Alternate Timelines are used to great effect in TV, movies, and books.
Take LOST for example. Each episode focuses on two timelines, one showing the present day on the island, and the other giving insights to the past of a single character (or the future, or, um, an imaginary purgatory world?). The past and present timeline of each episode juxtaposed information. For example, we learn that Kate is on the run for muder in the past timeline as we watch her try to run off the island in a raft.
VERONICA MARS has alternating timelines in the first season to provide us vital clues to the season-long mystery. The flashbacks are shown in gauzy diluted colors and give a good sense of how Veronica went from being a popular shallow girl to a tough social outcast that could fend for herself.
In movies we have the classic example of MEMENTO, which plays with structure as it reveals the plot in alternating and reverse timelines.
Which brings me to books… Specifically, my book:
I wrote KASEY SCREWS UP THE WORLD using alternate timelines for several reason, but the main was that it helped me build a better mystery. Chapter 1 starts in the middle of the story where the reader discovers Kasey somehow screwed over all the people she loved, including permanently injuring her sister, Lara, causing Lara to lose her college dance scholarship. From there the story splits into two timelines in alternating chapters. Chapter 2 begins the flashback timeline where the reader sees the events that cause Kasey to injure her sister and hurt her friends as well. Chapter 3 continues the present-day timeline in which Kasey works to fix her sister and make things up to her friends with her ultimate goal to find a way to earn their forgiveness. Together, both timelines tell a complete story.
Starting in the middle of the story helped me amp the stakes. It helped me created unanswered questions the reader wants the answer to. If I had started the story with the first chapter of the past timeline, the stakes would be much lower.
One of my crit partners suggested I do a blog post on tips for writing Alternate Timelines. Her wish is my command.
If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you know my love of outlines. I could not write an alternating timeline book without one. I also would not be able to write it without Scrivener, which makes things super easy. I color code each timeline and Scrivener allows me to easily move around chapters and scenes during the revision process.
Plot each timeline like a separate book
Each of my timelines should have its own plot with a beginning, middle, and end, as well as character arcs and growth. But the timelines should work together so that the resolution of both happens in the Present Day timeline.
Make both timelines interesting
This one sounds obvious, but it’s important enough to rehash it. If your readers vastly prefer one timeline over the other, then the book isn’t working like it should. The reader should be equally invested in both and both should have their own unanswered questions the reader is eager to find out. Each timeline should have its own unique plot but that plot should juxtapose the plot from the other timeline so they work together.
I must admit, in an early draft of the book, it was clear that readers were more interested in one timeline over the other. I cut the boring timeline and replaced it with a new one, one that was equally as exciting as the alternating timeline.
Keep characters relevant who only appear in one timeline
For example, in KASEY SCREWS UP THE WORLD, the love interest from the Past timeline disappears in the Present timeline (not a spoiler, this is evident in chapter one and part of the mystery). I had to find ways to keep him relevant in the Present timeline even though he didn’t appear on screen. The same thing goes for the other timeline as well with different characters. I achieved this via inner monologue, text messages, emails, and other devices I don’t want to spoil. If this book had been told linearly, the love interest from the Past would be absent from the book for way too long to stay relevant.
Write the book out of order.
And when I say out of order, I mean write it in the order it comes in chronologically, writing the past timeline first, then the present. This way you can ensure that your protagonist changes and grows appropriately in each timeline. Plus you can ensure the protagonist stays consistent in the Present timeline with who she becomes at the end of the Past timeline. In revisions, splice them together.
Keep the structure consistent so readers know what to expect.
Whether this means alternating every chapter or having a ratio of two Present chapters to every Past chapter or having mostly Present chapters with a Past chapter every now and then or splitting the novel by sections with different amounts of chapters in each section. The key is providing the reader with a pattern they can anticipate. It’s like Stephen King says in ON WRITING, you make a promise to your reader about your structure and it’s your job to fulfill that promise.
When you need to delete chapters/scenes from one timeline but not the other. Your job as the author is to utilize revision gymnastics: make your chapters do splits by breaking them in two, combine two chapters into one by shedding any unnecessary words, shorten chapters, lengthen others, or do whatever it takes the make sure the book flows in an unputtdownable way.
Tomorrow I will have book recommendations for you with YA books that use alternating timelines successfully!