A Matter of Time

Terri Oda
Flickr Creative Commons: Terri Oda

Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end:  then stop.”

It was good advice when Lewis Carol gave it in Alice in Wonderland, and it still is. When your story follows a straight timeline, it’s a lot easier to show how one event flows into the next. This makes it simpler to show your characters’ growth and ramp your plot tension up toward your climax.  It’s the way things unfold in the real world, and it’s usually the best way to tell your story.

But not always.

Not long ago, WU member Rebecca Vance posed a plotting problem on the WU Facebook page.   Her protagonist, Sierra, a modern-day medium, needs to solve a murder that took place in a small mining town in Nevada in the 1870s in order to help the ghost of Rusty, the victim.  At the same time Rusty, who had been a madam at one of the town’s brothels, helps Sierra overcome the damage of witnessing her own parents’ murder when she was a child.

It wouldn’t be hard to use Sierra’s memories and occasional brief flashbacks to show her parents’ murder.  The details of the killing are less important than how it affects her.  But to make the nineteenth-century mystery work as a mystery, Rebecca has to bring the characters and settings of the 1870s to life.  You can’t really do that through secondhand description or snippets of flashbacks.  The best choice is chapter-long extended scenes set in a past century.

So how do you build tension steadily with a plot that jumps back and forth in time?  The trick is to pay attention to what your readers know and what they want to know.  How do the revelations from one timeline change your readers’ understanding of what’s happening in the other?  As readers see the 1870s story unfold, they’re going to get a better sense of who Rusty is.  That will change their understanding of why her ghost found Sierra and how she might be able to help Sierra with her own problems.  And as she works with Sierra, Rusty could gain insights that will reinterpret what’s happening in the past timeline.  The plot might jump around in time, but the story – the readers’ grasp of what happens in both timelines and what it means – would build steadily toward its climax.

Keep in mind that, when you’re using two parallel timelines, it’s a good idea to choose the point where you jump from one to the other carefully.  Ideally, if you can find a spot where the characters in one timeline need some piece of information that will be revealed in the other, your readers will be  eager to keep reading through the jump.

Another possible reason to mix up your timeline is because you’ve got too much backstory to cover before the real action begins.  I recently worked on a manuscript, since published — George Dovel’s The Geometry of Vengeance  — with just this problem.  The original draft tracked the main character, Vital Moysett, from his childhood as a member of the Cathar heresy in thirteenth-century France to his adulthood as a successful architect working on cathedrals for the Catholic Church.  Then, when he’s at the peak of his success, someone sabotages a cathedral he’s designed.  It quickly becomes clear that he’s under attack by someone who knows his heretical past, and the remainder of the book is a tense thriller in which he tries to discover who is stalking him and why.

When I first read it, the first two thirds of the book were essentially backstory, with the book shifting gears radically once the attack began.  The best solution was to split the timeline.

Now the story begins with the collapse of the cathedral.  But the second chapter jumps back to a key moment from early in the backstory, when Vital was a young idealist, standing up to the orthodox establishment.  The contrast between the young idealistic heretic and the older cynical architect drives readers to want to find out how he got from one place to the other.  The story of his past is then told in chapter-long scenes, interspersed with the story of his being stalked in the present.  The plot essentially becomes a double mystery – who is attacking him, and what happened to so thoroughly transform him?

Again, I suggested that the client cut back and forth between the two stories at critical moments – usually when the present story has revealed something about Vital’s history that the next chapter, set in the past, explains.  With both mysteries building simultaneously, the climax of the story took on real punch.

Finally, mixing the timeline can often be the best way to build your main character.  In E. L. Doctorow’s Andrew’s Brain, Andrew tells the story of his life to an unnamed therapist.  Instead of separating past and present as different chapters, Doctorow seamlessly eases in and out of first person (Andrew telling his tale) and third person (extended flashbacks of Andrew’s life).  I found the technique a bit confusing, but that’s a subject for another column.  From the beginning, the story raises several dramatic questions.  Who is the therapist Andrew is talking to?  Why are these sessions taking place at all?  And — thanks to nearly the first scene we see of Andrew’s past — why did he give the daughter he had with his beloved second wife to his first wife to raise?

Doctorow’s narrative jumps back and forth through Andrew’s life with abandon.  But there is a thread that ties the various episodes together – Andrew is circling closer and closer to revealing what happened to his second wife, which is the emotional core of his life.  As the book progresses, Andrew builds up the courage and the trust in the therapist to show more and more of himself, until we finally reach the dramatic climax that explains everything.  The chronology is all over the map, but the book has a direct narrative drive.

And that’s the core of good storytelling – maintaining a constant drive toward the end.  Even if you’re using a straightforward, beginning-to-end timeline, your readers don’t keep reading just out of momentum.  They want to find the answer to some burning question, or to see the resolution to some problem.  Being aware of that tension can help you manage it more effectively.  So when you’re reading books that leave chronology behind – whether it’s Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, A. S. Byatt’s Possession, or Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife – pay attention to why you want to keep reading.  How is the author leading you straight on, even as the chronology jumps around?

Once you learn to see how a story is more than a sequence of events, you’ll be able to raise dramatic tension in your readers at your beginning, then build that tension up until the end.

Then stop.

By the way, if any of you have writing questions, feel free to ask them either in the comments or on the WU Facebook page.  (You do Facebook with WU, right?)  If they’re of general interest, they may show up here.

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About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.

Comments

  1. says

    Thanks Dave, your post in itself jumps around between different books but manages to make such a difficult topic more approachable while maintaining its flow. Now I’m clear on how to handle different timelines.
    Since you offered, there is another topic that I’m still in gripes with: point-of-view. Sarah Callender has recently done a post on it which helped a great a deal, but I’m still not quite sure how I can switch between 3rd person limited and omniscient without restoring to head hopping or jarring the reader. It’s a beginner’s topic, I guess, but one still confuses me.

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    • Beth G says

      Warsin, I’m dealing with exactly the same issues right now. POV issues have been front and center, as it’s my first novel, and I’ve made many mistakes already. I’m eager to follow the discussion here. I’ve been an academic writer for 30 years (if one includes the diss), but fiction is an entirely different universe.

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      • says

        Beth, I’m also starting out my first novel (excluding the failures). After finally (sort of) nailing down my characters and the setting, and I sketched out the plot, I thought the rest would be a breeze. It turns out I’m not even on the starting line.

        So far I’ve tried 1st person, both 3rd person limited and omniscient, and even experimented with 2nd person view-point. Some came out alright; some were disaster. Now in my current novel, I mostly write in 3rd person limited, but I’m not sure I want to stick with the view-point of few characters as there are many angles of the world I want to explore. I want to find a middle ground (not too close, not too distant), but at the same time be able to get too close or distance when I need to. All that without confusing the reader or restoring to head-hopping.

        I guess I’m getting ahead of myself. But for me, the choices I take regarding point-of-view determines where the plot is headed.

        (Thanks for reaching out! We can continue this, though I guess I introduced another topic in the tread.)

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  2. says

    Hey, Warsin.

    Maybe I can help. Some years ago, I wrote an article for Writer’s Digest. The ideas in it eventually got woven into the second edition of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, but I’ve still got the original article on my website.

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    • says

      I own the second edition of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I got it for when I manage to finish off the first draft, but I guess I’ll start reading it now.

      Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out.

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  3. says

    I just finished Moon Over Manifest in my quest to explore a future in YA\MG writing. When I first realized that the author was employng the split timeline (between 1918 and 1936), I was a bit annoyed. I like to stay on one plot, one protagonist, and get through the story. But after a few chapters, I was intrigued. I was caught up in two equally vital stories and fell in love with the characters of both timelines. When the events of both eras converged at the end, I never wanted the story to end. Since I love history, I can definately see using the tactic in my novels (not yet, let’s get the basics down first). But I would love to show how lives are intertwined, even when the people are separated by decades or even centuries. Thanks for the post!

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    • says

      Hey, Ron,

      When you’ve got two stories with two intertwining sets of characters, moving in the same direction at the same time, the results can be incredibly powerful.

      In addition to being an editor, my other day job is as an organist, with a particular love of Baroque counterpoint — two or more independent melodies that weave together to form a single piece of music. With the different voices playing off of one another, you can often get musical effects you can’t get with a more straightforward structure.

      In the same way, with two different plot threads playing off of one another, you can build tension in ways that you can’t with a single, straightforward plot.

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  4. says

    One of my favorite examples of this chapter by chapter technique was employed to great effect by our own blog mama, Therese Walsh, in her debut: The Last Will of Moira Leahy. She also cleverly used first person for the present setting and third for the past one.

    Thanks for the great examples here, Dave!

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  5. Denise Willson says

    Great post, Dave.

    Just to note, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is one of my favorite go-to books. Thanks!

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

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  6. says

    Dave-

    This is an excellent subject. Split narrative timelines are showing up more and more in manuscripts. Often the pattern doesn’t work well, and your advice to use information payout to find the right points to “jump” is excellent.

    In short: end with a soft or hard cliffhanger in the present, jump to the past. Or the reverse.

    The problem is that many authors compose such novels in a pattern of strict rotation, past-present-past-present and so on. The result is that not all scenes are dramatic; that is, show change. Usually one timeline or the other is better, the other one becomes a series of placeholders. It’s like there are two marching bands and one of them is marching in place, vamping the same few bars while waiting to move ahead.

    Thus, what I’d add to your superb post is that effective “jumps” are important, so is effective scene structure *in every scene*, no matter where in time we are.

    To put it differently, twin timelines mean two novels both of which must always work on their own terms and work all the time, in every scene.

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    • says

      Nice observation about the marching bands. And, you’re right, it’s easy to fall into strict rotation rather than paying attention to what the timelines are doing dramatically.

      To go back to my favorite metaphor, in a multi-voiced fugue, one or the other of the voices might drop out for a while, only to come back in later — to good dramatic effect.

      By the way, Baroque counterpoint also works as a good example of how multiple characters, each with his or her own motivation and history, blend together to form a single story.

      I hadn’t noticed that multi-thread stories are showing up more in literature, but I have seen more of it in television. Lost (which I never got into) or Person of Interest (which I enjoy) both have two or more timelines working at once. They require viewers to tolerate ambiguity and a bit of confusion — you often don’t know what’s really happening in a given timeline until it runs into one of the others.

      Multiple timelines in writing also ask readers to live with uncertainty for the sake of a bigger payoff at the end. With The Geometry of Vengeance, finally learning what really happened to Vital is part of what makes the ending so satisfying.

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      • Beth G says

        Dave, I’m a musicologist, and I’m writing a novel that’s inspired by one of my research subjects, a prima donna with the most bizarre life I’ve ever encountered. Handel and Vivaldi both make appearances. I’m loving all of your references to fugues, etc.

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    • says

      Donald, great point about too many novels falling into a strict rotation of past/present/past/present. I’d say that same principle can be applied to POV. Just because you’re telling a story with two POVs doesn’t mean it has to be a strict back-and-forth between them. It’s all about the rise and fall!

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  7. says

    Good morning Dave,

    First off, I want to say I love your (and Renni Browne’s) book, “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”. I have learned a lot from it and am still picking up a few things.

    With regard to your post today, I like your suggestion about giving the reader information from one timeline that helps with the other. That makes a lot of sense. It also gives me a good test for whether using jumps through time is helpful; if you are going to put them to play, there needs to be a purpose, something that serves that overall story.

    In the manuscript I just retired, I was contemplating a 2-timeline structure, but, like the idea of adding other POVs (the story is told in one POV), these would only add unneeded complexity to the story. Given that they would be added in to explain cumbersome complexity that makes the protagonist’s dilemma clearer, it makes more sense to simplify the plot. When I have to conjure all sorts of back-story to explain what’s happening, my poor reader gets confused.

    Now, to be fair, when I was writing, the complexity crept in as my way of figuring out how the many motives intersected, so it’s perfectly reasonable that there will be some contradiction and holes in the plot, but that said, to preserve these things using added gimmicks like multiple time lines and multiple POVs is to lose sight of the story. As you illustrate, Dave, using alternate timelines must have a purpose. For me, the ideal plot is as intricate as (but as elegant as) a game of chess, and this can be achieved with one POV, four POVs, and/or one, two — even three — timelines, so long as the story is told how it needs to be told.

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    • says

      John, you’re absolutely right. In fact, one of the core principles of the editing I do is that your story is king. Never use a stylistic technique unless it’s in the service of the story.

      As to background, I think you’ve made the right decision. It’s often the case that you need to write a lot of it in order to understand your characters. But once you do, you can often dispense with it. After all Tolkein literally had a closet full of writings on Middle Earth that never made it directly into The Lord of the Rings.

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      • says

        Thank you, Dave. Good point about the backstory – and that’s one thing I love about writing epic fantasy. I get to build an entire world as the leaves fall off the tree, and, through careful book-keeping, the world details — and hence, subsequent stories — become richer and more familiar, to me and the reader. There’s no need to put all that stuff in the story – but my web designer is slowly convincing me I should share some of my world building on my website, for readers who want more.

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  8. says

    You wrote this just for me, right? ;)

    This is exactly how my novel is constructed. I think I’m doing a good job with the jumps, but my problem is pacing. The modern timeline covers a couple of weeks, the historical timeline covers twenty years. I’m choosing important, revealing moments that show character and plot to move those twenty years along and make the most of them.

    Both timelines are in third person limited.

    Thanks for the post!

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    • says

      Hey, Valerie,

      You might want to check out George’s novel. His present story — the stalking of his main character — covers two or three weeks. The backstory tracks him for more than twenty years.

      Now that I think of it, this kind of imbalance can make it easier to work between the two timelines. If your present story only covers a few weeks, then your main character is not going to change significantly from the beginning of the story to the end. (Well, at least not because of the passage of time — the events of the story should change him or her.) This gives your readers a stable character in the present to whom you can anchor the story from the past, in which the character comes of age, from the sounds of it.

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    • Beth G says

      VP, thanks for writing. My problem is somewhat worse. The modern story covers a two-year span, while the historical part goes from 1685 (at least in the narrative) to about 1780, and it moves between Venice, London, and colonial America. It’s a tall order for a first novel, but it’s the novel I need to write.

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  9. says

    Oh my, what interesting points. I do find seaming backstory into present action a big effort to keep it natural and smooth going. In my novel The Dazzling Darkness I had this problem of present action, going back to the 1800s, and also a thread to ancient Rome in A.D. 327. I had a knotted mess at first. But I found that, as you say “building the mysteries simultaneously” helps to link the characters and the plots as they moved ahead into the story. But I had trouble doing this on the screen within the electronic MS of nearly 300 pages. Scrolling back and forth made me crazy.

    My method was to print out the MS, and physically plot the pages on a big table according to their time zones and locations, plot and characters. It was almost like a map. Once I “saw” it in black and white spread out, I was able to discover the threads to build and place the past mysteries weaving through the present day mystery. My editor was the one to suggest this map method and gosh, it really did help. Dave, have you used this map method?

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    • says

      I like the technique, Paula. You’re right, it’s much easier to keep track of a linear thread in your head — or your word processor. Once you’ve got two threads going, it can help to get them both out where you can see them.

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  10. says

    I love when books have a double timeline. One of my favorites is Deeper, by Megan Hart. I’m in the foreplay stage of writing a novel using this technique, so your post came at the perfect time. Every time I visit WU, I’m amazed, awed, and inspired. Thank you!

    Sophia

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  11. says

    As soon as some stories switch to the second timeline, I abandon the book – a recurring pattern in my reading – and now I know why: they didn’t pick a place where I wanted to find something out.

    Goes back to: Do anything you want, but do it right, and always be in control. Or the reader will decide it’s more work than it’s worth.

    Rotation between pov characters has a bit of this problem – why is the writer switching, why to that character, and why now – but in a linear chronology it is usually obvious that the more interesting event is coming from someone else’s pov.

    With leaving the present and going deep into the past (the successful children’s novel, Holes, did a great job), it’s easy to have provided, instead of an interesting and necessary transition, a good place for the reader to put the book down.

    And not pick it up again because there are several strands to remember and correlate.

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    • says

      You’re right, Alicia.

      And the same principle — that you always need to know what your readers want to know and why they should keep reading — also applies to transitions between point of view characters. If you end a section, either with a jump to another character or a jump to the same character in another time, without giving your readers a reason to keep going, you’ve failed them.

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  12. says

    Hi, Dave:

    I immediately sent this link off to a client whose manuscript I just finished editing last night. Wonderful post.

    It’s this very problem that always makes me wonder how “pantsers” plot. One of things I’m always trying to do as I begin scheming out a novel is think: where is the best place to put the backstory? Where does it NEED to be?

    First, once you recognize it shouldn’t get piled in front, you realize that if you reveal it in the characters’ current behavior, it’s often unnecessary.

    Where it is necessary is when the present timeline behavior is somehow enigmatic, and the backstory explains it. If that’s the case, then as you point out, there’s a mystery element to the past, and the final puzzle piece, where the past’s true import on the present is revealed, should come as close to the climax as possible to maximize the impact.

    I agree with Donald that your insight on placing the scenes at key revelation points is brilliant. The far more difficult trick is making each timeline effect the other, so that they both build to the climax. Otherwise we just feel like we’re “parking” in the past during certain parts of the story. And if it’s backstory, it’s not always easy for the past to “effect” the present except by explaining why the character is doing what he’s doing in the present timeline. But implicit in the backstory scene is the fact that something in the present has caused the character to reflect on this element of his past, and is recognizing its import. You don’t need “And then Jim realized…” Just show Jim moving on with the benefit of the insight this trip to memory lane has provided.

    Or, if it’s only the reader who gets this insight, and Jim blunders on without the benefit of this revelation about his past’s meaning, we have the makings of irony.

    Now, about my spectrometer…

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    • says

      Hey, John,

      I actually understand how pantsers do it — the are so enamored of their characters that they simply start writing and follow their lives as they unfold. This usually results in a more straightforward plot, but not always. It was said Bach could improvise a four-voice fugue.

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  13. says

    Thanks, Dave–great post! I’ve been wrestling with this exact issue and sometimes it feels like herding cats… or more accurately, herding a colony of ants, with all of them skittering off in their own directions.

    My new book has an old crime, parallel timelines, backstory, AND multiple POVs (and this was supposed to be the “easy novel”… ha). I’ve been reading a ton to learn new techniques, but I love the simplicity of your idea — break to the other timeline when the character needs to know something. Thanks for the much-needed clarity!

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  14. says

    Thanks, Fani and Christine. I’m glad I could help.

    Remember, if you have other plotting or character development problems, feel free to ask either here or on Facebook. Make sure to tag me, as the traffic over on WU Facebook sometimes gets hot and heavy. As I say, if they’re of general interest, they may show up as an article.

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  15. says

    Thanks so much for the great explanation of my dilemma, Dave. I have seen some excellent dual timelines, and some that would make me want to delete it from my Kindle immediately, and of course, you know which camp I want to be in! Since so much is in the past, I didn’t want an information dump full of back story. This gives me an idea of where to go, but creates many more questions on how to get there. But, that is part of the headache and part of the fun of creation, isn’t it?

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  16. says

    I read one book where jumping back and forth worked out successfully, yet recently, I started reading a book that did the very same thing; and found it too confusing to follow.
    Author’s problem, or my over-medicated mind?
    I jumped a little bit in my first novel, but I titled the page so that you knew you were going back to the robbery scene.

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    • says

      Dear Connie,

      I’d be tempted to say author problem. After all, you were able to follow the earlier book. This kind of parallelism really is tricky to handle. It easily gets confusing if not done right.

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