Questionable: How do you make two timelines work?

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.

  1. Why do you need both stories?
  2. Which one is more important?
  3. 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.

Good luck!

Index of Questionables

40 thoughts on “Questionable: How do you make two timelines work?

  1. I think that splitting storylines in general runs into these kinds of issues, whether it be across space or time. One of the reasons I prefer YA or JF over adult fiction is that whenever they cut to another character I’m not into, it breaks the flow. Even with Discworld, the parts with Fred and Nobby are not nearly as good as the Vimes stuff (and as per the adult/JF split, the Tiffany books are pretty great for their focus, sticking with Tiffany’s perspective).

    The way TV makes multiple storylines work is to ground them in relationships. The viewer won’t care as much if every scene has a good relationship on display. If people liked the Arrow flashbacks at all, it was because a particular flashback had a specific relationship interaction on display, like Oliver and Slade as friends, or Oliver and Tommy. But no one liked them for their actual plot.

  2. I am turned off very quickly by dual timelines – it’s one of those things that stops me picking up a book. I *have* seen it done really well, but only a couple of times – Kate Quinn’s The Huntress was pretty good, but even with that I skipped stuff because it was the NOW that was gripping me.

  3. Because I’m a learner who has to experience things for herself, I went looking for the Dorothy Canfield Fisher story, “Sex Education,” Jenny mentioned. Amazon says it’s out of print and unavailable. I assume, since it’s a short story, it’s part of a compilation somewhere, so I did a search for it. Rather than a collection, I found it in a blog post here: Just posting in case anyone else wants to read it.

    1. There’s another one that I found, but it was used as a way to explain Judge Roy Moore’s innocence (and whoever used. it had obviously not read the story) so I didn’t link to it.

    2. I watched Saving Mr Banks for this first time this weekend (and I thought it was outstanding) and as I was reading this post I was thinking it did a good job with flashback but when I got to Jenny’s last point I realized it was memory not flashback and they used memory exactly as Jenny described.

  4. I love dual-timelines, myself. Susanna Kearsley is one of my favourites for handling this delicately. But there is always an important reason for the duality, and usually a mystery in the now that is played out in the past, and the main characters are never the same in both storylines.

    Kate Morton also does dual timelines well. In “The House at Riverton” the main character in the present is reliving what happened when she was a teenager, but she is not the main character in the past story – she is more of a Watson.

    I do think a dual timeline where the main character is the same in both past and present could be difficult to pull off without it feeling like back story dumping.

    I will be watching the comments closely, though – because I think my next story will be a dual timeline – although at this time I’m thinking the past storyline will be told in diary or letter format, with the present straight narrative, so not sure if a true dual timeline story or not. 🙂

  5. I’ve been trying to think if there is a dual timeline that I enjoy. The NK Jemisin Broken Earth series tends to jump back and forth and between characters. It took me a while to link the stories up. The now was my favorite timeline, but the others were also interesting. Partially because I could see the relationship to the present even if I didn’t always recognize who was speaking.

    I know. That makes no sense. The first two books were excellent, I wasn’t sure what I felt about the ending.

    In other, completely unrelated, news – I was offered that job again. I’m beginning to feel like a yoyo. Will I take it? Most likely. But if something better comes along I won’t feel bad about leaving.

  6. Person of Interest flashbacks worked pretty well. I mean Finch’s love story with Grace was mainly told in flashback and it was beautifully done.

    I think one of the problems with Arrow flashbacks, I found the support characters were more interesting then Oliver at the time.

    1. I think the Person of Interest flashbacks need closer analysis to find out what they’re there for.
      One theory is that they’re the Machine reviewing the past in the context of the present. The viewer can’t know that until the later seasons when it’s obvious that the Machine is not just a computer, it’s become a sentient being (If Then Else pretty much establishes that when the Machine makes jokes, or the season finale where Finch apologies to it/her and she calls him “Father,” a moment both heart-warming and chilling as hell). The convention they use to signal that, that graphic at the bottom of the screen zipping back down the timeline, might just be a graphic convention and not meant to symbolize the machine, but since everything in that damn show had meaning including the credit graphics which changed during the years, I’m betting that they were signaling it was the Machine accessing memory. What I don’t recall is whether the plots at the time gave the Machine a reason to access the memory.

      But it/she definitely did in “The Devil’s Share,” which is just an amazing piece of story work. That’s the aftermath of Carter’s death when they’re all reeling in shock and grief, and the story lurches from character to character, tone to tone, with a pervading sense of doom because nothing will ever be the same because Carter’s gone. The four flashbacks there access footage of Finch, Shaw, Fusco, and Reese talking with counselors/advisers about grief, emotion, duty, all the things driving them in the now, and I can easily see that’s the Machines way of assessing how to reassemble the team now that it’s heart has been ripped out. Plus they’re outstanding scenes, Fusco’s in particular killing forever the idea that he’s comic relief.

      I think those are the only flashbacks in PoI I ever liked. There’s another episode where Reese is slowly dying in a car and hallucinating that Carter is beside him, and I can buy his mind scattering through time, or the Machine desperately searching through time as its main asset slips away. And then there’s the episode with the first asset Finch recruited, the one where Reese is a hit man, but since the whole episode is history, I think the ending with Root is a flash forward than the rest of the show is a flashback.

      Other than that, I fast-forward through the PoI flashbacks, too, but part of that is because they’re so damn painful. They’re always good story-telling scenes on their own. I just want to get back to Shoot and Reese and Fusco and Finch. And Bear, of course.

      My god, that was an incredibly great show.

      1. The flashbacks in Terra Incognita (the one with Carter as a hallucination) deliberately did not include the “flipping timelines” interstitial, to show that it was Reese’s memory-speculation on what Carter did back in the day, rather than The Machine reviewing archival footage.
        And then you have the timeline-flipping of the series finale, because as the “The Machine targets the team as perpetrators” episode showed, The Machine can become un-anchored in time. Plus the preceding episode’s flash-sideways of The Machine exploring the world where she didn’t exist.

        Agreed that The Devil’s Share is just gorgeous pattern storytelling.
        Some of the other episodes attempted to pattern their linear flashbacks a little. They certainly patterned better than other shows like Arrow or Nikita. I liked most of them because they served a thematic purpose, exploring the government surveillance side more than present Reese and Finch were ready for in the early seasons. And they were always rooted in relationships, too, to contrast with the relationships in the present. Kara/Reese or Nathan/Finch to compare to Reese/Finch.
        Since the characters in PoI were such private people, the flashbacks were also used to illustrate parts of them they would never bring up in the present. Carter being betrayed in the military. An earlier version of The Machine trying to murder Finch. Finch’s devastation over wiping The Machine’s memory for the first time. Finch’s father getting Alzheimer’s. These flashbacks were actually emotional payoffs of a sort.

  7. I can’t think of a story that stuck in my mind that meets the criteria stated. That’s not to say I haven’t read one, just that they didn’t stick. I did read one that had a narrative labeled, “What he remembers.” “What she remembers.” “What actually happened.” Not the same thing.

    I wasn’t done making people happy from yesterday, so I dragged the dotter and the twins out. At Best Buy, I got the dotter a new Samsung Galaxy tablet. She has one that somewhat still works after nearly ten years, but can’t run any of the apps she wants, nor even the updates that would let those apps run. It’s too old and obsolete. Since it still runs, she’s keeping it for all her old MP3s and playlists until it dies.

    For behaving, the kids each got a toy at Target, then the whole family got crap from McDonalds. One of the “toys” was a green squeezy ball thing where the ball would squoosh through the net around it in a different color. Stress reliever. It lasted ten minutes before the next oldest demonstrated that it was essentially a water balloon filled with orange slime. Thankfully, the demonstration/deconstruction/demolition occurred over the kitchen linoleum.

    Happy. 🙂

    1. That’s the Rashomon structure, a kind of patterned structure where all the people involved in an event give their versions of it. It’s not flashback because the Now of the story is these people telling their versions Now with people in the Now listening.

      My fave example is the Leverage version, “The Rashomon Job,” made infinitely more enjoyable if you’ve watched those characters for a couple of seasons and can spot their spins on things.

      1. I was sitting separately trying to remember “What the heck is the name of that Japanese story where the wife is raped and her husband killed and it is told from the point of view of the bandit/rapist, the wife and the husband’s ghost”. Rashomon. Thank you. Great movie.

        1. I reread this comment before I posted and somehow the word desperately was changed by autocorrect to “separately”. The ethernet hates me.

      2. I just thought of a romantic movie with dual timelines: Possession with Aaron Eckhart & Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s based on a novel by A S Byatt. It’s probably not a classic use of dual timelines because it’s about two contemporary scholars discovering a connection between Victorian poets with a surprise at the end. Beautiful movie and book!

  8. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephens has two timelines, with multiple apparently unrelated stories going on in both timelines, and then slowly it all comes together and is quite satisfying. The writing was good enough to keep me going, and I should have put some 2+2 things together sooner than I did – even reading it the second time. This is a one off though, I think with most books done this way I would have quit in frustration. It’s super long too, so good for a long, boring trip. Warning – don’t like anything else he wrote.

  9. I don’t know if this fulfills the requirements, but Dick Francis’ Twice Shy has two timelines/story lines. But it’s more older brother works the mystery in his young adulthood, then younger brother works later to ultimately wrap it up. It’s done well-older brother’s story comes to a satisfying conclusion, while they tie together very well-but it is a different approach, and not one I’d want to binge in.

    1. I like that one, too, but I like the second part more (which is good). For those of you who haven’t read it, the first half of the book is the story of a teacher who gets sucked into an attempt to steal a system for betting on horses. He’s not interested in it, but because of events, he ends up being threatened by the people who want the system, and he handles them in a very satisfying competence porn kind of way. End of Part 1. Part 2 opens with his younger brother inheriting the problem because the Bad Guy gets out of prison and comes after the system, attacking the brother because of his last name (the Bad Guy is dangerous, but also dumb as a rock). So now the younger brother has the same problem and has to solve it. The two stories are not shuffled together, the first one is told in its Now and the second one is told in its later Now.

      I’m lukewarm about the first part; I found the wife of the first protagonist incredibly annoying and he was a complete doormat, although the plot was still great, in large part due to the competence porn. The second protagonist, his younger brother, was a huge improvement, as was his girlfriend and his best friend, whom. as I remember was named Bananas Frisbee, although that could be wrong.

      So I’d have liked the book better if it had just been the second part. The first part was just so dire–the bitchy wife, her insane friend (not wacky insane, truly disturbed), the heinous villain, the sadness and hopelessness of the relationships–that I really have no wish to reread it.

      Francis in general does not write great girlfriends/wives. They’re always somebody the hero has to deal with instead of just loving, and there’s always a kind of coldness there. But he does write a great book, so he’s worth it.

      1. Yeah, I’m glad the older brother got out and found his happiness. And absolutely, the second half is better.

        1. The older brother didn’t get out; he’s still married to the same woman in Part Two, they just moved to America. And the younger brother still doesn’t like her. Another reason to like the younger brother.

      2. My favourite girlfriend in Dick Francis was the one in High Stakes (about the toy designer who is getting stiffed by his trainer). I agree his female characters can be stiff, but I always took that as a sign that the rumours that he and his wife wrote the books together was wrong, otherwise wouldn’t she have helped with that? I have to say, though – the ones where there is no girlfriend/wife seem a little flatter to me.

        And I’m pretty sure you’re right about Bananas Frisbee. I think it was a nickname though – his favourite drink or something.

        1. His wife did the research for his books. She said she learned so much about photography for Reflex that she became quite an avid photographer.

  10. One book I thought did this very well was Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice — an excellent book on many counts, if you’re a science fiction reader at all you should check it out. The narrator for both past and present is Breq, but she is only the protagonist of the now — in the past she is more of a Watson-character, an observer. The actual story is about Awn, who is in many ways an easier to like character than Breq. It’s backstory — but it’s also a complete story in itself, and I feel that the focus not being on Breq (and yet being tangled up with who present-day Breq has become) helped it feel more balanced, like I was switching narrators even though I wasn’t. It’s also one of the rare times I didn’t pick favorites; I’d feel a momentary disappointment with each switch, but within a few paragraphs I was back in the swing and wanting to know where this side of the story had gotten to, and I’d be disappointed each time to leave.

    It’s also a book that bears out Jenny’s basic premise. Leckie had a good reason to structure the book the way she did, and in many ways that back and forth is central to understanding Breq and grasping viscerally what it means to be an AI with a very, very long memory and limited (but powerful) emotional range to cope with it. It’s not something I’d try lightly, especially after seeing how it looks when it’s done right.

  11. The book I picked up today turned out to have dual timelines, and it’s a really good example of when they don’t work for me. It’s about children from poor families in the US in the 1930s being stolen from their parents and adopted by rich families. We know that from the quotes at the front – and it’s clear fairly quickly that the youngish woman in the ‘now’ timeline is going to find out that someone in her family was stolen. But every second chapter is a flashback to the stealing. And I’m skimming those chapters because I may not know the details but I know what happened, and I want to know how this plays out in the ‘now’.

  12. Thank you! This is super helpful.

    The good news is, I’m not trying to give backstory, so I pass that sniff test. What doesn’t pass the sniff test, is that I need to make this longer if I’m going to submit it to two places I’ve found that accept un-agented submissions. If making it longer makes it weaker I won’t submit it there, but I’m trying to see first if there are layers I can add that would make it richer without diluting the story that’s there.

    I think I’m going to look into patterned storytelling. Basically it’s a friends to ex-friends to reluctant allies to friends to lovers arc, and the present timeline starts at the ex-friends stage. I think maybe if I run the friends –> ex-friends plot as a B plot to the ex-friends –> lovers plot, I can make the A plot feel poignant, fragile, like it could easily go wrong because it did before, and also make the part where they make a different choice this time (break the pattern) bold and strong and momentous.

    Or the whole thing could turn into a sodden mess. TBD. Off to browse your posts on patterned structure.

    1. God knows where they are. The blog is still being renovated.

      There’s a novel called The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy that’s patterned structure. It reads like a collection of short stories until you get to the end and realize that all the stories are about the same woman; she just changes herself to fit each man she’s with (originally published in 1939, so consider it historical fiction). You can’t understand the book as a whole until you see the pattern, which she states specifically in the last story as “Preserve me in disunity,” that she is all of those women and finally living for herself. Brilliant book.

      Another patterned story is Margaret Atwood’s “Rape Fantasies,” about a woman narrator who is talking with co-workers at lunch about rape fantasies in fiction and as a result tells somebody (the reader?) about her rape fantasies, which are funny to begin with (she never gets raped in these fantasies), but begin to be sad as you realize what her fantasies are really about, and then the ending is just stunning when you realize who she’s telling all this to. Again, brilliant fiction.

      But the thing about patterned fiction is that it is almost always literary fiction. So if that’s the market you’re aiming for, go for it. If you’re trying for romance, patterned fiction is going to be frustrating for the reader who wants to see the progress of the relationship.

      My question is, are you sure you don’t want to stick to the love story in the present? Or to put it another way, where’s the juice in your story?

      If it’s the progression/evolution of the relationship, do it in linear order, not bouncing back and forth, because people can’t see the progression if you’re breaking the timeline. And the ex-friends is the place to start, you’re right, because that’s where the conflict is. I just don’t see the benefit in doing flashbacks to when they were friends because that’s definitely going to be back story.

      As for length, stories have a tendency to decide what length they’ll be, but if you want a longer book, you can try a subplot as a foil or echo. The problem there becomes you’re disrupting your main story line two ways, with flashbacks and with subplots. The more interruptions you have, the less real estate you have for the main story, and the less likely the reader is to invest in it. I did a short novel (about 70,000 words) with seven PoV characters and three subplots once, and it’s the coldest book I’ve ever written.

      Look at it this way: The primary relationship in the reading experience is the connection the reader forms with the protagonist. The reader doesn’t have to LIKE the protagonist, but he or she does have to care about his. And the more you screw with that main plot, chopping it up with flashbacks and subplots, the less time your reader spends with your protagonist in the now of the story, establishing that relationship and investing in the protagonist’s story. You need a really good reason to slice and dice that story, and making the main plot feel fragile by giving back story is not a good reason, especially since you can do the same thing with memory in the now of the story. (Another good thing about memory: the Rashomon effect. Have an event evoke the memory in both characters, and have those memories have different interpretations of the same event so the reader sees where things went wrong and could go wrong again. Don’t tell it as flashback, that is, don’t break the scene to go back in time, tell it as memory, the character thinking (briefly) about it in the present or explaining it to a ficelle character.)

      Here’s a Questionable about flashback and memory, if that’s any help:

  13. Lauren Willig has a whole series (The Pink Carnation) based on dual timelines. One is contemporary and spans all 12 books: grad student Eloise unearths stories of a C18th spy ring and falls for someone she meets in the process. In each book, her story is layered with a HR about one or other of the spies.

    The problem with this is just what Jenny highlighted – that the HR story is always more interesting than Eloise’s, which feels like padding, and annoying padding at that. Good books, shame about the dual timeline.

    1. Let’s see if I can get my reply to post now, hours later. I found Eloise very annoying, indeed, but I resisted my urge to skip the present day bits because they sometimes had Valuable Facts in them.

  14. I’m drawn to books with parallel stories. The novel Possession and the play Arcadia are my favorites. (Mary M — I haven’t seen the movie.) AS Byatt the novelist and Tom Stoppard the playwright were conscious of each other’s work. I connect with the main characters of each time.

    But I can see the pitfalls. The Sherwood Ring is fun, but the weight of the two eras doesn’t balance out for me. The movie Dead Again did work for me, but the actors were the same in both eras.

    What make Possession and Arcadia special is that, in both, the past era is completely different from the current era — except there are many affinities. The comparisons aren’t easy; in fact, they’re wrenching.

    1. I’m trying to remember, aren’t the past scenes in Dead Again past-life memories? Doesn’t the protagonist (can’t remember whether it was Branagh or Thompson) go to see a therapist specializing in past life recovery and remember? Because I remember the reveal at the end was stunning. So even though the past stuff is in there, it’s memory not flashback, I think. The story stays in the Now as the protagonist recovers that past life and death.

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