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Plotting in dual timeline novels

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Jazz Club

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Hey all. I have a question. In a dual-timeline novel, do you think it's important to have a fully-resolved plot in both timelines, or would it be OK for the earlier plot to function as more of a set-up for the later one? In my novel the dual plotlines are 10 years apart. Originally I had some flashbacks to explain what had happened to the characters at high school to explain why they are the way they are.

But then I realised the high school stuff was pretty interesting, so I decided to expand that aspect of the novel. I'm trying to follow the 5 major plot points in the 'adult' timelime, but I wonder should I be doing the same in the high school one, with a goal for the characters and a midpoint and climax everything like that? Or is it OK just to leave those scenes as a kind of 'set-up' to the adult plot?

I hope that was clear enough, I was struggling slightly to explain what I mean!:giggle:
 

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Hey all. I have a question. In a dual-timeline novel, do you think it's important to have a fully-resolved plot in both timelines, or would it be OK for the earlier plot to function as more of a set-up for the later one? In my novel the dual plotlines are 10 years apart. Originally I had some flashbacks to explain what had happened to the characters at high school to explain why they are the way they are.

But then I realised the high school stuff was pretty interesting, so I decided to expand that aspect of the novel. I'm trying to follow the 5 major plot points in the 'adult' timelime, but I wonder should I be doing the same in the high school one, with a goal for the characters and a midpoint and climax everything like that? Or is it OK just to leave those scenes as a kind of 'set-up' to the adult plot?

I hope that was clear enough, I was struggling slightly to explain what I mean!:giggle:
That's a tough one. "The high school stuff is pretty interesting" might be "interesting to the author but not all that compelling for the reader" or "interesting to the reader but not interesting enough to compensate for the necessary time-hopping that the reader has to do to keep up with both storylines" or "interesting enough that the strengths it adds to the story make up for the weaknesses of this kind of structure".
 

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I feel pretty strongly that if you have a true dual timeline (as opposed to the occasional short flashback) you should have a satisfying plot in each (I’m sure there is some exception somewhere, I’ve yet to find it ) ‘Set-up for something that happens in the present’ is a fancy way of saying backstory. Every time you pause to deliver back story (as opposed to weaving it it a present scene, such as having two characters in the present have an argument about something from their childhood that effects their present day relationship) you grind the present day story to a halt.

Now, if the past time line has it’s own complete story arc, then it’s no longer backstory; it’s still moving forward, just from a different point in time, the same way a dual pov novel might. Readers don’t care about scenes just because they’re interesting, they also want that sense of progress that makes them need to know what happens next, to turn the page.

Of course, as always, if you aren’t planning on selling this novel do whatever the heck you want, or write it because you want to with the knowledge you will likely need to cut it later.
 
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Hmm... Are the high school things just random, occasional flashbacks to provide context to the here-and-now storyline? If so, you may not need a completely plotline.

If you're telling a lot of history parallel to the modern storyline (along the lines of Stephen King's It, which - unlike the recent movies - intercuts the story of the characters' childhood encounter with the monster with their adult experiences facing it down, a back-and-forth that builds to its own climax in each era, even if the ultimate resolution of the monster only occurs in the adult timeline), then you probably want to have some sort of a plot for the flashback portion, ideally one that mirrors or bolsters the plot/themes of the here-and-now storyline.
 

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I feel pretty strongly that if you have a true dual timeline (as opposed to the occasional short flashback) you should have a satisfying plot in each

or write it because you want to with the knowledge you will likely need to cut it later.
I thought that's what most people would say. I was leaning towards thinking I needed a satisfying plot arc in both. It shouldn't be too hard to achieve with a bit more thought.

Although, your second point is also a good one. If it helps me establish the characters or main plot in my mind it could be worth writing it, even if it gets cut later.
 

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Hmm... Are the high school things just random, occasional flashbacks to provide context to the here-and-now storyline? If so, you may not need a completely plotline.
No, they explain how the MC meets his best friend and main enemy, who are main characters in the later plot. It also explains why he's paranoid and panicky as an adult (traumatic events as a teenager). There was so much I thought I needed to make it dual timeline:ROFLMAO:
 

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I don't THINK a dual timeline novel NEEDS to have a plot in each one, that is resolved by the end of each one. To me, "resolved" means "the conflict has been solved! the person got what they want!" But each timeline needs "this is the logical end of this plotline." Like in Watchmen (HBO or otherwise), all the past timelines "resolve" because there isn't much to see after it. Jon Osterman turns into the blue guy, Hooded Justice fully commits to the character he's playing, etc etc. There IS more things that happen, but are they really interesting? Not as interesting as what is going on in the present (which is why the spinoff "prequel" comics suck so much, since they're about a whole lot of nothing)(but this is also why the "prequel" parts of HBO Watchmen don't suck, because the past things it focuses on have direct impact/connections with the present plot).

There's another show that did dual timelines, with each episode alternating which timeline it is. But besides a (non-diegetic?) scene of a character that died at the end of ep 1 saying at the start of ep 2 "yeah here's what happened to me Way Before All That," there aren't many connections between the two plotlines. You know plot B is going to go a certain way in order for plot A to happen, so all the character interactions and other cutesy stuff in B is very "why is this here? why is this important?" Honestly, it reminds me a lot of Rogue 1, in that you already know what's going to happen, you know everyone is going to die, so the writers pull something random out of their butt to make it happen, so it all feels very cheap and dumb and a waste of your time. And I REALLY wanted to like this show, too! So I was already giving it a lot of free passes.

So: your past high schooler scenes, what do they REALLY accomplish? And is that the best way to do that?

haha I should really go look at my flashback scenes and really think them over I think there might be one too many I need to follow my own advice
 

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But then I realised the high school stuff was pretty interesting, so I decided to expand that aspect of the novel. I'm trying to follow the 5 major plot points in the 'adult' timelime, but I wonder should I be doing the same in the high school one, with a goal for the characters and a midpoint and climax everything like that? Or is it OK just to leave those scenes as a kind of 'set-up' to the adult plot?
I think (I'm sorry if I got your point wrong) that one option doesn't quite cancel out the other: the second timeline can have a full-scale plot which at the same time serves as a set-up for the main one. Kate Morton does it in her novels, with two or more timelines running parallel to each other.

The problem is that expanding the timelines might turn into an overkill. There would be just too much going on in different timelines, and if there's too little connection, the reader might just go: "hey, which one's the novel's actual plot?" I really love most of Kate Morton's books that I've read, but this is the way I felt about one of her novels, The Clockmaker's Daughter, where I just grew confused figuring out which plot is the main one and how one storyline relates to another.

Once Upon a Time, which I only started watching last year and am now halfway through, also did several timelines, and usually it works extremely well - however, some of the episodes swerve into pure filler and, although enjoyable to watch, leave the viewer wondering what they even have to do with any of the main story arcs.
 

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So: your past high schooler scenes, what do they REALLY accomplish? And is that the best way to do that?

haha I should really go look at my flashback scenes and really think them over I think there might be one too many I need to follow my own advice
They are a bit like an origin story in a superhero story, yes, although it isn't a superhero story! I know some people love those origin stories, and some think they're a big waste of time.

Lol didn't mean to make you consider following your own advice!! I hate having to do that ;)
 
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Jazz Club

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I think (I'm sorry if I got your point wrong) that one option doesn't quite cancel out the other: the second timeline can have a full-scale plot which at the same time serves as a set-up for the main one. Kate Morton does it in her novels, with two or more timelines running parallel to each other.
No, you totally got the point, don't worry. You're right that I should be able to do both. It's just that the two plots aren't even that far apart, time wise, and I can see some people wondering why I need the younger 0ne, but I've got attached to it myself now.

I'll have to check out Kate Morton for an example of somone who does this well. I think that's a good idea: read some more novels with this structure and try to unpick what works and what doesn't, and why. It seems like a lot of dual timeline novels have different characters across a couple of generations, e.g. a grandmother and then her granddaughter, whereas mine are the same people, just 10 years ago! It might be quite unusual, but then, unusual can be good too.
 
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I assume you are talking about two timelines that are interwoven through the book, as opposed to, say, a dozen chapters that take place ten years earlier followed by a dozen more chapters that take place now.

It seems like a lot of dual timeline novels have different characters across a couple of generations, e.g. a grandmother and then her granddaughter, whereas mine are the same people, just 10 years ago! It might be quite unusual, but then, unusual can be good too.

Many do cross more than one generation (or more than one lifetime), but I don't think it's too unusual to have a dual timeline featuring the same characters at two times. I can think of one example that does this astonishingly well: The Dispossessed, by Ursula LeGuin. It is extremely intricate because there is complex world-building as well as characterization and a unified story arc that all comes out perfectly through these alternating perspectives, the protagonist before a certain event and the protagonist during and after that event.

ETA: Andy Weir's Project Hail Mary has this structure too.

As for your story: I think it's important that your book as a whole have a unifying arc and theme. That might mean that the two timelines each have a complete and satisfying story arc--but that is neither necessary nor sufficient for a dual-timeline story to gel. You shouldn't include the past events as a full narrative (as opposed to as backstory) merely because they are interesting; if they rise to the level of a full narrative timeline it ought to be because they contribute to the arc and structure and theme of the book as a whole.


:e2coffee:
 
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I think I may be in a similar situation to you! Dual timeline novel, same character in both timelines, past timeline begins about a decade earlier and spans to the present day. I've agonised about the structure, knowing full well that this format can be so hit and miss with readers!

For me, I've worried less about a secondary 'plot' in the past timeline, and focused on making sure that every event I go back to has an important reason for being there. Each 'flashback' is its own self-contained chapter, there's no filler involved, and each links to the present day chapter before and after it (and the story as a whole!) in a way that makes sense and hopefully helps prevent it from feeling disjointed.

Inevitability is a big theme for my story, and that's part of the reason I chose the structure I did. I'm fine for readers to know what's coming, and I'm trying to tell the story of how we get there, if that makes sense? Whether that will work out or not remains to be seen! Also, I'm writing lit fic, so I'm generally more focused on character than plot for the most part anyway.

I'm not sure I'm being at all helpful here, but I guess my suggestion is to avoid filling out a plot for your past timeline just for the sake of it. If you can create a compelling storyline that complements and supports your present day plot, fantastic! But if you're feeling as though you have to shoehorn one in just because you feel like you should, there might be a different approach that works better for your story. Good luck with it!

Edit: @Lakey put this into words far better than I did, apologies for the repetition!
 

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I'll have to check out Kate Morton for an example of somone who does this well. I think that's a good idea: read some more novels with this structure and try to unpick what works and what doesn't, and why. It seems like a lot of dual timeline novels have different characters across a couple of generations, e.g. a grandmother and then her granddaughter, whereas mine are the same people, just 10 years ago! It might be quite unusual, but then, unusual can be good too.
Kate Morton also frequently has the same characters in different timelines. My favorite books of hers are The Secret Keeper and The Lake House; The House at Riverton is nice too; The Forgotten Garden is beautifully written but the reveal, IMHO, is somewhat underwhelming.
 
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I assume you are talking about two timelines that are interwoven through the book, as opposed to, say, a dozen chapters that take place ten years earlier followed by a dozen more chapters that take place now.

As for your story: I think it's important that your book as a whole have a unifying arc and theme. That might mean that the two timelines each have a complete and satisfying story arc--but that is neither necessary nor sufficient for a dual-timeline story to gel. You shouldn't include the past events as a full narrative (as opposed to as backstory) merely because they are interesting; if they rise to the level of a full narrative timeline it ought to be because they contribute to the arc and structure and theme of the book as a whole.


:e2coffee:
Yup, the timelines are interwoven throughout the novel.

The two timelines definitely share the same theme. The earlier timeline really helps to make the theme of the whole novel clear, that's one reason why I'd like to keep it.

Thanks for the recommendations of other dual timeline books! I've heard so many good things about Ursula leGuin from diferent people, I'm going to have to give her a try. For some reason I've never got round to reading any of her books yet.
 
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Jazz Club

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I think I may be in a similar situation to you! Dual timeline novel, same character in both timelines, past timeline begins about a decade earlier and spans to the present day. I've agonised about the structure, knowing full well that this format can be so hit and miss with readers!



I'm not sure I'm being at all helpful here,
You're being very helpful, don't worry! I'm glad I'm not the only one with dual timelines so close together. I know what you mean about litfic and the plot being less important than characters/theme. Mine's definitely not litfic (thriller actually) but hopefully I can still get away with this structure if I'm careful lol.

Yours sounds very interesting, and the dual timeline sounds like a great way of highlighting a theme of inevitability. I guess the reader can see the future events coming from the 'past' plot? So as you say, it's all about how they get there, not so much about being surprised. Best of luck with it:D
 
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MythMonger

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My favorite example of a dual timeline is Godfather 2.

Both timelines have a fully resolved plot, which is part of the genius of that movie.
 
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A dual timeline are interesting to write. If you weave them together so one supports the main plot then it will work. If not then it feels like one of the stories isn't finished. If your readers like the one that has no resolution then it will leave them disappointed.
 
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benbenberi

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My favorite example of a dual timeline is Godfather 2.

Both timelines have a fully resolved plot, which is part of the genius of that movie.
Not only do they both have fully resolved plots, but the main characters have exactly opposite arcs. It's a brilliant structure. (And one that the version that reedits it into chronological sequence completely misses and wrecks.)

N.K. Jemisin used multiple timelines in The Fifth Season with devastating effect. Three different perspectives on common themes, but the link between them may not be obvious for some time.
 
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My favorite example of a dual timeline is Godfather 2.

Both timelines have a fully resolved plot, which is part of the genius of that movie.
I've never seen the movie, just read the book and it was a long time ago. I can't really remember whether it was dual timeline...
 

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I've never seen the movie, just read the book and it was a long time ago. I can't really remember whether it was dual timeline...
The first Godfather movie was based on the novel. (Better than the novel, which was pretty trashy.) The Godfather 2 was an original script, which used some of the characters from the novel to tell a more expansive story. If you have any interest in film or narrative it's a must-see.
 

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The first Godfather movie was based on the novel. (Better than the novel, which was pretty trashy.)
I loved the novel. It was just about my level :ROFLMAO::ROFLMAO:

I will definitely check out the movie though. Everyone raves about it and I don't know how I've managed to avoid seeing it this long!
 

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