6 Ways to Pull Off Dual Timelines in Your Novel

Some stories are so complicated they require not just one, but two 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.

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: they can include a deeper plot, more resonant theme, and greater character development.

As a reader, I’m a big fan of this technique. I’ve messed around with it in most of my stories, although, as of yet, the only published version to feature dual timelines is A Man Called Outlaw. Not too long ago, I received an email from a blog reader, asking for a post on how to pull off dual timelines. Below are a few of the lessons I’ve learned from my experiences with this difficult, but often rewarding technique.

1. Make both timelines 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 timeline.

3. Avoid “filler” scenes.

In your attempt to balance your timelines, you may find 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.

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.

Tell me your opinion: Have you wanted to write a story with dual timelines?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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…

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. onewordtest (@oneword_test) says:

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

  7. 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).

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. TrustHim825 says:

    K.M.,

    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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

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