In my story, I have four important people (1 Protagonist and his friends). All four play a major part in dealing with the main conflict. Initially they do not know each other. They meet after a series of events. All four people share a previous life connection. They get to know about that connection and then form a group. All four of them have different backstories.

I'm using third person narration.

My question is Can I maintain four parallel stories? Do the readers get confused?

I'm asking this because I've planned out very interesting backstories for all the four which include their fears, strengths, failures etc.. and I want the readers to understand the characters in detail.

Thanks in advance..

2 Answers 2


Theoretically, yes, you can have four parallel stories. The relevant trope is called Four Lines, All Waiting. The most famous example of such storytelling that comes to mind is G.R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. However, the downside of this approach is, as implied by the name, that at any given time you have multiple storylines "waiting". Readers are being jumped about different sub-stories, and have to wait a long time before they find out what happens next with each one.

Employing this method right from the start, with characters who are not yet connected, can make it hard for readers to figure out what's going on, who the main character is, how they connect, why the jumping around. Challenging and confusing the reader before they are committed to the story and the characters might very well cause them to drop the book. You might remember that G.R.R. Martin tries to avoid this: the first few jumps are all within one locale (Winterfell), and between characters who have already been introduced (the Stark family). You, on the other hand, wish to jump between characters who appear at first not to be connected.

An alternative approach could be to introduce the characters' backstory little by little - through what they tell of themselves and what others tell of them, after the MC has met them.

Consider, for example, The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn has lots and lots of backstory. But first time we meet him, he is just 'Strider', some stranger the people of Bree treat with suspicion. He then tells us (by way of telling the hobbits) that he has some knowledge of the Nazgul, and experience in the Wild. It is not until the story reaches Rivendel that we learn who Aragorn really is: rightful heir to the throne of Gondor and Arnor, leader of the Dúnedain of the North, betrothed to Elrond's daughter Arwen. And even after, we continue to learn more about him: in Rohan, for example, we learn that he'd been there before, and spoke the language.

This mode of storytelling would put the reader closer to the MC, "on the MC's shoulder", as it where. That is, the reader would learn about the other characters - who they are, what their stories are, together with the MC. It's not necessarily better - interesting effects can be created through the MC not knowing something the reader knows, but it is something to consider.

  • Oh! So you mean I should stick to only one person and then slowly get to know the other three when the MC meets them. Thanks for the answer.. Commented Dec 8, 2018 at 16:39
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    @VishalKompalli I'm not saying that you necessarily should stick with only one character. I'm saying that you can, and that from the brief description you've given in your question, it sounds like this might work better for the story you want to tell. It is also the easier approach. However, G.R.R. Martin decided he had compelling reasons to have multiple parallel stories instead, despite the disadvantages of doing so. It's possible that you might have such reasons as well, or someone else reading this question and facing a similar decision might. Commented Dec 8, 2018 at 16:51
  • Another (much shorter) example is one of my favorite stories, Tony Earley's "The Prophet from Jupiter." The narrator tells four or five stories at once, interweaving them in an almost stream-of-consciousness way. The relationships between them comes slowly. Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 14:15

While I heartily agree with @Galastel's answer, I'd like to focus on what can make the 'four parallel storylines' work.

First of all, a word of advise: the more parallel storylines, the more difficult it is to craft a concise tale. I'd say that, to pull it off successfully, two is great, three is ok, four is borderline, five requires an exceptionally good writer.

Next, make sure each storyline has a protagonist that could carry an entire tale by themself, whether you intend to make them the MC overall or not. This means that, when you're in the shoes of each one of those characters, they feel and act like they actually are the MCs (after all, we are all MCs in the stories of our own lives). If the reader gets the feeling this is a secondary character with little impact in the tale, it'll be harder to get invested in that character.

Bottom line: it's not an MC and their three sidekicks; it's four MCs, though one will develop to become more important. The other three, however, should never be dropped into mere secondary: they must have their own worthy arcs resolved. In other words, you have three MCs and one MMC.

Introduce the characters as early on as possible, each one within their own chapter. It might be a good idea for the chapters not to be overtly long, but it's not a must. You want the readers to feel a bond to all of them. If the characters become opponents at a later time (say they both vye for the same romantic interest), the reader should feel at least a bit torn about who to root for.

Remember that what you have is effectively four novels in one. That means you have four stories that could stand on their own. If the characters' goals remain different, and they all have their worthy arcs to fulfill, then the novel will be long and may work best as a trilogy.

Alternatively, the four parallel stories can end up weaving themselves into a single one. Imagine four characters who set out independently but which have a common end goal. They end up meeting and working together, effectively turning four stories into one. This means the individual arcs will be resolved more or else in tandem and the novel as a whole doesn't need to become that long.

But say that the characters have not only one main goal which is common, but also a secondary goal which, once the main is solved, will lead them to break up or even become antagonists to each other. The story would have started with four parallel stories which united into one only to unwind themselves into four again as the characters's goals become increasingly different.

I used some of these techniques with a 'three parallel stories' novel of my own. The catch is that all of the characters will be MCs at specific times throughout the novel, and each will affect the others' lives both knowingly and unknowingly. The first three chapters were used to present the characters so as to help the reader create a bond with them. Then I focused on the MC of the first section of the novel, dropping a few references (where appropriate) to the others.

So far, the feedback has been positive, as the readers liked the three characters and, while enjoying the tribulations of one, are looking forward to reconnect with the others. Eventually, the three plots will be wrapped into a single one, then unwrap into two.

  • Wow! That's a great answer! Thank you! And would love to look at your work too. It seems that you've done a lot of research for that.. Commented Dec 15, 2018 at 16:04

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