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Marginal Notes

A Matter of Time

Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.

It was good advice when Lewis Carol gave it in Alice in Wonderland, and it still is. When your story follows a straight timeline, it’s a lot easier to show how one event flows into the next. This makes it simpler to show your characters’ growth and ramp your plot tension up toward your climax. It’s the way things unfold in the real world, and it’s usually the best way to tell your story.

But not always.

Not long ago, WU member Rebecca Vance posed a plotting problem on the WU Facebook page. Her protagonist, Sierra, a modern-day medium, needs to solve a murder that took place in a small mining town in Nevada in the 1870s in order to help the ghost of Rusty, the victim. At the same time Rusty, who had been a madam at one of the town’s brothels, helps Sierra overcome the damage of witnessing her own parents’ murder when she was a child.

It wouldn’t be hard to use Sierra’s memories and occasional brief flashbacks to show her parents’ murder. The details of the killing are less important than how it affects her. But to make the nineteenth-century mystery work as a mystery, Rebecca has to bring the characters and settings of the 1870s to life. You can’t really do that through secondhand description or snippets of flashbacks. The best choice is chapter-long extended scenes set in a past century.

So how do you build tension steadily with a plot that jumps back and forth in time? The trick is to pay attention to what your readers know and what they want to know. How do the revelations from one timeline change your readers’ understanding of what’s happening in the other? As readers see the 1870s story unfold, they’re going to get a better sense of who Rusty is. That will change their understanding of why her ghost found Sierra and how she might be able to help Sierra with her own problems. And as she works with Sierra, Rusty could gain insights that will reinterpret what’s happening in the past timeline. The plot might jump around in time, but the story – the readers’ grasp of what happens in both timelines and what it means – would build steadily toward its climax.

Keep in mind that, when you’re using two parallel timelines, it’s a good idea to choose the point where you jump from one to the other carefully. Ideally, if you can find a spot where the characters in one timeline need some piece of information that will be revealed in the other, your readers will be eager to keep reading through the jump.

Another possible reason to mix up your timeline is because you’ve got too much backstory to cover before the real action begins. I recently worked on a manuscript, since published -- George Dovel’s The Geometry of Vengance with just this problem. The original draft tracked the main character, Vital Moysett, from his childhood as a member of the Cathar heresy in thirteenth-century France to his adulthood as a successful architect working on cathedrals for the Catholic Church. Then, when he’s at the peak of his success, someone sabotages a cathedral he’s designed. It quickly becomes clear that he’s under attack by someone who knows his heretical past, and the remainder of the book is a tense thriller in which he tries to discover who is stalking him and why.

When I first read it, the first two thirds of the book were essentially backstory, with the book shifting gears radically once the attack began. The best solution was to split the timeline.

Now the story begins with the collapse of the cathedral. But the second chapter jumps back to a key moment from early in the backstory, when Vital was a young idealist, standing up to the orthodox establishment. The contrast between the young idealistic heretic and the older cynical architect drives readers to want to find out how he got from one place to the other. The story of his past is then told in chapter-long scenes, interspersed with the story of his being stalked in the present. The plot essentially becomes a double mystery – who is attacking him, and what happened to so thoroughly transform him?

Again, I suggested that the client cut back and forth between the two stories at critical moments – usually when the present story has revealed something about Vital’s history that the next chapter, set in the past, explains. With both mysteries building simultaneously, the climax of the story took on real punch.

Finally, mixing the timeline can often be the best way to build your main character. In E. L. Doctorow’s Andrew’s Brain, Andrew tells the story of his life to an unnamed therapist. Instead of separating past and present as different chapters, Doctorow seamlessly eases in and out of first person (Andrew telling his tale) and third person (extended flashbacks of Andrew’s life). I found the technique a bit confusing, but that’s a subject for another column. From the beginning, the story raises several dramatic questions. Who is the therapist Andrew is talking to? Why are these sessions taking place at all? And -- thanks to nearly the first scene we see of Andrew’s past -- why did he give the daughter he had with his beloved second wife to his first wife to raise?

Doctorow’s narrative jumps back and forth through Andrew’s life with abandon. But there is a thread that ties the various episodes together – Andrew is circling closer and closer to revealing what happened to his second wife, which is the emotional core of his life. As the book progresses, Andrew builds up the courage and the trust in the therapist to show more and more of himself, until we finally reach the dramatic climax that explains everything. The chronology is all over the map, but the book has a direct narrative drive.

And that’s the core of good storytelling – maintaining a constant drive toward the end. Even if you’re using a straightforward, beginning-to-end timeline, your readers don’t keep reading just out of momentum. They want to find the answer to some burning question, or to see the resolution to some problem. Being aware of that tension can help you manage it more effectively. So when you’re reading books that leave chronology behind – whether it’s Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, A. S. Byatt’s Possession, or Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife – pay attention to why you want to keep reading. How is the author leading you straight on, even as the chronology jumps around?

Once you learn to see how a story is more than a sequence of events, you’ll be able to raise dramatic tension in your readers at your beginning, then build that tension up until the end.

Then stop.