6 Ways to Pull Off Dual Timelines in Your Novel

Some stories are so complicated they require not just one, but dual timelines to tell everything. Often, this is the result of an intricate and integral backstory, such as we might find in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood or Ann Brashares’s My Name Is Memory, which switch back and forth from a “present-day” timeline to a timeline further back in the characters’ pasts.

The pitfalls of this are obvious, since you’re risking reader confusion and frustration by straying from the beaten path of a single chronological storyline. But the benefits are also manifold: dual timelines can create the opportunity for a deeper plot, more resonant theme, and greater character development.

6 Tips for Managing Dual Timelines in Your Novel

Not too long ago, I received an email asking for a post on how to pull off dual timelines. Below are a few of the lessons I’ve learned from my experiments with this difficult but sometimes rewarding technique.

1. Make Sure Both Timelines Are Equally Interesting

One of the greatest pitfalls of the dual timeline is the possibility that one of the plots will interest readers more than the other. Essentially, you’re asking readers to read two stories simultaneously, with sometimes very little to connect the two until they reach the final chapters. To keep readers from growing frustrated whenever they’re pulled from one timeline into the other, you must make sure both timelines are equally exciting and compelling.

2. Balance the Timelines

The balance you decide upon for your story doesn’t have to be perfectly equal. You may want to place more emphasis on one timeline over the other, which will keep you from achieving a 50/50 balance. But you will want to organize the book so the timelines appear in a logical pattern. Alternating timelines every chapter is the easiest way to accustom readers to the switch, but you can achieve the same effect by interspersing a lesser-timeline chapter every three chapters or so. Consistency is what’s important here. You don’t want to delve into one of the timelines for so long that readers forget all about the other one.

3. Avoid “Filler” Scenes

In your attempt to balance timelines, you may discover that one timeline is much “muchier” than the other. Don’t fall into the temptation of padding the lesser timeline with filler scenes to try to bring it up to speed with the larger timeline. Make certain every scene in both timelines moves the plot forward in important and interesting ways.

4. Double-Check Plot Points

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In telling what essentially amounts to two stories, you must be extra careful with your plot points. It’s possible a single set of major plot points (at the 25%, 50%, and 75% marks) could affect both timelines. But, more than likely, each timeline is going to need its own plot points to keep the plot moving forward. Juggling the timelines so both sets of plot points land near the appropriate moments in the story can be tricky, so check and double-check yourself.

5. Avoid Confusing Transitions

In switching between timelines, you’re going to have to take extra care to make certain readers are keeping up with you. You can mark the respective times/years at the beginning of each new section, but you’ll also want to specify narrating characters and any other pertinent info at the beginning of each switch. Don’t ever leave readers floundering; orient them as quickly as possible.

6. Tighten Timelines Within the Third Act

The Third Act is where you need to pull your timelines together. The closer you get to the end, the clearer it should be to readers how the earlier timeline affects the events that are playing out in the later timeline. You’ll likely end your early timeline just prior to the later timeline’s Climax, so make sure all your loose ends are appropriately knotted off by then.


Dual timelines are always tricky and not always worth the trouble. Don’t dive into one without thinking through the ramifications. But if you’re certain a dual timeline is necessary for your story, take the leap and have fun. This technique can be a blast to write, and if you ace all the above requirements, it can also leave you with a book that’s just as much fun to read.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you wanted to write a story with dual timelines? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Good advice here. Beginning in October I am release a series of three books that have dual timelines, about 1/3 historical and 2/3 contemporary. I opted to plot out and write the historical completely separate of the contemporary so that characters there are robust and the plot is its own. After I write the contemporary I create the transitions to blend the two. They are related thematically and genealogically. I’M just beginning to write the third book and have loved this approach.

  2. There are a lot of advantages to writing both timelines separately and coherently. One of the drawbacks would be a lack of organic flow between the two, but, of course, that can always be remedied when editing.

  3. I’m editing my WIP which is the first novel I’ve written with two timelines. Your advice here is good. The writing was fine. But the editing has been really difficult. I have my story divided into sections, not so much chapters so I could be a little looser with the format. Each time I switch, it is clearly labeled to orient the reader, as you said. I actually graphed my plot points so I could see that each story line was “playing nice” with the other. I think the only thing I would add is to pad your editing calendar because I am way behind.

  4. Editing always seems to take longer that we’d like, no matter what kind of story we’re writing. Sounds like you’ve got all your bases covered!

  5. Are dual timelines where you tell one part of the story in one time and then tell the rest in another time?

  6. Right. For example, you could tell half your story in a modern setting and the other half in the 1700s.

  7. You pulled it off brilliantly in A Man Called Outlaw. But I’m not sure it’s something I’m ready to tackle myself.

  8. Looking back, there are a lot of ways I wish I pulled it off better in Outlaw, but the experience taught me a lot.

  9. Hmmm. Makes me think of The Historian. That one seemed to pull it off nicely. Although I tend to run away from books who’s covers mention two people in different time periods struggling with similar/intertwining issues. I dunno, something about it just puts me off.

  10. The Historian did a good job of pulling off its timelines through the old “letter” technique of having a character in one timeline read about the happenings in another timeline. This technique takes a bit of suspension of disbelief on the reader’s part (since few people write letters or diaries in the depth necessary to create compelling fiction), but it’s a time-honored tradition down from the likes of Henry Fielding and Emily Bronte.

  11. having just completed my first fiction since the early 80s (been doing poetry) last month, and having used a dual timeline to shortly before the end, it was gratifying to see these extremely helpful pointers –

    i think i got lucky and “mostly” followed these guidelines, but seeing them bullet point listed and explained, will be very helpful in future efforts

    thanks so much! 😉

  12. Most of this are pretty intuitive, but sometimes it helps to have the points solidified. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  13. Most interesting. In my EARTH IS NOT ALONE, which Grace Bridges and others on Amazon reviewed, I have two related stories that occur, one on a slightly future Earth that has lost electrical power and another on a similar planet, Emryss. And they connect, yes with romance, problems, and other responsibilities. Some ways I’ve tried to keep these different and somewhat detailed stories from wandering away from the reader are these: underlining similar mutual religion connections, even seasons and timelines using–and repeating–genealogies and family connections, and even repeating (more than usual) names and details of key characters. And unique with EINA is a discussion of the special religious connection that is shared, something which the Bible says nothing specific about. How far out and “away” does one’s moral responsibility extend? Parallel and connected stories are fun to work with and worth the effort.

  14. Great points. Parallelism between timelines can work wonders in providing both a sense of continuity and a deepening of theme. It can also work to bring foreshadowing from one timeline to the other.

  15. Wanted to – yes! Have I – yes! And it even keeps my interest while editing and proofing. I have discovered that it’s a two edged sword for reviews. As an example, for my latest book, Havana’s Secret, one critic proclaims it to be ‘masterful storytelling’ where another laments that ‘there are two good stories here rather than one.’

  16. Anytime we attempt something different from the norm, we have to know there will be detractors. But trying new things and experimenting with new forms is the only way to grow.

  17. Thank you for this… One of my WIP has two timelines and balancing can definitely be a little tough at times throughout the book.

  18. Very helpful advice, especially as my current WIP is in dual pov. Hope you don’t mind if I copy a link on my blog

  19. @Ainsley: Dual timelines can be challenging, but anything that challenges our writing is a good thing!

    @lorrie: Please do, and thank you!

  20. This sounds complicated but very interesting. I’m not sure I could pull it off, but I’d like to try one or two of these to read and see how the magic’s woven in them.

  21. As I said, I really enjoy this technique as a reader – when it’s done well. It has the potential to add all kinds of depth and to explain character backstories in satisfying ways. But it can also go very wrong and end up being much more tedious and frustrating than it’s worth.

  22. Very helpful, K. M. Thanks much for posting!


  23. Thanks for reading!

    • so i’m not a ‘writer’ or anything like that. but for fun i’m writing this story. now, this is similar i guess to what you’re talking about, but it’s different. i’m dealing with time travel. the ‘present story’ needs to keep moving forward, but this one character which the climax builds up to time travels. so basically the present is always catching up to the future. use of time travel is limited which helps, but what i’m realizing is that this is a little tougher than just 2 time lines. any advice?

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Essentially, you’re still dealing with one timeline – just a really complicated one that swerves all over the place. The most important thing is keeping all the variations straight. You might find it helpful to get a big white board and write out all the various layers of time and the events in each, so you can see them in chronological order and make sure everything is staying straight.

      • Hi Dave – if you’re writing…you’re a writer! I find it helps with motivation to think like that. If you approach it as ‘a bit of fun’ you will never finish a draft. I know this too well (got three unfinished novels under my bed) 🙂

  24. I am so very grateful that you’ve written this post!! The novel that I started but then stopped because realized it required more structure, has exactly this issue. Two women who meet later but are a different ages when they do so…one is in her 70s, one is in her late 20s. I’ve been flummoxed as to how to carry it off and still maintain interest and tension with both characters. Your suggestions most definitely help! Thanks yet again!

  25. Sounds like a story that has great potential for exploring characters through dual timelines. Glad you found the post useful!

  26. I’ve always liked the idea of this, but I’ll admit it’s a bit intimidating to actually try. I’ve done different POVs, but not with characters living in completely different time periods. Maybe I’ll give it a try now thanks to this post!

  27. The actual writing isn’t all that complicated. It’s fun to have the freedom to explore wildly different plots and characters. The trick is pulling it all together in a manner that works for readers. But, if you don’t get it right the first time, that’s what rewriting is for!

  28. I can’t resist dual timelines, both as a reader and a writer. But, yes, they are definitely challenging, for all the reasons you mention. The “keeping both compelling” is the one that I struggle with the most. Even when both are interesting, they’ll each have their lulls and quiet moments. Knowing how to balance two stories with different pace structures helps with that.

  29. As if telling one story right wasn’t tough enough, we have to go and try to tell two at the same time. :p But, in the end, the experience can be incredibly rewarding.

  30. Thanks for the post dear!

    In fact it is SO hard to know IF you know the dual timeline or not :O

    I´m using it on my WIP because I thing the main couple´s back story is fascinating! lol



  31. Backstory, when done well, can often be more fascinating than the front story – and can absolutely bring more depth to the book as a whole. But, you’re right, it *is* tricky. Sometimes we just have to play it out on paper and see what happens.

  32. I was the one that was confused by what a ghost is. Something I’m wondering, does a double timeline necessarily have to be a different character?

    Honestly at this point I’m unsure whether double timelines would make a dystopian novel more confusing than it already it.

  33. You could definitely do some interesting dual timelines with the same character at different points in his life. Actually, I love the idea!

  34. I’m working on a dual timeline story right now. I discovered that more time passed in one than the other. I had to get a calendar and write what was happening in each to get them to line up right.

  35. Calenders are super helpful, even in single timeline stories. yWriter, the software program I use to organize my notes, has a great time-keeping feature.

  36. James Hall says

    I’m writing a story with dual timelines. More specifically, it is a story within a story. A character is dealing with the loss of his father is telling his children about his last adventure. The resolution of the inner story affects the character because he has avoided memories and closure for nearly 20 years.

    Though I have made it evident that the character is telling a story at the first switch, I think the difference in having the character narrate the inner story and I narrate the outer story makes it a lot easier to tell the difference. Especially since he uses pseudo-medieval language.

    This book is also part of a series, so it has series plot elements included as well.

    What are your thoughts on WHEN to introduce the story? I’m unsure as to the initial delay before the story within a story begins (nearly a 100 pages in). Then, I flip-flop between them. The beginning sets up the outer story, setting, outer characters, and several elements of the series plot.

  37. Timing will always depend on the individual story. Personally, I like to see unusual elements introduced as early as possible (say, in the second chapter) to acclimate readers to the fact that the story will be switching back and forth. But your story may dictate otherwise. The movie Secondhand Lions is a good example of a story within a story that is introduced comparatively late. But you definitely don’t want to introduce it any later than the first major plot point at the quarter mark.

  38. James Hall says

    First major plot point falls just pages before the transition.

    It is my first attempt at a book (unless you call what I wrote when I was 14 an attempt). If nothing else, it is good practice and I’ve had a lot of fun with it.

    Thanks for your tips. Maybe soon I’ll stop reading your advice and read your book, dreamlander. I think I’m on chapter three.

  39. Thanks for picking up Dreamlander! I hope you enjoy it.

  40. Hi K.M.
    Thanks for guiding me here from The Creative Penn.
    I enjoyed this post. I’m editing a triple timeline novel at the mo, and point three resonated particularly strongly with me! 🙂 I’ve lost a couple of scenes entirely that were clearly me trying to balance up the different story lines.
    In retrospect, I think it can work having different amounts of each timeline, particularly if they take place over a substantial period of time, as different levels of plot progression happen in each.
    I must confess, I’ve cheated a bit as far as point 5 goes, by making the chapter names the place and narrator, which, hopefully, keeps it clear for the reader.
    Thanks again

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Using character/setting names as chapter headers is very smart, IMO. My western A Man Called Outlaw alternates between different years, and I chose to put the date at the top of each new section.

  41. I’m so glad I found this post. I’ve been struggling over a timeline approach for weeks now. Like one of the other commenters above, I’m working on a triple-timeline story. I love reading stories which switch between timelines but as a writer, its difficult to line up and I think there are so many options to change chapters around. ( Thats my problem right now),

    Any thoughts or good examples of triple timelines i.e where future, present and past are interwoven – until past fades and present merges with the future? Hope that makes sense.


    • K.M. Weiland says

      Off the top of my head, I’m not thinking of any. Christopher Nolan’s Memento maybe? I’m sure I’ve read many; I’m just not thinking of any now. I know, I’m *so* much help. :p

  42. Hi there!

    First, LOVE your blog—amazing and so helpful. This is also one of the best posts I’ve found regarding dual timelines, so thanks for that! Quick question: Any tips on handling a synopsis with dual timelines? I’m doing final revisions on a DT novel and am really struggling with how to arrange a synopsis with each chapter alternating between timelines. Each chapter of my book has a NOW or THEN header. ANY input you could offer would be appreciated, I’m just not sure how to approach it. THANK YOU!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If you’re doing a past/present set of timelines, with the same characters, I would probably go ahead and tell it chronologically in the synopsis. Agents aren’t necessarily looking for how you’ll present the timelines in the story (they’ll see that if they order a partial); they just want to know that you can deliver a solid storyline.

  43. Azizah Idris says

    Hello K.M,
    I’m glad I came across this post in a google search . I’m currently writing a romance, but my time split revolves around the same characters one time telling the present story in midst of a huge conflict. And the other part is telling the reader the backstory and it eventually tells the reader how the charcters end up in the present time stoty.
    meanwhile the present time shows the characters struggling with their differences eventually the two stories meet up and the conflict will be resolved.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I always enjoy stories that use that format. In essence, the timelines are handled just as the same as if they featured a totally different cast.

  44. I have (fortunately? Miraculously?) followed you recipe for a dual time period novel. I think. I’ll let you know after the agent reads it. The hardest part for me was keeping both lines equally interesting.

    I did have to go back and do a lot of rewriting. Ideas would pop into one timeline, and I’d have to rewrite the other time line to accommodate the element. It was hard. But fun.

  45. Hi KM
    I have finished writing my first novel (which has only taken me nearly ten years!) and am endeavoring to write the dreaded synopsis. My novel has two clear timelines which come together in the third act as you have described above in your fantastic piece. I’m fairly confident in the story lines of each.
    However, my real problem now is how to compile the synopsis with both the timelines incorporated into it (or not, as the case may be). I appreciate that asking for your help and advice is a bit cheeky but I’d be extremely grateful if you could possibly point me in a general direction on this so I can claw my way out of this miserable pit of despair I find myself in! 🙂 Thank you so much.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s tough, no question! There are two possibilities. One is to simply excise the less important of the narratives from the synopsis, although this is generally only a good idea if one of the timelines is significantly less important than the other.

      The other option is to weave both timelines into the synopsis, essentially just as you’ve done in the book. The trick here, though, is to make certain the causal relationship between the timelines is clear. Show how the events in one timeline affect, are mirrored by, or provide readers with new information about events the subsequent events in the other timeline.

  46. I know I’m jumping in really late but… I found this information to be awesome.
    I’m in the planning stage of a semi-biographical-cum-motivational book about my wife and I (both of us have had very challenging lives and we’re still fighting on at the time of this writing) wherein we talk about our individual struggles and how we overcame first as singles and then as a couple.

    My beloved will be writing her own plot about her life and I’ll be doing the same. Then at some point in the book we plan to ‘merge our plots ‘ into one plot (the day of our marriage) and continue with a single plot.

    I’d really be grateful if you could advise on how we should go about that.



    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I would recommend starting with a framing device–probably a “flash forward”–in which you give readers a tantalizing glimpse of how the two stories will eventually intertwine. This will help them understand that the two seemingly unrelated plots *are* pertinent to each other and will eventually intertwine meaningfully.

  47. Even after breaking up my initial outline into multiple books, I still decided I needed a dual timeline approach in the one I decided to tackle first. One timeline is in the past and shows the protagonist’s fall arc as her Lie develops, and the other is in the present and shows her redemption arc as she slowly tries to embrace the Truth instead.

  48. My series deals with three timelines, not just three. I decided early on to make the past timeline static, and to show that both it and the current events are pulling at the future timeline in a “will it happen or won’t it happen” way.

    I started with the series (The Wolf Riders of Keldarra) with a purpose. That purpose was that the story is not just a type of story where a reader just gets dropped into the middle of some events, but that it is based on something else. Once of the most fascinating lines of text I’ve always thought about all my life has been “May you live in interesting times” (or it variations). In general terms that’s the premise of the series I am writing.

    I look over my plotting that I did for the whole series and I keep telling my partner about what I learn about the first, second and third act with the point of no return, and the climax and all that. I structure my books along that way of having a story, but my whole series is plotted in that way too. In terms of the first, second and third act setup, I am approaching the point on no return, which will happen at the end of book 2 (soon to be published) and to a small degree extends into book 3 as an overlap. I already know which book is the “climax book” (guess that’s a new term), and the last book definitely is the book that offers the resolution.

    The timeline situation in these books is a bit more complex as I deal with past events that influence the current time, and the current time that alters the future time, with both past and present keeping future in flux. The outcome of the story won’t present itself until close to the end of the series, but I have to write everything in a way to show that I know what is going to happen, but that my characters don’t and that they don’t know they live in interesting times… in a time of change.

    My partner says my style of dealing with past events is unusual, and the way I write the books makes that past very much part of the here and now. It influences decisions. It causes the antagonists to do stuff against the protagonists (Marrida and Alagur being two of them), and I even make some of the past events into a kind of antagonist too.

    If an author wants to write multiple timelines in any shape, I think pre-planning is fifty percent of the work done to make it believable. Anything used in the timeline that’s set in the past, must follow the “cause and effect” in how it influences later stuff. And if I have to repeat events to inform a character, I find that writing it like it’s a scene of crime with different witnesses each giving an account. I once heard a police officer say that the most interesting thing to listen to, is to hear ten people give a witness account of the same event. You get a totally different viewpoint and story each time. Rather than repeating an event, do this approach. Treat each person telling the same story as a witness being interviewed in a police interrogation. It definitely adds spice to the story, and it offers some interesting twists as I’ve discovered.

    Just sharing this as findings based on my own efforts to write a series…

  49. The solution I came up with (at least in the WiP) for ensuring author and reader orientation was to label each chapter with the name of the prevalent character PoV, location and time. Now I’m on the final edit/polish, I’m checking the first few lines of each chapter to make sure that they do orientate the reader, because I’m considering dropping the character name from the chapter heading, leaving just the place, date and time.

    Including the date and time in the chapter heading began as a way for me to keep track of the story and to ensure that events were happening in the right order – the majority of the story’s time-frame takes place over just a few days, and it seemed essential that, even if I should decide not to stick to a strictly linear narrative, that the reader would be able to follow what was going on. As it turned out, I kept the linear narrative – but haven’t yet decided how much to keep in the chapter heading – whether to simply number the chapters, or show them as date, time and place. I found it to be the easiest way to keep myself orientated as I was writing, but am now thinking it might be too ‘obvious’ to leave those chapter headings… would be interested to know how others have done this.

  50. Hannah Killian says

    I have a story with a dual timeline. One is the American Revolution, and in it, after her brother decides to join the colonists in their bid for independence, a young woman find herself conflicted between loyalty to England and a growing admiration for the Patriots. In the other timeline, which is in the present, a girl finds a centuries old journal which turns out to have belonged to the woman in the past. That woman in turn turns out to be the sister of the girl’s several greats-grandfather. Any ideas on how to make that more interesting?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The key to have to one timeline drive the other. In this instance, it would logically be the past timeline, via the journal, driving the present-day timeline. How is the girl’s discovery and reading of the journal entries influencing and driving her own goals and conflict in her own plotline?

  51. Paula Priaulx says

    Hi K.M.

    Your various posts on tackling tricky aspects of novel writing are always so helpful and inspiring. This one on Dual Timelines has given me lots of great food for thought.

    I am currently in the process of outlining my first novel. The main antagonist is the mother of the protagonist. In order to explain some of the irrational behaviour and attitudes of the mother I intend including chunks of backstory that take her back to the same ages that her daughter is at the time of the main storyline. The inclusion of these backstory chapters will, I hope, create an “OMG, I didn’t see that coming” moment for readers at the climax of the story when the final shattering blow is dealt to the daughter.

    Until reading this post, I hadn’t contemplated writing the backstory as a dual timeline. Now I am! The mother’s story is an integral part of the daughter’s and she is such an interesting character that expanding her exposure would be easy. I have taken your very valuable 6 points into consideration and feel quite confident and excited about giving the dual timeline a go.

    Your fantastic books, Structuring Your Novel and Outlining Your Novel, have been the catalyst I needed to finally take the plunge and write the story I have had simmering inside me for the past five years. My characters have been haunting me like ghosts and now it is a relief to bring them to life and it is all thanks to your guidance…

  52. Hello mam.
    I am writing a novel in first person. It has three parts. Only the first part has two timelines:
    1. When the events were actually happening during school time. (I didn’t share them with my mother then)
    2. When the school ended, i shared everything with my mother.
    If i write it in single timeline, it would become repetitive as what i told my mother in second timeline is the same as what happened in the first timeline.
    But i am finding it difficult to simultaneously present the two timelines together. This is my first experience at writing something. And the story I am writing is based on my personal experiences. How should i present the two timelines together so that the reader doesn’t get confused?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      From what you’ve shared it here, it sounds as if perhaps you may only need one of the timelines. If the second timeline, in which you share the events with your mother, doesn’t present new events that move the plot, I would consider deleting it.

  53. K.M., I have completed my dual narrative WWII historical fiction novel. The two main characters’ POVs have equal weight, they alternate chapters, and they don’t meet until the final chapter(actually, the final page). Now I have to write the “dreaded synopsis.” I have completed a very rough rough draft by summarizing each chapter in a couple of sentences. Any suggestions on how to make this into a coherent synopsis would be greatly appreciated.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In some stories, you can cut one timeline from the synopsis altogether, if it functions as more of a subplot. If not, you’ll just have to cram it in there. Fun, huh? :p I recommend focusing on the structural beats in each plotline, to ensure you’re including only what’s important and everything that’s important.

      • Thanks for that. I am now learning how to identify all the “beats” in my story, a concept I appear to have included but had never applied that term (beat) to my writing. Thanks to Ali Cross’s adaptation for the novel of Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” method, I think I will be able to work with the “beat sheet” to apply it to my synopsis. As you say, I will have to cram everything in since my two timelines are equal in importance. The challenge, I think, since both main characters have their own set of structural beats, is to weave them together in the synopsis.

  54. onewordtest (@oneword_test) says

    So would it be feasible to do a dual timeline where the earlier timeline is not told chronologically?

  55. David Gillespie says

    I’m doing a dual timeline. End of WWII in the Pacific and the year 2000 in Hawaii. I alternate timelines by chapter heading. Working out well.

    I’m about 3/4 finished and started thinking of a summary/synopsis to show agents, editors, anyone.

    I’m having a hard time summarizing my two-time line, two plots, two protagonist, etc. into a 500 to 600 write up. The articles I’ve seen on writing a summary don’t seem to fit.

    Any suggestions as to format?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There three ways to approach this.

      1. If one of the timelines is more of a subplot, you may be wiser to cut it altogether from the synopsis, or allude to it only briefly.

      2. If the timelines affect each other in some way (e.g., the present-day character discovers things about the past that move her plotline forward), you can use the cause and effect to pull the two together in the synopsis.

      3. If the two plotlines are only distantly connected, you may want to consider telling them as two basically separate synopses of their own (although still adhering to the agent’s overall page-count guideline, of course).

  56. RobinFairyArrows says

    Katherine Kerr’s Daggerspell (and the rest of the lengthy series) imo pulls off multiple timelines in a fantasy/Celtic novel very well. All the characters of the present timeline have past lives (reincarnations) which are strewn throughout the series. sometimes more than one per book.

    My WIP is a dual timeline, 200 years apart with my immortal MC featured in both. Do you think there should be different character arcs in each timeline or should it be the same when it’s the same character?
    I currently have the past as a negative disillusionment arc and the present as a flat arc with a sidekick in a change arc.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You could do either/or with the character arcs. The key is to make sure the past timeline is a catalyst for change in the present timeline.

  57. I’m struggling with this issue in a series. I started the series following some child characters and their stories. As I grew up I found the adult characters just as interesting and started developing their plots as well as developing the entire series plot. (before it was a disjointed series of short stories designed to entertain me and read to my younger sister.) Now I developed the world around the characters and want to make it into a bigger thing.

    The series follows three protagonists. One is the adult raising the child character. The other adult character is a close friend of the adult character. He switches between being a main character to a supporting character depending on the book. The child character grows up and finds he has to fix his adoptive “father’s” mistakes.

    My challenge is to get a child’s perspective in part of the series and an adult’s story to work in the same book? They both deal with the same series but their plots are different. (one is more mature, darker, heavy. The other more light, bright and cheerful) This clash in tone and plot enough that my beta reader told me that combining them actually ruined the story for both plots. The end result made the beta reader totally turned off that he made me skip over all scenes dealing with the adult character(s) to follow the children’s part of the story.

    Help. They are simultaneous events. I am afraid splitting them into two separate books makes numbering the series all the harder. And it gets muddier to deal with “As this is happening to these characters, this is what is happening to the other characters.” I thought keeping them together on the same book clears up having to say this separate book happens during the time frame of this other book, but I’m missing something needed to make it work.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s no reason they can’t both work in the same book as long as they’re thematically cohesive and driving toward the same climactic moment.

  58. In my story the two timelines divide themselves in the middle of the story… do you think it is a good idea? It is the first book of a series, so in the next book the story will continue and the characters will gather again.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Generally, I would recommend against this. It will create a very episodic feeling to both stories instead of creating a cohesive whole.

  59. TrustHim825 says


    You rock! Thanks for sharing your experiences as an author. I recently found your podcasts which have been very helpful in learning about structure and craft during my long commutes. Behold the Dawn is phenomenal! I plan to dig into your other novels when I’m done.

    I’m hoping you can shed some light on how to integrate a character arc into dual timelines that feature the same protagonist.

    I want the prominent and current timeline to feature a young criminal protagonist who wants to put his illegal life behind him and go to college now that he’s saved up enough earnings from drug sales. In order to get out of the “game”, he has to do one last drug run for his crime boss. The story starts off with a betrayal by one of his childhood friends/drug-dealing partners and the sociopath villain who nearly kills him and robs the drugs en route to the boss. Now in debt, he has to either give over his earnings (and thus his dream) or gather the courage to hunt down the more seasoned and dangerous antagonists to recover the drugs before time runs out and they sell them all off. He pursues the antagonists, competing with rivals who have also been ripped off, through urban drug-dens to socialite clubs to college campuses and suburban party-houses to rural hide-outs on a substance-fueled money-making escape. He competes with rivals who have also been ripped off. His other loyal childhood friend and side-kick goes through a negative-change arc and has no problem killing the antagonists, whereas the protagonist is not sure he can bring himself to do that and struggles with the fact he may not have a choice. He wonders if his dream is worth murdering the antagonists or if he should just go back and pay off his boss with his earnings and start from scratch selling drugs again. Either way, he has learned in the secondary timeline (and/or in this one) that either choice leads to an existential/moral death. He hopes there is another way out.

    The secondary timeline, which takes place about a year earlier shows how and why the protagonist starts selling drugs. It details his characteristic moment, the refusal of the call and the debate moments after getting out of jail for small-time marijuana sales his senior year in high school and the difficulty of finding even menial jobs. When his apartment building burns down he sacrifices all of his belongings to run through the smoke-filled halls to warn the other tenants. He moves into his friend’s dorm and sees all the money to be made through drugs at college parties but he doesn’t want to go back to jail. He takes a college placement test at the suggestion of his love interest and discovers he has a future if he can afford school. After his transmission breaks down on his junk car he loses his job for something he didn’t do. He joins his friends in forming an illicit drug-business and they establish a code to keep their illegal venture as ethical as possible (no violence, selling to minors, cutting off addicts, not taking advantage of people, etc). Despite this, he quickly learns that in order to really make money he will have to compromise on the code and his morals. The rest of this timeline details him deciding to get out after realizing the devastation he is causing and the events that leads to the traumatic betrayal.

    I’m considering writing the story as I would with one timeline and a positive-change arc then splitting it into two. Do you see a better option based on what I’ve shared? Would a positive-change arc be appropriate for the backstory and a flat-arc for the current timeline if he *mostly knows the truth at the start of the story in the current timeline?

    Forgive me for such a long post. I thought it may help to show the character arc I’m dealing with. Thanks for your time!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Usually, in dual-timeline stories, the past timeline will be, in essence, a “lesson” that is giving the character the ability to use what he’s learned (or is finally learning thanks to his memories of his previous experience) in the present-day. As such, you can do a lot of different things: from stretching the arc all the way from the past to the present, to using a positive arc in the past to create a flat arc in the present.

  60. Thank you for this incredibly helpful article. I am writing a dual timeline novel about a fifteenth-century girl and her present-day descendant. In your opinion, and in most of the books you’ve read, can it work to change perspectives within a chapter if it’s very clear who is narrating and what time period you are in (like if it’s marked as a separate section)? Or should each chapter be from only time period? Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Usually, it’s not a big deal to switch POV scenes within a chapter (as long as the division is clear). However, it’s trickier in dual-timeline stories, since the mental division between the POVs is much stronger for readers. It *can* be done, but I would be wary doing it unless it’s an established technique throughout the novel. If you’re just doing it once or twice, I’d avoid it.

  61. Rena Whitlock says

    I was actually looking for ideas on how to write about two separate events happening to two characters simultaneously and came across this one. But thought I’d share how I tackled this with my first novel. It is two stories in one and in the present, the main male character returns after death to the love of his life to explain the mysteries of life, death, and the afterlife. Part of his being there included the main female having to tell their story her daughter–the past. What I wound up doing was sandwiching the past (the majority of the book) in the middle. Their past had to be told in order for not only the readers to understand what was going on but to also give the three main characters certain insights.

  62. Great post. I was wondering the best way to tackle a dual time line story. Should I write both time lines together so there’s a cause & effect between each story. Or write them as separate stories hitting all the plot points & arcs & then splice them together. Thank you.

  63. Dear K.M,
    Hi from Israel! Love your blogs and writing in general, such great help when I felt my storyline got so out of control I was about the give up. Here’s a question I’ve been debating with. There are two main characters in my story. For simplicity sake, I’ll call them A and B. The book starts in 2016, when A and B are in the same place, at the same time. That’s where we have the hook. From there on, the novel rewinds chronologically, giving the readers background, history, believes etc of A and B, building up to the moment (around mid-book) where their plots converge. But — I have some chronological gaps between them. A has transformative events worth writing about already in 1995, while B’s interesting story starts in 2005. I want to write the book in A, B, A, B (etc.) structure, but the chronological differences are confusing for readers. If I try to gap that by affiliating same times for both characters’ main events (let’s say, the subtitle of chapter 4 is Character A, Dec. 2nd 2005, and of Chapter 5 is Character B, Dec. 2nd 2005) it looks very artificial. If I separate their stories to part 1 and 2 in the book it’s boring (tried it) and if I chose different times it’s too confusing. Would LOVE to get your advise regarding possible plot solutions, including examples of other books. Thanks so much and looking forward to hearing from you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As long as the pacing works, I think alternating between timelines, even though they’re not concurrent, should work fine. I’ve seen stories like this, although I can’t think of a title off the top of my head.

  64. Hi,

    I want to write a novel told from two different perspectives, yet telling the same story. I don’t want to write it in chronological order as I feel the reader would get more from the having their opinions changed about a character/event from new information later in the book? How would you approach this?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Stories like that are very tricky, since they have so many moving parts. I would outline it in chronological order, but write it in the order in which you want readers to read it–to maintain an organic flow in your writing.

  65. Jim Baxter says

    Thanks for your post! My wife and I have been writing a historical novel, but struggling with structure. We submitted our first chapter for a contest in January. Shortly after, we changed to a single chronological timeline – different first chapter. We feared the large amount of backstory after learning it was not recommended by the experts.

    Yesterday we learned our original first chapter won the contest. What to do now? Your post confirmed our initial instincts. However, as first-time writers, we anticipate challenges. What resources do you recommend to us? It looks like you may have a book on story structure.

    Thanks again! Jim & Kathy

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Congrats! And, yes, if you’re unfamiliar with story structure, that’s a great place to start.

  66. Dear K.M.,
    My dual timeline centers around a child’s tragic accident. (Three POVs.) The “present” timeline focuses on the mom trying to solve what happened leading to accident. The “past” timeline are the events from six months ago leading to the accident. Act 3 converges both stories. I’m having a hard time plotting this. *understatement* A) I assume the past timeline should be chronological? B) I don’t really need full story beats for past and present timelines given they are so close together? C) Where do flashbacks fit in? Can I put flashbacks into present day chapters – or do they belong in the past storyline in chronological order? Thanks

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I would treat the entire second timeline as a flashback. As such, it isn’t technically a part of the main structural throughline, except where the *remembrance* of the flashbacks causes plot progression in the main timeline.

      • Thanks, K.M. Sorry, I’m still a little confused… My “past” storyline is about 70% of Act 1 and Act 2 – does that mean it’s still not the main structural throughline? Is the “present” storyline the main structural throughline and where I should focus my beats? Given the structure, can flashbacks occur in the present-day chapters?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes, totally possible that the past storyline is the main plot, but it would still need to drive the present timeline’s plot through memories or mirroring events.

  67. David Strege says

    What about storylines that aren’t years or decades or centuries apart but merely a day apart. Like going from one storyline that goes from morning to afternoon, but the other goes from night and continues the next morning. Or do they need to be chronological? THanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If you’re wanting them to run concurrently for some reason, I’d treat them in exactly the same way.

  68. K.M.,

    First off, thank you for an awesome resource – your books, newsletters, and this site have been extremely helpful as I dive into my first novel!

    Question re: dual timelines, do you have or know of a good template to assist in plotting my scenes? In my book, the main character reflects back on events that have led up to the present. So, as we are being introduced to the protagonist in her “real time”, she shows us through flashbacks how we have gotten to this point.

    I am hoping there is a tool that will help me lay out the timeline in both chronological and scene order.


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great to hear you’re enjoying the info! I’m unaware of a tool like what you’re describing, but I’m not much of a template user myself, so I may just be unaware of it.

      • Ok, no worries. I ended up making something simple on ppt. It does what I need it to. Thank you for the quick response.

  69. Dear KM, Do you think this can work?
    *opening chapter starts at midpoint
    *for the first half, alternate backstory chapters and current ones until midpoint (to deliver backstory as well as progress the current story)
    *second half drops backstory chapters, and reverts to straight chronological current story
    I’d appreciate your thoughts on this.
    best wishes Shelley

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Can it work? Yes. But it’s a tricky approach. Basically, you’re opening with a flashforward, which *can* be a great hook, as long as the payoff is substantially worth the wait for readers.

      It’s all about payoff. If you make them wait that long, then first of all, the hook has to be good enough to pull that far, and second, the payoff has to feel totally fulfilling.

      For example, you often see this approach (the flashforward, not necessarily the alternating timeline) in TV shows that will start an episode with some tragedy in which the heroes seem doomed, but by the time we get there, we realize the stakes really aren’t that high and/or the problem is quickly overcome.

  70. Hey K.M., technical question – I am doing a book with multiple timelines and have essentially filled out the “Save the Cat” Beats for each. They both have their inciting incidents, midpoints, etc. and then merge for the third act so their beats are the same.

    Is this what you recommend? Is it necessary/good to use a beat sheet (or five point structure, etc.) for each story within a novel? And should each “timeline” hit the same beat at about the same time? Should both character’s midpoints come close to each other? In my head that keeps the flow of the book going but I wanted your opinion.

    Thank you for what you do – truly invaluable!

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