Writing dual timelines

Hello friends! This month, I’m taking you guys along on another research mission for my current WIP, COCKLE SHELLS AND SILVER BELLS. After outlining the plot months ago, I’ve now decided to add a second timeline set forty years earlier, using a secret diary as the mode of delivery for my additional POV. I’ve never done anything like this before, so I’ve been reading everything I can on the subject, and I thought some of you might be interested in what I’ve learned.

Adding a second timeline

Whose point of view?

So you’ve decided to add a secondary timeline to your novel, but you’re not quite sure how to go about it. First things first, you need to decide whether the POV will be your MC, or another character. Are you trying to show how earlier events lead to your character’s current situation? Was it their own doing, or a parent/ancestor? Maybe you’re writing a thriller or crime novel and want to include a timeline with one of the killer’s previous victims to show what could happen to your MC if they don’t get away. Dual timelines can (and should) both build tension and include exposition to keep your readers’ interest, so keep that in mind when deciding whose POV to use.

How to frame it

There are several ways you could frame the second timeline, aside from simply stating the name and date at the beginning of each chapter. Here are a few fun ideas:

  • A diary or letters
  • Flashbacks/memories
  • Cassette tapes, a la 13 Reasons Why (or a vlog perhaps)
  • Police records and interviews, a la Carrie
Dual timelines Lyndsey's Book Blog
How often should you switch between timelines?

Next, you need to think about the weight you want to give your secondary timeline. Is it strong enough to take up 50% of the novel? Is it more of a supporting subplot? It’s your choice how much of the story is spent in timeline number two, but it should be a significant enough amount that it couldn’t be cut without seriously affecting the story.

Whether you alternate every single chapter, or throw in a flashback every fifty pages, make sure your secondary timeline plot is essential to the story. You don’t want readers to skip to the next chapter whenever they reach a time change, but don’t worry too much about readers preferring one to the other – they probably will.

Writing your dual timeline novel

There are two main methods for writing your novel once you’ve decided on your two POVs and their plot points:

  • Write each timeline continuously and alternate them during editing.
  • Flip between timelines and write the novel as you intend it to be read.

Each has their merits, and it’s up to you to decide which one works best for you and your story. For my WIP, I plan to write through the main story from start to finish, leaving bullet points in the places where the diary entries will come up so I know which bits of narrative exposition have been revealed. Then I’ll go back and write the diary so I can really immerse myself in my second POV character and her 1970s time period.

A few final tips

As with any multi POV novel, your character voices need to be distinct. Even if your second timeline is still in your MCs voice, it should be clear that something has changed, especially if your character is considerably younger/older in your two timelines.

Make the transition between POVs connected in some way, i.e. make the exposition relevant to the main timeline and your MCs current conflict. If you’re writing a mystery, you could include a series of clues and red herrings, and use each time change to reveal the significance, or insignificance, of each one. This will keep your readers guessing and make sure they don’t skim over your secondary timeline, as they’d miss crucial exposition.

Read as many books with a similar narrative style to your planned WIP as possible before you start. This is where I’m up to with my outlining, so if you have any recommendations of books with a secondary timeline and POV using diaries or letters pop them in the comments please!

I hope you found that as useful as I did! It’s not as daunting as it seems at first glance, all it takes to write a novel with two timelines and two POV characters is a little extra planning and research. Good thing I’m a card carrying plotter then!

Until next time!



Writing dual timelines Lyndsey's Book Blog