Dual timeline - which one first?

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CandyFloss

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Hi everyone! I'm a long time lurker here, hoping to draw on your experience :)

My historical novel has a dual timeline. The main action is in the present day but it jumps back to the past to the MC's childhood. Are there conventions regarding which timeline to start with? I've currently used the past storyline but I just wanted to check.

Thanks in advance for your help!
 

Tocotin

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Hello, and welcome! :)

I'm not sure if there are any conventions. I'd say go with your gut and start the story in whichever timeline it came to you first. Then again, if your main action is in the present day, then perhaps it would be better to start there? Do you have more scenes in the present time than in the past?

:troll
 

CandyFloss

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Hi! thanks for your reply! I think there will be more scenes in the present than the past, when I finish. I wasn't sure if there was a 'right' way of doing it :)
 

Lakey

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Your question made me so curious! I’ve read a lot of books lately with this kind of structure— just off the top of my head I thought of five that I’ve read in the past year or two, and if I looked at my Goodreads I might even come up with more. So I went and looked at how those five began:
  • Jessica Anthony, Enter the Aardvark: Very brief prologue in the past storyline; Chapter 1 in the modern storyline
  • Bernice McFadden, Nowhere is a Place: Begins in the modern storyline.
  • Kirsty Manning, Song of the Jade Lily: Prologue in the past storyline; Chapter 1 in the modern storyline
  • Rachel Kadish, The Weight of Ink: Begins in the modern storyline
  • B.A. Shapiro, The Muralist: Begins in the modern storyline
So, it’s interesting to me that most of them start in the modern storyline, and the ones that start with the past frame it as a “prologue” even though there is going to be an entire storyline set in that time. That’s not what I would have expected as I sat here thinking about these books, probably because in most cases the past storyline is the more interesting one (Enter the Aardvark is possibly the only exception among these), at least in my opinion.

At any rate, while I agree with @Tocotin that there is no set convention and no “right” answer, I do wonder why I got the result I did for these five books. It might be that the authors/editors are concerned about hooking readers who are not normally readers of historical fiction. I am a hungry reader of historical fiction, and chose to read these books (again, with the exception of Enter the Aardvark) because of the historical story, not because of the modern one. But I may not be a typical reader! I really don’t know.

What have others seen in books other than the ones I’ve come up with here?

:e2coffee:
 
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Chris P

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So, it’s interesting to me that most of them start in the modern storyline, and the ones that start with the past frame it as a “prologue” even though there is going to be an entire storyline set in that time.

This is my observation too. Sort of a "Holy smokes, the MC is in a crazy-weird situation! How'd she get there?" In many cases, starting with the backstory first would have resulted in a slow burn build up that isn't so much in style today, especially since it's too often (raises a guilty hand) not done very well. Even then, starting with present time then going back to the build-up isn't done very well, either (too often it's too long and the wiz-bang opening feels like a gimmick). One book I recall doing this very well is Cherry by Nico Walker. It's not historical as such, but follows the "current opening, flashback" structure.

However, put the most exciting, reader-grabbing timeline first. If you lose the reader in the first timeline, they never make it to the second.
 
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Lakey

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This is my observation too. Sort of a "Holy smokes, the MC is in a crazy-weird situation! How'd she get there?" In many cases, starting with the backstory first would have resulted in a slow burn build up that isn't so much in style today, especially since it's too often (raises a guilty hand) not done very well.
Well, in the case of real dual-timeline stories like the ones I’ve cited, the past storyline isn’t backstory; it’s a separate story, with its own protagonist and its own backstory, that is connected in some way to the modern one; perhaps the characters are blood relations, or perhaps the past characters left artifacts that the present characters are studying, etc. There will also be thematic connections, of course. But the past storyline isn’t just there to set up the situation that the modern characters are in. It’s a complete story on its own. not just there to establish backstory for the modern storyline.

Back to my previous post: It occurrs to me that one of my favorite books of all time has this structure, although there is more than one past storyline (they do all converge eventually): Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. It begins with a prologue in one of the past storylines, and the first chapter is also in the past, in one of the other past storylines. That book, however, is now more than 20 years old.

:e2coffee:
 
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Thecla

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I too think the convention is to start with the present timeline, though it's not a rule and I've never seen the reasoning behind it articulated. It isn't just an English-language fiction convention either; Stefan Hertman's The Convert does so too but was first published in Dutch.

The convention seems the same in fantasy fiction, where dual past/present timelines (not flashbacks) are also common.

There doesn't seem to be any reason not to begin with the past (or future) time line, other than, perhaps, reader expectations. If, however, your novel involves flashbacks or flashforwards, then I would certainly advise starting in the now rather than in the past or present.
 

Tocotin

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So, it’s interesting to me that most of them start in the modern storyline, and the ones that start with the past frame it as a “prologue” even though there is going to be an entire storyline set in that time.
That's so interesting! I didn't remember reading all that many dual-timeline books, but I got curious and went to check. I found three books of that type that I'd read in the past 2-3 years, and here are my results:

1. The Lost Diary of Venice by Margaux DeRoux: Prologue and Chapter 1 in the modern storyline.
2. The Girl from the Garden by Parnaz Foroutan: Prologue in the past storyline, Chapter 1 in the present.
3. The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer: Prologue in the past storyline, Chapter 1 in the present.

I think that one of the reasons for this might be that those stories are often built around some sort of mystery from the past, which the modern-day characters has just stumbled upon, and they start investigating, and so the story unfolds.

:troll
 
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Chris P

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Well, in the case of real dual-timeline stories like the ones I’ve cited, the past storyline isn’t backstory; it’s a separate story, with its own protagonist and its own backstory, that is connected in some way to the modern one; perhaps the characters are blood relations, or perhaps the past characters left artifacts that the present characters are studying, etc. There will also be thematic connections, of course. But the past storyline isn’t just there to set up the situation that the modern characters are in. It’s a complete story on its own. not just there to establish backstory for the modern storyline.

Ooh, excellent observation. I've seen this done, although for whatever reason my memory of the structures of past readings mostly vanishes, although I remember the stories themselves okay. I think James Michener does this a lot, with the centuries-long narratives he's almost have to.
 

benbenberi

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Assuming you're going to be running the timelines simultaneously through the book, not blocking one in followed by the other, whichever one you start with is the one that readers will tend to identify as the Main Story, and the other as secondary, at least initially. Which one do you want your readers to pick as their anchor?

That you say there will be more space given to the present-timeline story than the past suggests the present-time story is really the main one. Start and finish with that one.
 
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Unimportant

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Hi everyone! I'm a long time lurker here, hoping to draw on your experience :)

My historical novel has a dual timeline. The main action is in the present day but it jumps back to the past to the MC's childhood. Are there conventions regarding which timeline to start with? I've currently used the past storyline but I just wanted to check.

Thanks in advance for your help!
It may depend partly on what kind of historical novel this is, and how you present the POV. My suggestions below are purely from the perspective of one reader with particular pet peeves.

A book with a cast of thousands (or, in the case of Russian literature, seven characters who each have twenty three different names) where the focus, the reader's main source of enjoyment, is the setting itself: doesn't matter.

A book with a likeable historical setting but where the reader is hooked mainly by the MC, and the market readership is middle grade: start with the past in the MC's child POV.

A book with a likeable historical setting but where the reader is hooked mainly by the MC, and the market readership is adult: start with present day or start with the past in the MC's adult-remembering-back POV. (This is because if I pick up a novel in pretty much any genre, and the first chapter is about a twelve year old skinning their knees or playing with dollies or helping Daddy in the smithy or whatever it is that kids do, I'll ditch it because I have pretty much zero interest in reading about kids. I'll never get to the next chapter and meet the MC as an adult.)
 

ishtar'sgate

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My situation is the opposite of yours. I begin in the present but most of the story is told in the past. I'd tossed around the idea of a prologue but decided against it. The story begins at an archaeological site then moves into the past, figuring a seamless transition from present to past would work best. It remains to be seen if I've made the right choice.
 

Siri Kirpal

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Sat Nam! (literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

I went and checked and nearly all the historicals on my shelves with shifting timelines started with the more contemporary line. One exception started with a short story written in the past line by one of the main characters in that line.

Frequently, someone in the present is investigating something in the past or is asked to write about that past or in some other way get entangled in that past. And the starting chapter explains how and/or why that investigation, etc., got started.

Blessings

Siri Kirpal
 

angeliz2k

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I think everyone's given great advice and made great observations.

I just want to put on record, though, that I don't like dual timelines because, to me, they almost always come off as gimmicky. It feels like the author is hedging their bets. "Don't like [insert time period here]? That's okay, because half the book is set in [insert other time period here]." It also usually starts with a "mystery" in one timeline or the other that's unfolded slowly, usually via the other timeline. That feels gimmicky, too, because it's artificial tension. The second timeline is only there as a reason not to tell us about x, y, z (because the characters in the other timeline don't know about x, y, z, so the author keeps it from us). The thematic ties can also be really tenuous and strained. And too often, one storyline is much better fleshed-out or interesting than the other, or the time period of one is just more appealing than the other.

Sorry, I didn't mean for this to become a rant about dual timelines. I just almost never see them done well, and they're quite trendy (she says sniffily).

But the above are some things to think about when constructing your dual-timeline story.
 

Lakey

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I just want to put on record, though, that I don't like dual timelines because, to me, they almost always come off as gimmicky. It feels like the author is hedging their bets.
Yeah, I can't say I disagree with this. I have a feeling they are popular because they open the door to marketing historical fiction to a general-fiction audience. I have absolutely no industry knowledge on which to base that statement, though, so take it for what it's worth. And I don't think it's impossible to do well, so if you (OP) have a smashing idea for a story like this, by all means go for it! (Of the books I listed above, indeed, some of them were smashing ideas, though some were not well executed, to this reader's eye.)

:e2coffee:
 
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BlackMoth

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Two recent novels I've read that have dual timelines are The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner and The Magnolia Palace by Fiona Davis (coming out January 25th). As others have said both contained two completely different stories but with a connection. In The Lost Apothecary, the heroine of the modern storyline finds a bottle that is featured in the past storyline, which sends her on to research where it came from. Usually, my problem with dual timeline stories is that one timeline is always more interesting than the other, and that is the problem I had with it. The past was more interesting to me, and the modern drama of the other one seemed like something I had to slug through to get to the next chapter featuring the past.

However with The Magnolia Palace (absolutely outstanding book, btw!) I loved both and both felt vital to the story, and had their own little connecting mysteries in every chapter that made me want to read on. If you're looking for an example of amazing dual timelines I highly recommend it!

Also, both of them, in this case, started with the past timeline.
 

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Nicola Griffith's Always (third in the Aud T trilogy) runs two timelines, though both contemporary. It's kind of weird in that one timeline is in her city of residence, and is what seems to be the very recent past (yanno, like last month) while the other is in the city she's visiting in the 'now'. The former has the MC teaching self defense classes and getting caught up in one of the students' domestic violence issues; the latter has her investigating real estate fraud and getting involved in a romantic relationship.

It kind of works, mostly because NG is skilled enough to pull it off, and both storylines are compelling, but it did come across as a teeny bit contrived to me. And, weirdly, I was more drawn to the first story rather than the second, despite the second being what I expect was the drawcard for most readers and which advanced the overarching storyline of the trilogy.
 
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benbenberi

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A recent novel that played with multiple timelines in very interesting ways was Natasha Pulley's The Kingdoms. It involves time travel, and alternate histories, but it also plays a lot with questions of identity, free will, and contingency. No contemporary anchor -- the primary narrative timeline turns out to relate to several past and relative future storylines in ways that are complicated and very spoilery. Highly recommended.
 
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Thecla

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The previous post by benbenberi reminded me of another book that does the dual timeline well, The Heavens by Sandra Newman. It is playing with history and genre, as well as the reader's perception of the characters. It also has some truly lovely writing.
 

Elizabeth George's book Write Away