I love to write in multiple timelines and points of view. I think it has something to do with my authorial attention span. I get tired of being in a certain character’s head or in a given time and place for too long. I need to escape and write differently for it to feel fresh. My second novel, The Sky Above Us, includes two timelines, six points of view, and several interstitial sections that are composed of a mixture of emails, discussion posts, and interviews. Here are the lessons I’ve learned from writing this way:
Track Your Timelines Visually
I need to see my timelines side-by-side so that I can keep track of what happens in each chapter but also so that I can plan intersections and discover resonances. (More on that below.) I track my timelines using a Google spreadsheet because I’m often bouncing from computer to computer. In a given row, I record the chapter number, character point of view, the date and time of the scenes, and a brief summary. I’ve seen plenty of authors use color-coded notecards with the same effect. No matter what system you use—it’s about creating a visual representation of what the readers are experiencing or learning in each timeline as they read the book in the chapter order you have designed.
Plan Intersections, Alignments, and Contradictions
I think part of the pleasure of reading a book written in multiple timelines is seeing how the author has crafted the timelines to intersect, align, or contradict. For The Sky Above Us, I knew I wanted to start the novel with a plane crash witnessed by my three female protagonists. They quickly learn that the three male protagonists were on board and set off to understand why the crash happened. This then jumpstarts the second timeline, which follows the boys in the month leading up to the crash. So, as the two timelines run side-by-side, the girls are trying to discover the truth behind the crash and the boys are living it. The book then ends where it began—with the plane crash, this time as experienced by the boys.
I suggest thinking about the structure of your timelines ahead of time—or somewhere in the early stages of writing. Are there places—at the climax, for example—where you want something exciting happening in one timeline and something equally exciting to happen in the other so that those sections read back-to-back? Or do you want to pace the book so that those exciting moments in the timeline are spaced out, allowing the reader to bob in and out of climactic moments? If you are not an outliner, then planning these intersections and alignments might come as you write or as you revise, which I’ll discuss below.
Allow Yourself to Be Surprised By Resonances
I knew ahead of time that I wanted the book to be structured so that the ending would bring us back to the same place where the readers started, but I didn’t know what the middle of the book would look like. I allowed myself to discover it as I wrote, which resulted in some resonances between the timelines. For example, two of my characters, Shane and Cass, dated for five years. After Shane dies in the plane crash, Cass visits the beach house where she and Shane first kissed when they were seventh graders. In a later scene, in the timeline a month leading up to the crash, Shane visits that same beach house, just after he and Cass broke up. I think of these scenes as working like a comedian’s call-back. There is new pleasure gained for the reader by experiencing something similar, but in a novel way, with hopefully a different revelation about the characters. Whether or not you are an outliner, I encourage you to keep yourself open to surprise resonances that can help your book to sing.
One of the major reasons I keep a visual representation of my timelines is so that I can easily rearrange the chapters and see if a new order will help the reader experience the book differently. Rearrange the rows on your spreadsheet or the note cards on your wall and see what it feels like to read the points on the timelines in that new order. You may discover new possibilities for alignment or find ways to resolve sluggish pacing. You may also see plot holes better that way.
Give Yourself Time and Space to Experience Revisions
Once I’ve tried out changes in my spreadsheet, I’ll enact the changes in the actual manuscript. I then give myself as much time as I can where I put the project aside. For me, this time and space are key to experiencing the manuscript as a reader might. If I reread the new order fresh off the change, the old order will be too familiar to me and I won’t be able to tell if the changes are working or not. With time and space, I can be a little more objective and evaluate whether I’ve done something that creates magic or if I need to try something different.