Writing Excuses 17.11: Structuring with Multiple Timelines
Key points: One way to use multiple timelines is to dramatize backstory, telling it in scene rather than in an infodump. Flashbacks, in media res. You can use multiple timelines to feed the reader information, or for pacing. Do beware of killing progress with in-depth flashbacks. Sometimes you may use the past timeline to legitimize something to the reader. You can also compare and contrast the two timelines.
[Season 17, Episode 11]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Structuring with Multiple Timelines.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Peng] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re multiply in a hurry on several timelines.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Peng] I’m Peng.
[Howard] I’m getting carried away.
[Mary Robinette] Thank you, Howard.
[Dan] That was Howard, by the way.
[Dan] So, last week we talked about multiple POVs. Now we have multiple timelines. Which is a much more overtly structural thing, or more obviously structural. Peng, when… Where do we start here? When might it be a good idea to use multiple timelines, and how do you do it?
[Peng] Oh, I love multiple timelines. I think they might be my favorite structure technique. But, so what I think multiple timelines are great… Well, they’re great for a million things, but one of the biggest benefits to using multiple timelines is if you’ve got a story that has… It’s got, like, an old buried secrets that come to light years later type plot, and it’s a really good way for you to dramatize back story in scene instead of having to just info dump it. Because if you’ve got this huge back story that happened decades ago, you don’t really want to just throw that right there in the beginning or have a big section that’s separated from the rest. You want to be able to weave it in really well. One of the ways to do that is to go back and forth between this back story and do it in scene as opposed to just having like an info dump. I think a really great example of that… Has everyone read Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon?
[Dan] I have not.
[Peng] Oh, it’s a gre… Well, put it on your list. It is a book about basically a little boy who when he’s reeling from the loss of his mother who’s just died, and his father takes him to the cemetery of lost books, I think it’s called. He says… It’s basically a secret bookstore and everybody who goes there gets to choose one book and you have to take care of it for the rest of your life and it’s yours. So he ends up choosing a book by a mysterious author and he falls in love with it. He decides that he is going to find more of this author’s work because the book is just so good. But it turns out that all other copies of every other book has been destroyed. So it’s this mystery about who destroyed those books, where is the author, what happened. So as the boy goes on this investigation, rather than just having big info dumps of what he finds out at every stage of his investigation, which is what you would do if you did the whole thing in present, just one timeline, we end up every time he comes upon a new epiphany, we jump back in time and we get that epiphany as it happens in narration rather than as a something just being told back to him. It works so well, it makes the past just as compelling as the present.
[Howard] I wanted to take a moment to just pin some terms down. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has introduced us to the idea that timeline means multiple realities. But for the most part, what we’re talking about here is a single timeline that has multiple pointers on it that we will be jumping into and visiting. Current time, flashback, in media res, that kind of thing. Now, that said, Terry Pratchett’s… Oh, I forget which book it was. It was one of the Vime’s books. Has a forked timeline in the climax. It happens when Vime takes his magical day planner thingy and drops it into the wrong pocket in his trousers. It’s described as the trousers of time, and they’re in the wrong pocket. There’s this war going on that he has been trying to stop. In the timeline he’s in, he’s successfully putting a stop to things. His day planner is now on the other timeline and keeps beeping things about our favorite characters dying. It’s a fascinating way, here in the multiple… In true multiple forked timelines, to say, “Congratulations. You chose the better one.”
[Dan] This… Another really good example of this is the one that I used as a book of the week a couple weeks ago. The Inheritance of Orquidea Divina. What the book’s plot is kind of sort of about is the inheritance that this grandmother leaves to her family includes a debt to some kind of very mysterious, very dangerous person. If we had gotten everything in chronological order, the life of the grandmother growing up and then all of the family trying to deal with it after the fact, we would already know everything about that mysterious person and the danger that he represents before the family comes into play and struggles against it. So, by jumping back and forth between these two periods of history, we get to discover with the family all of the things that are happening at the same time that we get to see them happening to the grandmother in the past. So having the chapters alternate back and forth is this really smart structural choice that doesn’t give away the ending before it matters.
[Mary Robinette] So, you just said that we get to see it happening at the same time that we’re seeing something else happen. I just want to remind readers that even when we’re talking about a nonlinear storytelling, like multiple timelines, that your reader is still experiencing things in a linear fashion. So as you’re thinking about this, recognize that one of the tools that you’re manipulating is when you are feeding them information. You’re also using it to control pacing, as well as… So it’s not just about now we get this thing, now we get that. It’s also a way of controlling a lot of different pieces. So when you’re… I’m going to flag a danger with multiple timelines. Which is, sometimes flashbacks can stop progress in a story while you sit down and explore something deeply. So when you’re thinking about this, remember that you also want to make sure that whatever timeline that we’re jumping into carries tension, that it’s still serving as a good interesting story in and of itself, not just a way to try to mask an info dump.
[Howard] My rule of thumb on this is that if there’s going to be a flashback, the flashback should be an answer to a question that just landed on the reader, rather than an opportunity to ask a new question or don’t new information so that the story can move forward. I’ve found that… Yeah, the flashbacks that I hate, the flashbacks where I’m like, “Oh, I’m going to go get a sandwich,” if I’m watching on TV, are the flashbacks where it has arrived and I didn’t want it because it’s not answering a question I had.
[Dan] All right. We are going to pause here for the book of the week. We’ve got a really awesome one this week because it is Peng’s book. Peng, tell us about The Cartographers.
[Peng] Yay. The Cartographers is my second novel. It is a story about mapmaking and family secrets. It follows Nell Young, who’s a young woman whose greatest passion is the art of cartography. She’s been… She’s spent her whole life trying to live up to her father who’s the legendary cartographer, Dr. Daniel Young. But they haven’t spoken for seven years since he cruelly fired her and destroyed her professional reputation over… It was during an argument over an old cheap gas station highway map. When the book kicks off, her father is found dead in his office at the New York Public Library with that very same seemingly worthless map hidden away in his desk. So, of course, Nell can’t resist investigating. To her surprise, she soon discovers that the map holds, like, this incredible deadly mystery. So she sets out to uncover both what the map and her late father have been hiding for decades. It is a… It’s coming out right about now. It comes out on March 15. I’m really excited for everybody to read it.
[Dan] Well, awesome. That sounds great. So that is The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd. So go look that up. Go buy it. Do your thing.
[Dan] Okay. Let’s get back to our…
[Mary Robinette] I’m just going to say, Peng is a heck of a writer, so you are in for a real treat with this.
[Peng] Well, thank you.
[Dan] So. What are some other… We talked about using multiple timelines to provide information. What are some other good uses of multiple timelines in a story? When might you want to do this?
[Howard] I think one of the most fascinating and easy to consume examples is the movie Julie & Julia, which follows Julia Child, the beginning of her career in the 1950s, and a woman named Julie Powell who created a blog in which she was going to try and cook all of the recipes in Julia Child’s cookbook. This story bounces back and forth between the 1950s and the early 2000s. Directed by Nora Efrain. It was actually Nora Efrain’s last movie. She wrote it, she directed it. It’s a beautiful way to tell two different stories, each of which if you’re familiar with Freitag’s triangle or the narrative curve, each of those stories has its own narrative curve to it, and by jumping back and forth between the two of them, we increase the tension, we increase emotional investment, we reach our climaxes at the same… At about the same time. It’s a delightful film. Also, just talking about it has made me hungry.
[Mary Robinette] Another really good example is Vicious by V. E. Schwab. Each scene begins with something like 10 years before, five minutes before, three days before. It’s… They’re absolutely… There’s no linearity to when those hop in. But it does this thing of enriching the world and deepening the character motivations. It is a structure that makes me deeply jealous.
[Mary Robinette] Because I’m like… I don’t have any understanding of how you write something like this. One of the things that I think that she does, which gets to Howard’s earlier point about making sure that you’re answering a question that was just dropped, is that she doesn’t always do that. But she has built trust with the reader so that you understand that if we are doing this jump, that there is a reason for it, and you’ll understand it later. But she has built trust by setting… By, at the beginning, that that’s the way it’s going to work.
[Peng] I think another really good way that multiple timelines can be used is this same sort of, along these same lines as answering a question. If you’ve got a story in which you have something that you need to sell to the reader that’s a little bit difficult to believe were you think you’re going to have trouble getting them to buy, whether it’s like a worldbuilding aspect or it’s a plot point or something about a character, if you put that into the past timeline, just by putting it there, the existence of that history or of that previous mention is kind of automatically legitimizing. So, it sort of works the same way as if you’ve got a legend in the story. The more times you mention a legend or the more times you mention something about magic, the more it just starts to feel real and believable, just through the repetition. So a lot of times, multiple timelines will have that same effect, where if something… If you tell the reader that something has happened in the past, it just automatically makes it more believable. It’s a really easy way to sell something to readers that you need them to buy for the present narrative.
[Dan] It’s so weird that… The way that works. Because you’re absolutely right. Everything in a fantasy book, for example, is just stuff we made up. Right? But it’s… The idea that this has happened before… If I tell you it happens now or if I tell you it happened 10 years ago, either way I just made it up. But that 10 years ago thing does really kind of hack the reader’s brain into saying, “Oh. This is very unbelievable, but if it happened 10 years ago, it must be true.”
[Dan] Then that helps us kind of suspend our disbelief of it a little better by setting an artificial precedent. It’s so weird that that works, but it does.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Howard] Extending that trick, if you say, “Oh, this exact same thing happened 100 years ago.” Yeah, wow, that’s kind of cool. But if you say, “This exact same thing happened 122 years ago, only it was in the summer instead of the winter.” Holy crap. I am so onboard.
[Howard] Wow. Because now… Yeah.
[Mary Robinette] I mean, Wheel of Time…
[Dan] There’s a specificity to it.
[Mary Robinette] Wheel of Time is based on…
[Dan] There’s one more example I want to mention really quickly, just because. It’s the movie Frequency which is about a father who is a firefighter and dies in a fire and his son who grows up to become a cop. The story is told with watching them both when their about the same age in life, scenes inter-cutting back and forth, but what’s different is that through a weird quirk of science fiction, they actually can talk to each other and the two timelines interact with each other over the radio. It’s a really interesting take on this narrative premise.
[Mary Robinette] All right. While we’re doing examples, there are two that I want to just throw in there because they are structurally so different and interesting. One is Firebird by Susanna Kearsley. It is both multiple timeline and multiple POV in that she has a character who’s in I think the 1500s and one who is in the early 2000s. Those characters never interact. Their stories are connected only by one artifact that they both possess. It’s this… It’s just… It’s a beautiful meditation on time and place. But what she does by going between those two timelines is that the contrast between them also makes you appreciate the commonalities, the things that don’t change over time. She’s a… It’s beautiful, beautiful writing. The other one which is completely different structurally is a picture book called When I Wake Up by Seth Fishman. It’s a kid wakes up in the morning and says, “Today I could…” And the story splits into four distinct timelines, each color code… Each are happening simultaneously on the page and color-coded. So I could go to the park. I could make breakfast for my parents. I could… It’s this beautiful thing of like this is how my day… It’s basically sliding doors for a kid in four timelines with colors. It’s really lovely. But, it is, again, it’s… What I like about each of them even though they use different versions of the multiple timeline is that they are exploring the texture of contrasts.
[Dan] That’s awesome. All right, Howard, bring it home. What’s our homework?
[Howard] Okay. Your current work in progress. Look at adding a second timeline, time stream to it. A couple of ways you can do this. Take a character whose back story perhaps you haven’t told yet. Write a fun back story for them and find a way to weave that into the existing story bouncing through multiple timelines. Alternatively, you might take your current work in progress and the ideas you have for your second book and see if the first book story could be told as a flashback in the course of the second story. But, dig in and try to do this. I don’t want to make it easy. Drill into it and break some things and when they are broken, step back and say, “Howard, you’re a jerk. You did this to me.” And we will all have had fun.
[Dan] That sounds great. You are out of excuses. Now go write.