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.