Julie Carrick Dalton has published more than a thousand articles in The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, Inc. Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. She is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator, a year-long, MFA-level novel intensive, and she holds Master’s in Creative Writing from Harvard University Extension School. She has published short stories in the Charles River Review, The MacGuffin, and the anthology Turning Points: Stories of Choice and Change. Her dual timeline novel won the 2017 William Faulkner Literary Competition and the Writers League of Texas contest for general and literary fiction. Julie is a regular contributor to DeadDarlings.com and GrubStreet’s writer’s blogs. She also owns and operates a 100-acre organic farm in rural New Hampshire. She is represented by Stacy Testa at Writers House. You can follow her on Twitter @juliecardalt or visit her website to learn more about her.
Chronicling a Non-Chronological Story: Writing a Dual Timeline Novel
When I conjure up an image of the word “time,” I visualize a long snake that winds and crosses over itself in random places. It’s a loopy mess. Completely illogical. I think that’s why I had so much trouble with time in my first novel. Time did not seem linear, so how could I tell a linear story?
I started out with a chronological story that began in the eighties and continued into the present. My main character covered up a murder as a child. Thirty years later, the crime comes back to threaten her career, her relationships, her life, and the lives of people she loves.
I quickly realized that I had written two stories – one that took place in the eighties, the other in the present. Nothing that happened in-between mattered, so I cut the middle and was left with two distinct narratives, each its own arc, conflicts, climax, and consequences.
But the two stories were inextricably linked. Neither carried the intended weight if told separately. To make things more complicated, in the present-day storyline, my MC’s understanding of her past keeps changing. In essence, the timing of how I reveal the past story effects the way the present-day story unfolds.
I found myself tripping over that fractious Time Snake in my mind. I needed to tame it. I tried to straighten it, smooth it, stretch it out. But as soon as I let go, time bounced back and coiled itself up again.
Even in a chronological story, characters don’t move through time in a straight line. Every action is based on the character’s previous life experience and accumulated knowledge. Foreshadowing teases us to imagine the future and makes us wary of guns sitting on mantels. Fear of the dark yanks us back into our protagonist’s childhood when she got locked in a closet. In order to activate the desired emotions in the story, these leaps in time must happen at precisely the right moment, whether they are flashbacks or shifts from one timeline to another.
The past must be at work in the present. The present must be looming in the past.
I started over.
In my second draft I let the two stories come out in a tangled mess of loops and swirls, like that Time Snake in my mind. I alternated chapters between the past and the present. I liked the overall effect, but many of the transitions between timelines felt random and disjointed.
I studied other books with two dual timeline structures, looking for the magic that made the time shifts work. I examined the places where the storylines interacted with each other, where the timelines seemed to breathe life into each other.
My big Ah-ha! moment came when I read a Q&A on Fiction Writer’s Review with author Celeste Ng. When discussing her dual timeline novel Everything I Never Told You, Ng said, “At each ‘handoff’ there’s a reason for switching from past to present.” She pointed to a chapter that ends with a mother reading her daughter’s diary. The subsequent chapter starts in the past when the daughter first got that same diary as a little girl. The diary is the handoff.
Ng’s handoff idea conjured the image of runners in a relay. Even if each athlete runs a brilliant leg of a race, as a team, they need seamless handoffs or they will lose the race. This image helped me to reimagine my chapter transitions. Each storyline and chapter needs to be solid on its own. Just as importantly, the moments at which I transition between them must act to move my overall narrative forward.
I needed to figure out where I already had handoffs in place and where I needed them. I reorganized my chapters and carefully considered where and why I transitioned between timelines.
The handoff can be a memory, a smell, an object, or a flutter of attraction. It can be a pebble or the smell of bacon. The sting of unrequited love or a fear of heights. It can be subtle and artful, or it can be loud and concrete. But it must take the reader by the hand and move them between the past and present without jarring them out of the dream state of the novel.
I’m a visual person, so I graphed an early draft of my two timelines. On the X axis, I labeled each chapter. On the Y axis I charted the tension level on a scale of 1-10. I color coded each timeline, as well as different themes and motifs so I could see where they intersected. The graph allowed me to visualize the suspense in each timeline and see the handoffs – or lack thereof.
I now think of that unwieldy Time Snake differently. I see the places where it crosses itself—those places I used to think of as tangles—as intersections. Intersections of time. I will never straighten time out into a perfect line, because, at least in my mind, time is a loopy, beautiful mess. But as long as I find meaningful places where my timelines intersect, as long as I create handoffs that guide the reader, I can allow my two timelines to unfurl into one satisfying, twisty story.
Things to consider when writing a dual or multiple timeline novel:
- Structure. Does each timeline have its own distinctive arc, desires, conflicts, and consequences? If not, why are you telling more than one story?
- Grounding the reader. Is it obvious which timeline you are in? Sometimes voice is enough to clue the reader in. If not, an easy solution is to label each chapter with the date, location, or the POV character’s name so the reader understands where and when they are, and who the POV character is. Don’t make the reader work to figure it out.
- Pacing. Does the suspense in one timeline add to the tension in the other? They don’t need to climax at the same moment—it’s probably better if they don’t—but the action in one timeline needs to generate suspense in the other.
- The Handoff. Look at each transition between timelines. Can you find a handoff? Is it a smell, a memory, a fear, lust? It can be subtle, but find something that hands the story off to the next timeline in a way that makes the reader understand why you are shifting between timelines at precisely this moment.
- Visualizations. Consider graphing your novel. Sharpen your colored pencils and color-code each timeline, recurring theme, and motif. Graph the level of tension in each chapter and notice how the two timelines interact with each other.
What tricks have you discovered while reading or writing dual or multiple timeline novels? Which authors do think handle it well?