CateM wrote: “I’m trying to do one of those dual timelines in a story, where Plot A is the protagonist’s current story, and Plot B is a story from their past. I’ve watch this structure go bad many, many times (*cough* Arrow *cough*), but I also know I’ve seen it work really well before (Big Fish, Second Hand Lions). The problem is, in my favorite examples, the past storyline either features a different protagonist than the present storyline, or the past storyline is the main story, and the present is just a framing device (The Notebook, for all its problems). Anyone have any thoughts about what makes this structure work, and what makes it not work? Or examples of ones that work for you, even if you can’t put your finger on why?”
The big problem with running two story lines is that readers/viewers will like one better and see the other as an intrusion, aka the parts people skip. Arrow is an excellent example of that; anytime I’ve gone back to watch again, I’ve fast forwarded through the flashbacks and never missed them. It’s been awhile since I’ve read or seen a narrative that does make that work, and then they tend not to be traditional linear stories (the present story with flashbacks) but more framed stories or patterned plots. So assuming you want. linear structure with flashbacks, I think you have to ask yourself some questions.
- Why do you need both stories?
- Which one is more important?
- Can you do memory instead of flashback?
Why do you need both stories?
As we all know, back story kills. The need to fill in the past in detail is a huge temptation–“This is how she got here!”–but it’s useless in most cases (not all). What’s interesting to the reader/viewer is the Now of the story. Again, Arrow is an excellent example. There’s an episode where Oliver, having been shot by his mother (did I mention that Arrow could be excellent soap opera when it was on its game?) drags himself to Felicity’s car and outs himself to her as the vigilante. She follows his orders and takes him to Diggle to the secret lair under his nightclub (EXCELLENT soap opera) and together they get the bullet out and dose him with the super herb he brought back from the island. This is great Now story-telling because expectation has been high that Felicity would find out the big secret and bringing her into the Arrow Cave (basement) means that she’ll join Oliver and Diggle as the third of their crime-fighting dream team. All of the juice is in Oliver telling Felicity, Felicity working with Diggle to save him, and finally Oliver inviting her to join them as their computer whiz. Sounds great, right? Yeah, that all takes place about fifteen minutes. The rest of the time is spent in flashbacks to that damn island, explaining how Oliver got the herb and . . . I don’t know what else because whenever I re-watch that episode I fast forward through that flashback trash to get back to Felicity fixing the machine so Diggle can start Oliver’s stopped heart with the paddles. I think she uses a paper clip. Is it ridiculous? Please, this is Arrow, of course it’s ridiculous, that kind of the point. Back on the island, who cares? Bottom line: Arrow did not need those flashbacks, they got in the way of real juice of the story, and therefore they should not have been in there.
But there’s an even better reason not to use flashbacks or to run an entire second plot as a flashback: Most of the time what actually happened doesn’t matter to the Now of the story. Get together with a friend and tell the story of something that happened to the two of you in the past. Chances are, her story is different from yours. That’s because history is a story we tell ourselves, not The Truth.
So the first big test, in my opinion (many roads to Oz) is finding out why you’re doing this. If it’s just to get in back story, there are better ways. If the past story is a foil to the present story, then maybe go to patterned structure. If the past story holds the theme and the present is just a later example of that (or vice versa), then try a frame. If they’re both equally important, maybe try for Part One and Part Two, playing the past story first and the present story as the outcome of the past, lessons learned, this-time-it’s-different (see Wuthering Heights). I’d have. to have a really good. reason for splicing the past and present together, jerking the reader from one story to another and the back again, over and over.
Which story is more important?
If both stories are of equal importance, you’re going to have the same problem you’d have to protagonists: the reader is going to pick a favorite. If you make one story dominant, the other serves the same function as a subplot, supporting, echoing, or contrasting (acting as a foil) to the main plot, which means that the secondary story will become a function of the main plot and the reader won’t be asking herself why she’s reading about this stuff when there’s that great story over there on the side burner, waiting for this bit to finish. That will also mean limiting the subordinate story so you won’t have as many interruptions. And it may, as you cut things from the subordinate plot that don’t support the main plot, end up being one of those subplots you can drown in a bathtub (thank you, Grover Norquist).
Can you do memory instead of flashback?
As much as I loathe flashback, I love memory. What’s the difference? Flashback is the scene in the past exactly as it happened, the Truth. Nobody’s thinking it or remembering it, it’s just the author stopping the story to tell the reader what happened in the past. Memory, on the other hand, happens in the Now of the story because a PoV character is inspired to remember something. What’s really key here isn’t the Truth, because the character’s memory is undoubtedly faulty, it’s the things the character has chosen to remember and even more important, WHY she’s remembering it. What has happened in the now of the story to spur that memory? There’s a marvelous Dorothy Canfield Fisher story, “Sex Education,” that is basically the same story told three times by the narrator’s aunt at different times in her life, each time filtered through where the aunt is in her own life and understanding at the time. Where a character is in her life has a huge impact on interpretation, all of which seats memory directly in the now of the story. And that means that memory does not interrupt story flow. It may slow it down, but it doesn’t throw the reader out of the story.
Having said all of that, I’m sure there are authors who have done competing narratives and made them work, and if that’s what you want, go for it. I think it’ll be easier once you know why you want this structure. If it’s just to fill in back story, you’re screwed (that’s a professional writing term). If you’re trying to set up one of the stories as a foil, I thinking make the important one dominant will help. If you’re trying for comparison/contrast, patterned structure might save you. And there’s always the good old frame, great for having your cake and eating it, too.