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01 October 2020

How to write a novel with dual timelines

Ella Berman, author
by Ella Berman From Our Students, How To ..., Writing Tips

Ella Berman studied on one of our three-month novel-writing courses in 2016. Her debut novel The Comeback was published by Berkley in August this year and has been well-received – it was also selected as an August fiction pick for NBC’s Today Show.

Read on to find out what tips and tricks Ella used to write this compelling novel with dual timelines set in the past and present...

As soon as I had the idea for The Comeback, I knew that I would be writing two timelines. There was a big split between Grace Hyde, the precocious teenager auditioning for her first movie role at school in North London, and Grace Turner, Hollywood actress gone off the rails, and shifting between the past and the present was my way of bridging this gap.

Dual timelines can be tricky to navigate but they can also do a lot of work – revealing an origin story, adding humanity to a character or emotional resonance to a plot, weaving together generations, even revealing a plot twist or the identity of a killer. Many of my favourite books involve timelines that shift between the past and the present, and it can add so much to a story when done well.

Here are seven things I learned about approaching dual timelines while writing The Comeback.

Don’t be afraid to ‘waste’ some words.

Unravel your character’s history in the way that works for you. The present version of Grace came to me nearly fully-formed – she is prickly, jaded, and has given up the burden of emotional labour and people-pleasing. I instantly wanted to find out more about her so, as strange as it may sound, one of the first things I did was let Grace talk to me. I wrote choppy snippets of dialogue and various unchronological scenes until I uncovered Grace’s past – the crux of the story. Not everything I wrote ended up going in the final book (or even in the first draft), but it all went on to shape the character of Grace. None of her back story was wasted.

Don’t reveal too much too soon.

A well-timed reveal is everything. Grace’s behaviour can be frustrating at the start of the book, but as her back story unravels, I hope that it becomes apparent why she is the way she is. I didn’t reveal anything too quickly as this isn’t how it works in real life – we have to work to get to know someone, peeling back the many layers they project first. I wanted the reader to feel intrigued by this person, maybe even protective of her, even before they knew what had happened to her. This is true of most books with a dual timeline – well-paced flashbacks should add tension and emotional resonance to the rest of the novel.

But equally, don’t go too slow.

Don’t underestimate the reader! There’s nothing more frustrating than knowing exactly what’s going to happen next, but having to wait three more chapters for it to (slowly, painfully) be revealed. Each flashback should reveal something new about the character or plot, otherwise the book could start to drag, and your reader may lose interest.

Don’t rely too much on exposition – ‘show don’t tell’.

It’s an overused adage (and one I occasionally ignore), however I think there can be a tendency to rush through scenes from the past in order to expose their relevance in the present storyline. When I was tackling a flashback scene, I found that, more often than not, I would frantically write a couple of paragraphs that described what had happened to Grace, without any real sense of time, place or dialogue. Once I slowed down, I was able to flesh out the scenes so that the reader feels as though they are there for the pivotal moments in Grace’s life, as opposed to just seeing them through the lens of her current perspective.

Make both timelines as riveting as each other.

This might seem obvious, but it’s so important for the past timeline to be just as compelling as the present timeline. The present timeline will often be inherently interesting in that the outcome isn’t determined yet, so we need the past to add something significant to the story. Each reveal should contain a gem that adds to the interpretation of events in the present, ideally in the exact right place. Don’t be repetitive.

Try to weave the timelines together as seamlessly as possible.

In the same way that flipping between POV’s can sometimes feel disjointed or abrupt, it’s important to make the transitions between timelines as natural and fluid as possible. In The Comeback, something in Grace’s present life would trigger a past memory. This both highlighted the intrusive nature of Grace’s memories as a result of her PTSD, but it also helped to make the story feel less fragmented. I found that even one leading sentence at the end of a chapter could help to signify that we were about to dip back into her past. The positioning of each timeline jump is a balancing act, and one that can take a few edits and read-throughs to nail. The important thing is to have the back story clear in your mind so that you can move the flashbacks around as you edit.

Don’t hang on to the past.

Bring the focus back to the present as soon as the reader has all the information they need. Grace’s flashbacks stop before the halfway point because this is when Grace’s mindset and behaviour begin to shift towards the future. By this point, I felt like the reader had all of the information they needed, and that any more would only cause the story to drag. This exact point will be different for every book, but there does need to be a moment when the past and the present collide in whatever way you had planned.

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