The Two P’s: The Past and the Parallel

Study the best movies and you’ll notice they include two P’s: the past and a parallel story. The past has created a problem that the hero needs to solve in the present. The parallel story involves a secondary character whose goals are nearly identical to the hero’s. In “Her,” the hero is a lonely man who falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system named Samantha. The past that’s haunting him is his divorce from his wife. The parallel secondary character is his neighbor who is married, but eventually gets divorced and wants to look for love just like the hero.

Almost all stories involve dealing with a past problem somehow. In “The Lego Movie,” the problem is that the father wants to glue all his Lego bricks together so they can never be taken apart and reused to create something else. The parallel story is that as the hero searches for how to save the Lego world, the little boy is also trying to find a way to save the Lego world by playing with his dad’s Lego sets.

All stories need to deal with a problem from the past. All stories need parallelism to highlight the hero’s own story.

In “Titanic,” the hero wants to escape a dead end life. Her past problem is being engaged to a boring, arrogant rich man. The parallel story involves Jack, the free-spirited, fourth class passenger she meets and falls in love with right before the Titanic hits the iceberg.

In “Star Wars,” the past problem involves Luke getting stuck on his uncle’s farm and wanting to leave. The parallel problem involves Hans being stuck as a smuggler and wanting to avoid getting punished by Jabba the Hutt for dumping his load to escape.

What happens if a movie doesn’t have a past problem or a parallel problem? Then your story won’t seem balanced. In “Hercules,” the hero’s past problem is that his family got murdered. Yet there are no secondary characters with a similar problem, so the hero’s problem doesn’t seem quite so distinct or memorable.

In “Maleficent,” the hero’s past problem is having her wings ripped off by a man who betrayed her, but there are no secondary characters who face similar problems of betrayal from the past. Without this parallel problem, the main problem fades in the background.

The past always comes back to haunt the hero in the present. To highlight the hero’s goal, there should be a secondary character pursuing a parallel goal as the hero. If secondary characters pursue different goals, that different goal distracts from the hero’s goal. If the secondary characters don’t have a goal at all, that makes them feel like two-dimensional cardboard characters who only exist for the plot, which is a major failing of the secondary characters in “Hercules.”

Think of a problem from the past that the hero needs to overcome now, and think of a parallel goal for a secondary character to pursue. When you have these two P’s in your story, the past and parallelism, you’ll likely have a stronger story than if you didn’t have any of them at all.

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