I pride myself on being a learner; I love learning about new subjects and expanding my knowledgebase. The best way I learn is by reading, and I like to read about topics far and wide. This sometimes means that I land far outside my element. I am not a genius, so I can’t always read something and have full comprehension. Eventually the words on the page start to muddle and resemble a growing puddle in my head.
This is when having a human resource is handy, but more often than not I do not have one. That’s when parallels come in really handy for me.
Better teachers and writers excel at introducing parallels between old and new subjects in order to ensure their audience is following along. Helping people draw lines to ideas they already understand ensures they’re following what you’re saying.
Recently, I’ve been trying to gain a better understanding of European soccer leagues (specifically English football) because someone in my life is obsessed with it. While I have a great appreciation for soccer, my knowledgebase is pathetic. I understand the game, but throw in leagues and cups and its way over my head. I started my own research to try to save people (and I’ll admit myself) from explaining it to me aloud and realized that while I understand all the words being used I’m not fully understanding them all put together.
Then I had an epiphany: If I can get this person to correlate it to hockey, I’m set. Any parallels to the NHL, the regular season, and the Stanley Cup playoffs I can understand. This notion of parallel ideas brought me to writing because drawing parallels isn’t exclusive to the world of learning.
I read a book a few years ago about a fairy world based in London. It involved a tiny play on Queen Elizabeth I’s alter ego (thanks to Edmund Spencer) Gloriana, the Faerie Queene. Throughout, the author made ties between the fairy court and Queen Elizabeth’s court so that her readers could follow along without her going into finite detail about how the fairy court was organized. I learned a lot about the Tudor court during the Golden Age, and subsequently a great deal about the imagined world of fairies, however, the most important part was that it saved the author pages and pages of exposition.
When it comes to writing, drawing parallels saves space and mental energy. Every aspect of your world that you can explain in as few details as possible not only helps you as the writer, it helps your reader. I’m not saying that a world shouldn’t be explained, but everything that doesn’t have to be clarified with lots of exposition is beneficial to everyone involved.
This does mean that more often than not more than one parallel must be made because one reader may not make the same connection as the next. Of course, your general readership will help you make those decisions; still, you don’t want to alienate any potential new readers.
I believe drawing parallels that don’t become repetitive or redundant is a skill that comes with practice. After spending so much time in the drawing stages building your world it’s easy to fall to the temptation of explaining every little thing to your reader. You’re excited, you put in so much hard work, you want to share what you’ve accomplished, yet at the end of the day your reader doesn’t care. They want to know what your characters are up to. That’s it.
Just remember the iceberg: For every detail you share above the surface, there’s a big chunk of ice beneath that ensures that detail is solid. And if you can parallel one of those details to something your reader already understands, they can follow your characters that much faster.