Writing Dual Timeline BooksAug 16, 2020
Writing a dual timeline book brings up many questions. Should you write one story first, then the other and weave them together? Or should you write in chronological sequence?
You might be handling dual perspectives in one novel, too. The same questions apply.
Two members of our team share their process for writing two timelines – one author who planned the novel from the beginning, and another who added a second timeline in the edit. Which just goes to show: there’s no wrong way to do it! Louise Dean and Katie Khan share their points of view.
Writing dual perspectives with Louise Dean
I’ve worked with dual perspectives before. In my historical novel, This Human Season, I told a story set during The Troubles in Northern Ireland chapter by chapter, alternating between one character’s perspective (a former English soldier prison guard) in one chapter, and another point of view (that of a Catholic mother of one of the prisoners) in the next.
I wanted to show how the two sides had much in common by running them alongside each other to tell the story of the events leading up to the Hunger Strike. The story came first, and I told it blow by blow, with the timeline in ‘real-time’ for both parties, day by day. The structure of your novel can serve its theme, it should serve its theme, and it can almost perform the theme.
The structure of your novel can serve its theme, it should serve its theme, and it can almost perform the theme.
This time, I’m writing a novel with two timelines. I didn’t mean to, I confess.
I had a story drafted out in contemporary ‘real-time’, told in chronological order, but a character emerged, the grandfather of my hero. It inspired me to show how family history weighs on us covertly, from the use of phrases handed down, to an attitude or approach to life. An inherited ‘coping strategy’. The echoes that show how the two families are truly part of one tree.
How separate timelines can reveal a book’s theme
This has given me the opportunity to expand the theme of the novel from one person’s quest for meaning, to a re-interpretation of what it means to be a ‘hero’. I’ve been able to incorporate context and look at the mythology of heroism in the twentieth century. In a low-brow way.
I’m looking at the person who resists. Not because they’re courageous, but because they’re uncertain. I look at their blithe contentment with what they have, and their life in a ‘bubble’, and how such inert resistance is not always a bad thing. Call it complacence, call it stoicism.
I’m showing how much good the person without ambition can bring to the world. Yes, it’s comedic. And I want to show it through the generations of one American family, whereby the original impulse of ‘betterment’ whimpered and died on Ellis Island in 1896.
I hope I am bringing ‘bathos’ to the American dream. I guess that’s the dance here. I’d love it if Alan Bennett wrote a Western... Not so much The Magnificent Seven as The Modest Seven (with much to be modest about).
In my story there’s the same dying fall of bathos from the grandiose to the humble. It comes in a hop (across the pond), a skip (participation in the first American imperial war – the Korean War), and a jump (making model automobiles to avoid noticing you’re being robbed).
The challenges of writing different timelines
It’s not easy writing a dual timeline book; it’s heavy lifting.
I’m weaving into the novel the story of three generations, and pairing content chapter by chapter so that the past amplifies the present.
I’ve structured both stories along the lines of the story structure we teach at The Novelry – The Five Fs – and am doing a preliminary draft of insertions (I had done five drafts of the first story).
I like that it’s bringing a deeper understanding of the present tense story, but I’m finding it challenging. The historical story packs more clout, largely as I move across time more boldly, wrought in first person.
The second story – the historical family saga – is leading me by the nose, moving ahead of me. I feel like I’m hanging onto the pram with my knees being grazed on the ground as we go.
How I edit timelines together
I’m going to spread that manuscript on the dining room table and examine the connections. I’ll physically cut sections up with a pair of scissors to ensure one chapter kicks the other right up the backside.
I want to highlight the mystery of a few token ‘icons’ handed down, and catchphrases too, as well as parallel events treated with the same naive and hopeful ineptitude by grandfather and grandson. More family history, with some subtle symbolism.
Yes, I need a linking device, a rationale. This conceit is that those who love us never leave us, and are there, albeit invisible. A personal Jesus, or a poltergeist.
Writing and editing are not linear
From my experience, stories happen outwards in ever-increasing circles, draft by draft. I’m a worrier, a dog with a bone.
One of my maxims is: if it seems hard, make it harder. What I mean is you must be tough enough to find the single-minded theme, a story elegance, that requires some roughing up of the material, and tough decisions; some junking and cold-shouldering of ‘cute’ in favour of ‘purposeful’.
I certainly never expected to be at first draft at the fifth draft. But when you start asking silly questions, you start getting silly answers. What was life like on a USS naval carrier in 1950?
You must be tough enough to find the single-minded theme, a story elegance, that requires some roughing up of the material, and tough decisions; some junking and cold-shouldering of ‘cute’ in favour of ‘purposeful’.
Every week confounds me with another hard question. But I wake to visions of someone watering the lawn of a home that never existed, and she turns and says something, and I ask – who? Who is that? And we’re off on another wild goose chase... Expanding and contracting, conjuring and reining myself in.
I revise my plan weekly.
No doubt there are better ways. Most storytelling on TV series drives suspense by featuring distinct timelines, as flashbacks or flashforwards. The point is not to let either timeline run away from the thread of the story, or to lag. Make sure the reader always cares what happens next, and the events in one timeline serve the other, and the story.
An example from literature
In Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, a book with multiple timelines, the cutting is done with a sharp knife. At one point we have Billy Pilgrim about to address an audience of optometrists in 1961. He opens his mouth to speak, and we’re back in 1946.
‘Listen, Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.’ He is abducted by an alien species, Tralfamadorians, who can see all of time. They explain that instead of experiencing the linear progression of time like the rest of humanity, Billy can experience events out of order, and eventually choose parts to relive. This is how fiction works!
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
Despite his many attempts to write about Dresden in the twenty-four years between the end of the war and the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, it was not until very late in the writing process that the novel included so much of what has made it famous, including its shifting chronology, its science fiction tropes (the alien race of Tralfamadorians), and its central character, Billy Pilgrim.
With dual timeline, structure serves theme
In Slaughterhouse-Five, the structure served the theme of the novel. It was important to blend events, and create a chaotic (and real) experience of how we consume life in the present on a continuum of the past and the future, memories and projections.
The treatment for the novel is bathos, the heroic reduced to the ridiculous so that the fatalistic theme plays out through story and prose.
The same general idea appears in The Big Board by Kilgore Trout. The flying saucer creatures who capture Trout’s hero ask him about Darwin. They also ask him about golf.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
Ask yourself how your structure serves your theme.
In my dual timeline book, the past weighs on the present, all its myths and corners and secrets are there. Sometimes we catch sight of them out of the corner of our eye or in a dream, but the past weighs upon us privately, invisible to the outsider.
So my second story, the family saga, no longer the pretender to the throne, must have its sway and bear down upon the present day.
What’s your structure and why?
Something to discuss with your writing coach at The Novelry in your next chat?
Dual timeline novels to explore
Most books with more than one timeline depend on diaries or letters. I didn’t want to do that! Here are four others which resist that device:
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyld
Writing dual perspectives with Katie Khan
Now, Katie Khan gives us the other side of the story, a rather more elegant approach to creating distinct timelines from the outset.
I didn’t set out to write two separate timelines
In the very beginning, when I experienced the first gleam of an idea during a nap in my parents’ attic, my debut novel Hold Back the Stars was to have only one timeline. A couple was falling through space with only ninety minutes of air remaining, I imagined, and as they fell, they talked about their relationship and how they came to be in the great vacuum of space.
I queried myself – could they be treading water, surrounded by sharks, would that be easier to write? I lived on a hill in north London surrounded by sky, obsessively tracking the International Space Station each night as it passed overhead.
No, I decided. It had to be space. But the idea felt quite thin; perhaps a (long) short story or a novella.
It was only when I came up with the second timeline – that same couple’s entire relationship, shown chronologically as it happened on the Earth beneath them – that I knew I had enough for a novel.
Writing separate timelines beyond historical fiction
Many dual timeline novels fall into the historical fiction category: one timeline set in the past, often during World War I or World War II; the other in the present day. The events are often inspired by a true story.
The dual protagonists might be relatives – a grandmother and granddaughter, say – who might unravel a family’s long-hidden history from the grandmother’s past. Perhaps one woman in the present day is looking into her ancestor’s life story, and we see how the two women’s stories are not so different. Or it could be a modern-day sleuth exploring what happened at a particular moment in history.
But I wasn’t writing historical fiction; my story was speculative. It might be considered an unconventional dual narrative, I learned a lot about what it means to balance and craft a story that takes place in both the present and the past.
Why is it worth considering? Because it is an extremely commercial structure for a contemporary novel.
Novels with multiple timelines
In Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, an elusive actress towards the end of her life recounts her golden years in Hollywood to a young journalist, revealing the true love of her life.
If memory serves me correctly, a man also recounts his incredible survival story at sea to a journalist in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. And a vampire to a journalist in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. What a great formula!
Abigail Dean’s Girl A has been optioned by the director of Chernobyl and – a full year before publishing with Harper Fiction – it was already being touted by her publisher as ‘the novel that will define a decade’. In it, a girl who escaped horrendous childhood abuse at the hands of her fanatical parents must confront what happened to her and her siblings in the famed ‘House of Horrors’ after the death of her mother. The novel shifts back and forth in time between ‘Girl A’ as an adult, and the girl as an imprisoned child.
Tips for writing multiple timelines
Whether you are writing two equal timelines that form 50:50 of your novel, or a plot that requires flashbacks or backstory, there are some key considerations:
Both timelines must be equally compelling, or a reader will flick through one to get back to the other. Worse still, they’ll put the book down;
The moments where you choose to cut from one timeline to the other are the number one generator of tension and suspense in the story;
What you reveal in one timeline shows us a truth in the other. Plus, the impact of one timeline is felt in the other. Cause and effect.
The more separate your timelines are, the more ineffectually disparate, the less successful the storytelling.
Multiple timelines as a device exist to create connection, to demonstrate the impact one generation can have on the next, or to show us how the echo of the past is still heard in the present.
The writing process
You have a couple of choices here.
You could draft your timelines separately, then interleave them in the edit. I’m sure you can guess by my slightly cynical use of italics that I don’t personally recommend this. It’s nigh-on impossible, except for the most gifted writers, to lose the silo feeling of two stories told separately.
Instead, what I recommend (and how I wrote Hold Back the Stars) is to write your timelines already interleaved, an alternating story unfurling as one.
This can take a bit of plotting. You might balk at a spreadsheet, but a scene list will be invaluable (particularly when it comes to the many edits down the road). Consider colour-coding: Storyline A, Storyline B. Where do you get in and out of each storyline? Leave us on a cliff-hanger, so the reader longs to return to find out the ‘answer’. And what is the trigger or the transition that sends us tumbling towards the other timeline?
Where do you get in and out of each storyline? Leave us on a cliff-hanger, so the reader longs to return to find out the ‘answer’.
This, for me, is one of the key techniques for writing different timelines.
Some stories work well to create structural boundaries between the two plotlines. Chapter 1: storyline A. Chapter 2: storyline B.
Other novels, particularly those dealing with memory, backstory or flashbacks, work even better when the transitions between the timelines are seamless. Both timelines lie alongside each other on the page, bound together within the same chapters. Remember Sally Rooney’s ABA structure in Normal People: action-backstory-action. Or for me, in Hold Back the Stars: present-past-present. (Potato, potato – these are the same thing!)
Seamless transitions in Revolutionary Road
Consider this transition in Richard Yates’s iconic 1960s novel Revolutionary Road. This isn’t a dual timeline novel, but rather the portrait of a failing marriage, and it presents a beautiful juxtaposition of the romance of first love against the sagging weight of a long, difficult marriage.
In chapter one, we sit with Frank Wheeler in a suburban am-dram theatre, watching his wife April perform badly in a terrible local play. A fraction of a moment later, we are watching a sparkly-eyed Frank meet April for the first time at a New York party. When I was writing my debut, I spent weeks looking at this. How did the author do it?
Frank drives a crushed and embarrassed April home from her disastrous play, the couple heading towards a major argument:
With a confident, fluent grace he steered the car out of the bouncing side road and onto the hard clean straightaway of Route Twelve, feeling that his attitude was on solid ground at last.
—Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road
As Frank drives, we are flung years back, to their first meeting:
And now, as it often did in the effort to remember who he was, his mind went back to the first few years after the war and to a crumbling block of Bethune Street, in that part of New York where the gentle western edge of the Village flakes off into silent waterfront warehouses, where the salt breeze of evening and the deep river horns of night enrich the air with the promise of voyages.
—Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road
Frank and April meet at a party, and then:
A week after that, almost to the day, she was lying miraculously nude beside him in the first blue light of day on Bethune Street, drawing her delicate forefinger down his face from brow to chin and whispering: ‘It’s true, Frank. I mean it. You’re the most interesting person I’ve ever met.’
‘Because it’s just not worth it,’ he was saying now, allowing the blue-lit needle of the speedometer to tremble up through sixty for the final mile of highway. They were almost home.
—Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road
A few pages of flashback and we’re right back in that car with them, about to get into the mother of all fights. There weren’t even line breaks to separate the scenes.
Let’s dig into the how.
How Revolutionary Road works
The word ‘now’ jumps out a mile, twice, establishing each timeline.
See how Richard Yates gets us in late and takes us out early – April is mid-sentence in that last dialogue line to Frank, after their first night together; Frank is mid-sentence to April, in the first dialogue line back in the car.
Notice, too, the entire transition takes place in a travelling car, mirrored and echoed with the line ‘the promise of voyages’ in the past timeline of Bethune Street. This is important; like a memory triggered by a scent or place, using reflected imagery between both timelines eases the shift between them.
I used this myself in Hold Back the Stars, when Carys and Max are falling in space above the Earth, watching the sun rise across a continent; the next scene on Earth is a sunset beneath which they decide to break up.
The experience of writing my own ABA structure of past-present-past was a little bit trial and error. Luckily, I hit upon a technique that seemed to anchor the reader, so it was always clear which timeline I was dropping us into.
My publishing houses (Doubleday/Penguin Random House in the UK, and Gallery/Simon & Schuster in the USA) assisted with this clarity in the typesetting of the book, by separating the Earth and space scenes with the dividing symbol of a star.
Originally, I had written the transitions often without line breaks at all – heavily influenced and inspired by Revolutionary Road! This level of clarity for the reader (where and when am I?) is particularly important if your dual timeline contains the same characters in both. It’s slightly less essential if your dual timeline features separate characters, for example the grandmother and granddaughter.
I wrote my present timeline, unsurprisingly, in present tense. I wanted the reader to feel the immediacy of their dire situation, the helplessness of Carys and Max fighting to survive, oxygen levels ticking down in every scene as they try and fail to save themselves:
‘We’re going to be fine.’ He looks around, but there’s nothing out here for them: nothing but the bottomless black universe on their left, the Earth suspended in glorious technicolour to their right.
—Katie Khan, Hold Back the Stars
But Carys and Max’s relationship on Earth, the memories, of their love story are written in past tense:
He had left the dinner party around midnight and she’d seen him to the door, leaning against the frame, her arms huddled inside her cardigan against the chill. ‘Thanks for tonight,’ he said.
—Katie Khan, Hold Back the Stars
Here’s the technique, which I recently found summarised perfectly in the marvellous book Dreyer’s English by Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer. My word, how I wish I’d had that book to hand as I’d laboured through the transitions of my first novel and discovered a version of this method for myself.
Two or three “he/she/they had”
Abbreviate down to “he’d/she’d/they’d” once or twice
Then switch to simple past tense – dialogue is a good place to do this (“he said”).
Foolproof. Lovely stuff.
What all writers can learn from dual timeline techniques
But what if you’re not writing dual timeline novels? Is any of this useful?
The short answer is: yes. I’m currently writing a novel with alternating perspectives from two different characters. The experience of writing dual timelines has been invaluable in showing me how to handle the shifts.
The first list of bullet points I laid out all apply if you’re writing a multi-POV story: both (/all) arcs must be equally compelling; the moments you choose to cut away generate the driving tension and suspense of the novel; and what happens in one arc should reveal a truth in the other.
Best of luck if you’re writing multiple timelines – we cannot wait to read them, and we hope these techniques assist with the push-pull of balancing your two interwoven narratives.
Discover our online creative writing courses with coaching from authors who have written their novels using multiple timelines. Come and talk it through with one of them!