There are so many ways to structure a novel, and one key consideration is the timeline. Are you telling the fast-paced, high-tension story of a heist that takes place over a week (or a day)? Are you crafting a family saga that spans generations? Once you have a sense of where your story takes place in time, this will guide narrative choices. Often, linear stories work best. Sometimes the narrative benefits from flashbacks. Other stories are enriched by balancing alternating timelines.
I wrote my YA coming-of-age novel, Chasing Harmony, seeking to explore the gaps between expectations and lived experience. The main character, Anna, is a musical prodigy. Her path seems set. But life is messy, and as we grow up, we rarely move in a linear way toward a goal. Sometimes we want and/or need to get off the beaten path and lost in the weeds!
This contrast inspired me to use a non-linear timeline, alternating past and present at different points in my protagonist’s life. How did I do it? How could you use alternating timelines in a narrative? And is it the best choice for the story you’re telling? Here are some questions to ask yourself if you’d like to try your hand at a non-linear novel.
When do the timeline breaks happen?
Are you going for flashbacks interspersed with the action, or are alternating timelines a core part of your structure? Do the timelines change within chapters, between chapters, or between sections?
I decided to move back and forth between chapters, with one taking place in year A and the next one taking place in year B. I included one chapter with scenes from multiple years, as a pivot point. Some authors will go from scene to scene when moving between times, or set Part 1 at one point in time, Part 2 at another, and so on.
How do you keep track of what happens when?
Writing alternating timelines works best when you plot them out, at least to some degree. I made a chapter outline, noting the times each chapter took place. It’s often helpful to add time markers. Because mine were chapter dependent, I wrote them under my chapter headings. I assigned ages; some authors use days, years, or other signifiers. However you alternate times in your story, you have to keep track of them!
Do the points of view change with the alternating timelines?
Chasing Harmony uses a single point of view character, touching on different points in her life, so her perspective changes depending on her age. If you’re writing about multiple characters at different times, such as two people at different points in history, the perspective shift will be more dramatic. Think not only about what your different timelines are, but who is telling each temporal story.
How do the different timelines impact each other (if they do)?
Does your story focus on how different times affect each other? On how history repeats itself? Do you set up scenes in the past as, for instance, clues to a mystery that unfolds in the present? Or insights into what shaped a character’s psychology?
If you’re writing speculative fiction, such as a time travel story, you have even more options: people from different timelines can move between them or interact, and characters from the future can impact the past! Or are the different timelines discrete in their impact? If they don’t affect each other directly, there needs to be another clear reason for them to alternate.
Why do your timelines alternate?
I’ve saved the most important question for last. What do you want to show with your time jumps? In Chasing Harmony, some of my chapters follow the main character’s relationship with a girl and are directly contrasted with her later relationship with a boy. Other events were juxtaposed to contrast expectations and reality. If you choose to move between timelines in your story, it’s probably because important events happen at different points in time, but there’s a narrative reason they shouldn’t be revealed to the reader in sequence. Narrow down that reason and use it to focus your storytelling.
Once you’ve written a novel with alternating timelines, make sure to read back over your draft and edit it for consistency. Moving between timelines can be trickier than telling a story in order, but its impact can be profound. And it can be a rewarding way to write. Have fun playing time traveler from the safety of your own laptop!
Melanie Bell is a Canadian multi-genre writer living in the UK. Her books include Chasing Harmony, Dream Signs, and The Modern Enneagram. She has written for several publications including Contrary, Cicada, The Fiddlehead, and Huffington Post. She loves music, art, and nature, and aspires to see as much of the world as she can. Connect with Melanie at InspireEnvisioning.com.