When a sentence works, you probably don’t notice it. But when a sentence is erratic and uneven, it sticks out—even if you can’t always pinpoint why. A great tool writers can use to create even, seamless sentences is parallel structure. Once you’re able to identify parallelism in sentences and in storytelling, you’ll find your prose carries itself a lot more smoothly across the page.
We’ll guide you through everything you need to know about using parallel structure, the different types of parallel elements you’ll see in writing, and some effective examples.
What is parallel structure?
Parallel structure, sometimes called parallelism, means balancing words, phrases, or ideas to make them seem equally important. When referring to grammar, parallel structure means using two or more phrases that match in grammatical structure and verb tense. When referring to fiction writing, parallel structure puts two stories or subplots side by side to enhance the story’s theme.
In both cases, parallel construction has a satisfying effect because it appeals to our innate human need for patterns. Consider the following examples:
I went into town today to pick up groceries, my dry cleaning, and make an appointment.
I went into town today to go grocery shopping, pick up my dry cleaning, and make an appointment.
The first example reads a bit wonky, but it might not be immediately obvious why: It’s lacking a verb in the second list item, which makes the sentence feel unbalanced. The second example uses three infinitive verbs in succession: go, pick up, and make.
It works the same if you put the verbs into the past tense:
Today I went grocery shopping, collected my dry cleaning, and made an appointment.
Went, collected, and made. These verbs all follow a consistent, satisfying pattern and have equal importance in the sentence.
Because verb tenses can be so challenging to learn, they often reveal when someone isn’t a native English speaker. If English is your second or third language and you want your writing to read more smoothly, pay extra attention to the grammatical form of your parallel phrases and sentences.
We’ll look at more parallel structure examples below.
Why is parallel structure a useful tool for writers?
Parallel construction—whether through sentence structure or storytelling—is always effective because it creates prose
that’s balanced, rhythmic, and has meaning with balance, rhythm, and meaning (did you see the parallel structure in the three list items?).
Readers have a natural inclination towards identifying and forming patterns, and so we unconsciously seek them out when we read. Even if a sentence is grammatically correct, readers want that satisfying feeling of a pattern falling into place. That’s why “balanced, rhythmic, and has meaning” is so jarring; the first two items are adjectives, while “has meaning” is a verb followed by a noun. Whether or not you’re able to identify these grammatical parts by name, you’ll likely be able to see an uncomfortable rupture occurring after the second word.
Likewise, these patterns make readers more receptive to a story’s deeper truth. When you use parallel structure in the way you plot your story, you can make the social or personal message behind your words even more powerful. We’ll take a closer look at parallelism in stories below.
The two types of parallel structure
You can use parallel structure on a grammatical line level or on a broader story level. Let’s examine each one.
1. Parallel sentence structure
We saw above that parallelism uses the same grammatical structure in a balanced, satisfying way. There are a few different ways you can do this depending on where the parallelism occurs and what effect you’re trying to create in your writing.
Anaphora is a poetic device which opens lines with repeated words, phrases, or clauses. This type of parallel structure creates an immediate pattern in the speaker’s mind.
Here’s an example of anaphora in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:
It rained on his lousy tombstone, and it rained on the grass on his stomach. It rained all over the place.
Anaphora is popular in speeches too, because it gives an idea extra impact.
Epistrophe is the opposite effect; it uses repeated words or phrases at the end of a sentence, rather than at the beginning.
Here’s what epistrophe looks like in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:
Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build, why, I’ll be there.
The phrases ending in “I’ll be there” are all parallel sentences.
This type of parallelism is used to portray two contradictory ideas. It’s particularly popular in religious and social teachings.
Consider the following example from Martin Luther King Jr’s speech:
We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.
He uses the parallel verb phrases “to live” and “to perish” to create a pattern that calls his audience to action.
This rhetorical device uses synonyms, rather than antonyms, to show the importance of an idea.
Here’s an example from a Biblical proverb:
An evildoer listens to wicked lips, a liar pays attention to a destructive tongue.
In this example, the parallel elements of an “evildoer” and a “liar” are portrayed synonymously, as are “wicked lips” and “a destructive tongue.” It uses a parallel phrase to reiterate an important social idea. Notice how the grammatical form of each idea matches: “listens” and “pays attention.”
This type of parallelism uses escalating ideas to create a climactic intensity in a sentence or paragraph. This is sometimes called “auxesis” or “crescendo.”
Here’s an example of escalating parallel structure from Shakespeare’s Richard II:
Today, today, unhappy day too late, Overthrows thy joys, friends, fortune, and thy state.
Here, the events of the “unhappy day” disrupt the character’s personal happiness, then their relationships, their financial stability, and finally the broader social order.
2. Parallel story structure
You can use parallel structures on a wider story level, too. Just like parallelism in grammar can make a sentence more resonant and memorable, writing parallel structures into your plot can help get your message across even more effectively.
Here are a few ways you can incorporate parallel story structure.
Dual timelines are a popular trend in historical fiction novels. You have two stories going on: one set in the distant past, and one set in either the present or the less-distant past. It might be an intergenerational story, such as that of a grandmother and a granddaughter, or two people who are connected because they live in the same building two hundred years apart.
This method allows you to explore the same themes and ideas through two sets of characters, conflicts, and settings. You can explore parallel social issues that exist in two different time periods; for example, maybe the grandmother is a suffragette fighting for women’s rights while the granddaughter, years later, is fighting for gender equality in her workplace. Or, you could explore classic themes that are timeless no matter where and when you are such as family, love, heritage, or identity.
Plots and subplots
Your stories don’t always need to be set in different time periods. You can also have a subplot surrounding a supporting character that parallels the central plot of your main character.
For example, maybe your main character goes to the library and buries themselves in work to avoid their primary conflict. There, they realize that the librarian is doing the same thing, despite a persistent love interest desperate to sweep her off her feet. By drawing a connection between these two different stories, the protagonist can learn things about themselves that they might not have otherwise; and, your book’s theme—whether it’s about love, life, trust, or freedom—will resonate with the reader even more deeply.
Some stories have two main plots rather than a main plot and a subplot. This is especially popular in romance novels, where the story will follow each of the two lovers’ journeys. You also see this in serials, such as the TV series Gilmore Girls. This show follows a mother and a daughter, and often the episodes will feature two parallel storylines as each main character explores a similar personal conflict.
With this approach, you have two independent opportunities to explore similar themes and ideas. For example, if your theme has to do with social class, you could feature a perspective of a wealthy, upper class character and the perspective of a poor, lower class character. By drawing parallels between the journey each character takes to understanding, you can show the reader the humanity that exists across the class divide.
Regardless of whether your story is set across one setting or several, one point-of-view character or more, see if there are ways you can create parallels in the events of your plot. These parallels are the things that readers will unconsciously remember as they consider what they’ve gained from their experience with your story.
Examples of parallelism in sentence structure
We see parallel construction in our day-to-day language all the time; it creates some of our most memorable inspiring quotes and catchphrases. For example, look at Neil Armstrong’s famous line, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Each clause follows the same form, but inverts “small” for “giant” to create a powerful antithetical impact.
Parallelism is a useful tool in speeches and calls to action, too. Winston Churchill used the rhetorical device anaphora in his famous speech from 1940:
We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.
Here’s a similar effect in Maya Angelou’s poem “A Brave and Startling Truth”:
When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze
Notice how the repeating words drive the thematic ideas home even further and immerse the reader or listener more deeply in the speaker’s voice.
Examples of parallelism in storytelling
You can achieve a similar effect through parallels in character, conflict, and plot. Here are a few parallelism examples to consider:
Janet Skeslien Charles’s novel The Paris Library follows the parallel stories of an elderly woman and a teenager. The older woman helps the younger learn from her mistakes, especially when it comes to friendship, loyalty, and betrayal. This story effectively shows how you can illustrate different outcomes born out of different choices.
William Goldman’s The Princess Bride has two stories as well: an external framing story and an interior story. On the surface, they’re as different as can be—a bitter, disillusioned writer and a swashbuckling farm boy turned pirate. However, both follow similar themes of transformation and the loss of innocence. Exploring these themes in two very different ways helps make them even more powerful to the reader.
In The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab, two point-of-view characters are cursed in different ways. One is doomed never to be remembered, while the other is doomed to always be remembered through the fractured lens of desire. Each wants to be truly seen for who they are. Their journeys follow similar paths as they navigate their search for identity and human connection.
Parallelism might be the key to your story
We’ve seen that parallel construction can make a big impact on your sentences, especially when you’re trying to make a connection with your reader or listener. It can also be a useful literary device when it comes to structuring your plot. By finding opportunities to create parallels in your writing, you can catch your reader’s attention and make their experience even more memorable.