuse to skip what might be a boring section in one of the narratives. If a couple of months pass between one interesting event and another in character A's life, instead of what would be a jarring time skip, you can go back to the other narrative which you have already conditioned the reader to expect.

As with any chosen structure, there are weaknesses as well. Overusing cliffhangers would definitely be one of the issues, though worse for me is that invariably some of the narratives are more interesting to any given reader than some of the others. Which narratives a reader will skim through is not going to be the same for each reader, but few are going to be 100% pleased with things. It takes extra effort as an author working in this structure to make each of the narratives as engaging as possible to limit this weakness.

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