If you’re on my email list or following me on social media, you’ve already heard me going on about dual-timeline novels, about how much I love to read them and marvel at the skill it takes to write one.
Where is all this coming from? I think two places:
1. Discovering Susanna Kearsley’s novels, and
2. Finding out that Kate Morton has a new novel out (which I possess in a beautiful hardcover).
Although I’ve always been aware that there were novels using this structure, I didn’t fall in love with it until I listened to Kate Morton’s The Clockmaker’s Daughter. That was some years ago, and after that I started listening to many other novels by her, and every time marveling at how she did it.
What “it” am I speaking of? Specifically the crafting of two or more parallel stories that are all linked in a way the reader doesn’t fully see until the very end of the novel. And wow, when that happens…
Of course, you might say that any novel with multiple POV characters does this to a degree. Each character is the protagonist in his or her own story. But aside from the entire novel’s protagonist, the reader is only exposed to those parts of the other characters’ stories that pertain to the main one. Not to mention that almost without fail, the characters all interact with each other directly on the page.
The artistry, I believe, in a successful dual-timeline novel is in weaving two (or more) entire stories, each with a distinct protagonist, and linking them together without the two protagonists ever actually meeting.
How hard is that to do? I’m about to find out. I’ve decided it’s time for me to write a dual-timeline story. And since I’m a historical novelist, it will have two historical timelines separated by decades.
I’m not just going to create a Scrivener file and start writing, though. Nor am I going to put myself only through the single-timeline paces of the coaching tools I have been using and adapting for my clients.
No, this project requires something different, something more. As soon as I started thinking seriously about tackling a dual-timeline novel, I realized I absolutely didn’t know where to start. It wasn’t enough to think of one protagonist’s wants and fears and needs and think through how they would change from the beginning to the end of the story, and then fit another one around it.
A dual-timeline novel has to be conceived as such from the very beginning. The two timelines have to be essential to telling one single, bigger story. Or, in enabling the later timeline to follow its trajectory in a way that wouldn’t be possible without the other story.
In essence, it requires all the chops it takes to write one good novel at least doubled. And I’d say tripled, really. Layers of thinking, planning, agonizing.
Am I insane to be doing this? Probably. But I’m coaching a writer with a dual-timeline novel, and I think I need to leap in with both feet so I can truly empathize with her struggles.
I will keep you apprised of my progress—and tell you about some special tools I’ll be launching in the next few weeks to help you if you’re game to try this structure for your next project. Because writing a novel isn’t hard enough already, right? LOL!
Dear Ms. Dunlap,
I didn’t readily find an email address for you, so I hope this reaches your eyes. I’m writing simply to thank you for your article on Jane Friedman’s site. I didn’t know a thing about the “ChatBot” phenomenon until just 6 or 7 weeks ago. Since my first notice of ChatBots (perhaps akin to Jung’s belief in synchronicity), I don’t think a day has passed that I haven’t seen the topic mentioned further, in one capacity or another, EVERY day I’m online.
Meanwhile, I’m in the midst of writing an historical quest/adventure novel, set in 1898 in the American west, and including characters such as Mark Twain and Sarah Bernhardt. So, I’ve recently tried accessing historical events of that era, and been both astounded (and, upon further attempts at confirmation of ChatBot “facts,” sometimes disappointed) by this program’s amazingly quick and (seemingly) thorough results. Thus, your article provided helpful (and helpfully cautioning) insights about this relatively new writing-and-research aid.
Thank you for providing such helpful info on this topic.
(retired, in the ever-so-pleasurable lifestyle of Spain’s Canary islands)
Hi Rod! (And please call me Susanne), I’m so glad the article was useful to you! I think we historical novelists have so many great tools at our disposal these days, always bearing in mind that no one source is going to give you the complete truth. But we’re writing fiction, so we do get to make stuff up!
And lucky you, the Canaries! I lived in London for 10 years back in the day, and the Canaries were a popular vacation spot for many of my friends.