How to Write Dual Timelines

Not all stories are told from just one point of view. There may be multiple characters, which shift in perspective, or multiple characters in different, distinguishable settings and circumstances. These stories have what’s called dual timelines.

Even though there is more than one perspective, these are not two different stories put together. They work together to make one story. But how do you write dual timelines? Read below to know what to keep in mind.

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Every Character Needs These Things

Before worrying about how to connect multiple stories together, remember the basics of a story and its characters! Don’t freak out!

When working on any type of story, whether you’re following a three-act structure or otherwise, your characters need goals and motivations. These things help make them more three-dimensional while also pushing the story forward. To start off, imagine you only have one character, one story. The character needs something to strive for. It might be a good thing or a bad thing, but they need to have a goal in mind, some sort of mission, that forces them to make decisions that develops their character. Dual timelines add to this. Now there’s more than one character with more than one motivation. Both follow the structured plot of your choosing, but readers become invested in both stories because both keep readers engaged. Readers can shift from one to the other without confusion, and they understand the sequence of events, even if they’re not presented all at once.

Remember to keep an eye on plot structure. Are both characters actively working toward their separate, distinct goals? Do they grow as characters? Are they both heading toward a climax and eventual resolution? Are the decisions they make or are any events happening that move the plot forward?

I used the three-act structure for reference. Here’s a picture of what that looks like for reference, along with the source it comes from.

Maintain the Worldbuilding and Setting

Besides the characters, both stories need to maintain their sense of place. You have a couple of options here. Sometimes multiple characters exist in the same setting but they exist to share different perspectives on the same issue. Other times one character may be in one setting while another character belongs in an entirely different world or setting, at different times. So remember:

If you have more than one world, each world must follow its own rules. In fantasy or any other genre where a new world is built, you need rules. Rules for how the world works, how society functions, the importance of certain activities, dress, customs, etc. If you have more than one world, each must be equally developed. Each must have strong details that engage readers even as they shift from one to the other. (Here’s one of my posts on worldbuilding for what to include!)

If you have more than one time period, make sure the aspects of those time periods are accurate. If you have, say, a historical fiction setting paired with a modern one, make sure you keep the details accurate to the time period. Know the rules of society, how they dressed, the customs, how they spoke. Even if part of your story takes place in a world your readers are familiar with, readers need the necessary information for both, meaning everything must be authentic.

Don’t make things too complicated! In any case, too many details weigh your world and setting down, whether that be details in the description or extra info in the world that you think your readers should know. It’s important to keep things simple, especially with more than one story to keep track of. Don’t confuse your readers by bogging them down with information they don’t need to remember.

Find Ways to Connect Each Story

Now we’re getting to the tricky part. This is where writers can potentially mess up the dual timelines they’ve created. We talked about the three-act structure to build the stories, but the dual timelines must come into play toward the end. By the conclusion, both stories must work together in an implicit or an explicit way. This all depends on where both characters exist. If one character is in an entirely different world or time period, it’s not likely they’ll interact with the other character (unless you have time travel or something along those lines). If the two different perspectives are in the same setting, you can expect their stories to build up and connect with their meeting, or at least the events they both experience will intertwine.

However, start small. Say, for example, one perspective exists in the modern world, while the other is in the past. Build up small details and events that reference the other time period, so that the character at least knows of the other character’s time and circumstances. Continue building the plot of the other world/timeline and intersperse those sequences at the appropriate time. By the end, the past events you built up should have a major impact on the present perspective, connecting the resolving the two stories. The 1998 novel Holes by Louis Sachar is a great example of this. There’s multiple perspectives, but details connect throughout. Katherine Barlow has her own story in the past, but her story connects to main character Stanley and his family in the present day and overall influences the plot of the story.

Remember that there must be a balance. Neglecting one world and prioritizing the other will only discourage your readers. Take good care of both equally to make the dual timelines stand on their own while also working together. When they exist for each other’s benefit, they both push toward a successful and engaging conclusion readers will love.

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