This blog was featured on 07/10/2018
Writing Dual Timelines
Written by
She Writes
July 2018
Written by
She Writes
July 2018

This guest post was provided by Susie Orman Schnall, the award-winning author of The Subway Girls, The Balance Project, and On Grace. She’s a frequent speaker, and her writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times, HuffPost and Harper’s Bazaar. Susie grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and lives with her husband and three sons in New York.

Perhaps it was Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, though it might have been Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum, or any one of Beatriz Williams’s or Fiona Davis’s bestsellers, but at some point I fell in love with dual storyline novels. The way the experiences of the characters in the past inform the behavior or circumstances of the characters in the present. The way a fascinating piece of history is revealed. The way you get two stories for the price of one.

When it came time to write my third novel, The Subway Girls—my first two novels having been contemporary fiction—writing alternating storylines seemed to be the perfect structure for the subject I had chosen.

I had first heard about the Miss Subways campaign on NPR. It was a beauty contest advertising campaign for the NYC subway system that took place from 1941-1976. I knew immediately that I wanted to write a novel based on this charming and unique slice of New York history and its underlying current of female ambition. I thought the story and the exploration of its themes would best be told by setting one storyline in 1949 (based upon Charlotte competing for Miss Subways) and the other in 2018 (based upon Olivia pitching the MTA advertising business and coming across Miss Subways in her research).

Deciding to write in alternating storylines was one thing. Actually doing it, well, that was certainly another learning curve entirely. I’ll save you the hassle of figuring it out on your own. Here’s my advice:

Choose a Course of Action

Some authors will write one time period’s entire narrative and then the next, while others will write in the chapter order switching off timelines as they go. I chose the first approach. I first wrote the entire 1949 storyline and then I wrote 2018. I also designated odd chapters as 1949 and even as 2018 and switched off one for one, while other authors might dedicate several chapters to a timeline before they switch to another. It doesn’t much matter which option you choose, as long as it serves your story, but figure out what works for you and then stick to it.

Weave it Together

Either way you choose to write, you’ll still need to decide how to weave the two storylines together thematically, chronologically, and structurally. This is where index cards are handy, and this can be done before you start writing or after you’ve completed a first draft. I wrote all of the scenes for each storyline on index cards. I then laid them out, the 1949 cards in a row above the 2018 cards, and went to work organizing and reorganizing to finalize how the story would be told. Of course, things changed once I started writing, but it was helpful to have an initial blueprint. It’s also important to have a sound reason why you need both storylines for this particular novel—they have to relate to each other in an essential and meaningful way.

Make it Clear

Don’t make the reader guess each chapter’s timeframe. Label the chapters clearly by year or character so your reader doesn’t have to do all the work and potentially slam your book down in frustration because he or she feels lost.

Reveal Strategically

You’ll have to decide when to reveal, hint, and foreshadow your reversals, twists, and surprises to best serve your story and your readers. For instance, I debated whether to reveal something in my 2018 storyline that my character in 1949 didn’t even know about herself yet. I thought it would be amusing for my reader to be “in on it.” But I easily could have held out and let my reader find out when the 1949 character did. Consider the timing ramifications as they will affect your reader’s experience.

Converge... Or Don't

Having characters from your two storylines meet up at some point depends entirely on your story. Perhaps a character who is young in the earlier timeframe is also a character, older of course, in the later timeframe. It’s also feasible that the years you set your storylines in are too distant to enable such an encounter. There are a number of options, so have fun with the possibilities.

Make Each Shine

One popular complaint about dual storylines is that the reader will often prefer one timeframe to another, rushing through the modern narrative to get back to the past or vice versa. Ensure that each of your storylines has enough tension, conflict, and plot development to keep the reader engaged with both. For true dual storyline novels, one narrative should not be weaker just to be in service to the “main” one—they should each be able to stand alone as individual stories.  And if you find that one storyline isn’t strong enough, either enhance it or forego it entirely and use its components in other ways in the novel, i.e. an epilogue or flash backs.

What’s your favorite novel with an alternating storyline? Have you written one yourself? If so, share your tips below.

Let's be friends

The Women Behind She Writes

519 articles
12 articles

Featured Members (7)

123 articles
392 articles
54 articles
60 articles

Featured Groups (7)

Trending Articles

  • Jill G. Hall

    Nice article. I'm going to go get The Subway Girls now. I also write historical novels with dual timelines. When I was writing my first book I thought I had two different novels going but then I found a black velvet coat that both characters owned and realized they were connected and that it was all one novel. It's so nice to hear from someone else who writes this genre!