Helping Writers Become Authors

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

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

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.

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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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