1. Crow83

    Crow83 New Member

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    Writing a story with multiple timelines?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Crow83, Jun 24, 2019.

    Hello everyone,

    This is my first post on this forum and I came here in desperate hope to get unstuck from where I am at the moment.

    So, here's the deal. I'm in the middle of writing a novel that - in my mind - consists of three different timelines.

    First we have a young protagonist who befriends an older man. Over the course of the novel they form a relationship with each other, gradually understanding where they are coming as the story in past undfolds and we watch as they come to play a big part in each others' present life.
    However, my story consists of several timelines.

    1. Both our protagonists in present-day, written in third person, separated by chapters for both characters.
    2. One protagonist prior to present-day. 2 years ago.
    3. Our second antagonist's childhood, 60 years ago.

    So...The story moves between these timelines and I'm starting to question whether this is doable or not. Am I maybe in danger of just confusing my readers? Is this structure of a novel something that's just a bad idea from the start?

    If we call our protagonists "A" and "B" for present tense and "a" and "b" for past tense, my chapter structure may look somewhat like this:

    A
    B
    a
    b
    A
    B
    a
    b
    etc.

    However, I'm starting to feel "stuck" now at 50.000 words, wondering if this is the best way to tell this story.

    Does anybody have any experience writing in dual timelines, intertwining them into one story?
    Has someone come across any novel that deals with this, that I could look up for analysis or inspiration on how to manage it?

    Lastly, sorry for my bad english since it's not my native language.
    And thanks for reading,

    T
     
  2. J. J. Wilding

    J. J. Wilding Member

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    I've tried writing multiple storylines and the key is to make each one feel unique. The way I went about this was to write one as ongoing excerpts from a diary, in-between the actual chapters of the story. I put the writing in a different but still readable font and put the whole thing into italics, then because I was writing from a first-person perspective, I intentionally wrote the chapters as third-person for contrast.

    I think three storylines is tricky but still doable. The 60 years in the past storyline should be told through either first-person diary entries, or maybe even third-person journal entries, with a short explanation from the older character that he 'enjoys the art of storytelling' and thus phrases his life like a novel. The second storyline might work well as an extended prologue, or a 'part one' of the novel, leading into the main and much longer 'part two', where the characters meet for the first time. Then all you'd need to do is map out your chapters, make sure you include something from the older character about how he records his life, then leave diary or journal entries between relevant chapters. Sounds confusing, right? And that's because it's a nightmare trying to structure alternative timelines without confusing the reader... here's what I would do:

    Write them all separately, as three novellas or short stories, with a designated order. First you read about the first character and their experiences in the 1950's. Then you have the story of the young man struggling with life and experiencing a world that is the polar opposite to the 1950's. Then you have them meet in the third installment. This is one way to do it and likely the easiest.

    MY ORDER --> You start with the 2 years in the past section and end it with the young man meeting the old man for the first time, who for reasons unknown (best to give some thread of the story you're writing when you post for advice, really helps!), lends the young man his diary, telling him to return to him once he's found the same meaning the old man has in his life. Then you write a fictional diary, from which the young man finds what he's been looking for. 2 years later he returns the book and in part three, we see them become friends because of what's been learned. If you don't want to have it as a diary, you could instead have the old man reminiscing of course (maybe they see each other at the same place each day/week?).

    Again, without knowing anything about these two, it's difficult to give advice, but I hope this in some way helps you figure out the structure a little better. It's worth noting that advice on the internet is scarce and no novel with multiple timelines even has a rating on goodreads, so you're very much treading well-sailed but still completely uncharted waters. Happy writing friend!
     
  3. Crow83

    Crow83 New Member

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    Thank you so much for your time, J.J.

    The diary idea might be something to try. However I have been writing in a third person narrative so far, simply because I like the narrative, mixing up present and past tense.
    Present tense is our main storyline, and every second chapter we go back in time to follow either our protagonists 2/60 years ago.
    That way I'm hoping not to have to put a 1/3 of the book in italics or in a different font.

    Just to make things more fun (?!), the two characters are a very odd couple at the start of the novel. In other words, their past stories are not related in any way.
    However, the reason for me to include them, is to make these characters reveal themself as the story goes by. What first looks like a complete idiot thing to do by the characters in the beginning of the book, makes perfect sense once we've found out what they've been through in the past. At least we sympathize with them. You could say It's a kind of "Don't judge the book by it's cover"-thing.

    So, what this does is that we have three different plot lines, each with their own acts. It's only in the present one, that we at the end of the whole thing, start to see the similarities. How their life choices and experiences are different but yet very alike.

    Our main protagonist has lost her brother two years ago and is still stuck in mourning him. The older man is an example of a bitter old man and the result of someone who never let go of his past. It's a story about sorrow and about what happens if you cling onto it for too long... at least I think that's what it's about.

    The structure of moving between past and present tense is quite common in broken narratives and I myself tend to like those stories. However, I have not yet come across a novel that has done it with two persons at the same time.

    I would like to make it work without having to put some parts in a different font or just writing "name, date" in the beginning of each chapter.
     
  4. J. J. Wilding

    J. J. Wilding Member

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    Here's a thought: if you have a chapter set in the past, that relates to a chapter set in the present, you could always include them in a single chapter with the dates in sub-headings, so nobody is confused which time the story has just jumped to. If you separate the two timelines with the traditional ***, rather than a new chapter heading, each chapter would have it's own prologue in a way, either set 2 years or 60 years in the past.

    For example:

    Chapter 1 - Opening (1950's) - Middle & End (2010's)
    Chapter 2 - Opening (2008) - Middle & End (2010's)
    Chapter 3 - Opening (1950's) - Middle & End (2010's)

    If you did it like that, the audience would always get back to the main storyline with each chapter, and the introductions to each chapter would give them small snippets of insight into the lives of the two characters and why they say and do what they say and do. You could even set later chapters the other way around, starting with the characters talking and ending in the 1950's, as the older gentlemen reminisces about his life. I think that could be very interesting!
     
  5. Crow83

    Crow83 New Member

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    Thanks so much J.J. Very good ideas. Looks like I have something to try out this summer.
    Cheers:cheerleader:
     
  6. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    While it's totally fine to do it however you want, I don't see any scenario where you'd have to use italics or a different font. A few words can usually make the new context clear.
     
  7. GingerCoffee

    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    One option: write the timelines separately, merge them later when how they go together might be more evident.

    Use chapter changes to identify timeline changes. Italics is not a convention used to indicate time changes. Save italics for internal monologue.

    If these are diary entries, take a look at Gone Girl. Diary entries are used for one character and narration for the other, with chapter changes.

    Short diary entries can probably be handled with indents.
     

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