Hatrack River
Home   |   About Orson Scott Card   |   News & Reviews   |   OSC Library   |   Forums   |   Contact   |   Links
Research Area   |   Writing Lessons   |   Writers Workshops   |   OSC at SVU   |   Calendar   |   Store
E-mail this page
Hatrack River Writers Workshop Post New Topic  Post A Reply
my profile login | register | search | faq | forum home

  next oldest topic   next newest topic
» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » multiple timelines

   
Author Topic: multiple timelines
micmcd
Member
Member # 7977

 - posted      Profile for micmcd   Email micmcd         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
What is the key to making multiple timelines work together well in a book? There are a handful of examples where having a story switch back and forth from the past to the present has worked very well and enriched both stories, but I'm struggling with the issue of whether or not it ruins the tone. Stephen King's IT is by far my favorite example of when switching past to present worked beautifully, though a more recent example of a story that did it well is Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora.

In particular, I'm torn as to where I draw the line between good character history that the author should know, but not necessarily mention. In my case, the MC is by far the most interesting and unique person in the book, but he is rarely a POV character - he's something of a spy, and all of my test readers have enjoyed being surprised by him most of the time, but in on the deceptions in key instances. His struggles and successes in childhood, though are such key parts of who he is that I want the reader to experience them. A few of my test readers have really enjoyed the childhood scenes, so I'd like to keep them in somehow.

How do you piece together background in a firsthand fasion in a way that keeps a reader happy? When is it info-dumping, and when does it enhance the story that is in the "present" of the book - which I'm sure has to be the more interesting of the two timelines, mainly to prevent the feeling of the present timeline being just a "and here's where the characters eneded up" at the end of a movie.


Posts: 499 | Registered: May 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Robert Nowall
Member
Member # 2764

 - posted      Profile for Robert Nowall   Email Robert Nowall         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
(I thought "It" was a longer and muddier version of the novella that later became the movie "Stand By Me," actually.)

I figure a good way would be to work out the full biography of the POV character, from ancestry and birth up to the last time you lay eyes on him in the story...then figure out which stretches go into the story you're writing and where. (I say "a good way," though I've never been able to do it myself.)


Posts: 8229 | Registered: Aug 2005  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
micmcd
Member
Member # 7977

 - posted      Profile for micmcd   Email micmcd         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
The issue, to me, is how to tell whether or not something is really a part of the story.

In my example, some scenes I wrote show how he realized he wanted to become a spy of sorts, and how he met some of the characters he interacts with in the present, but the actions aren't part of the main plotline in the present day of the book. The have influences on the present, but I would hesitate to call them part of the story.


Posts: 499 | Registered: May 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
philocinemas
Member
Member # 8108

 - posted      Profile for philocinemas   Email philocinemas         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I believe It was a stand-alone novel, where "Stand by Me" was an excerpt from "The Body" a (long) short story.

micmcd - maybe you could tie in what he is doing as a child into his actions as a spy - I don't recall any story taking that approach and it sounds like it would be a fun concept.


Posts: 2003 | Registered: Jul 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
WouldBe
Member
Member # 5682

 - posted      Profile for WouldBe   Email WouldBe         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
James Michener's [u]The Source[/u] is an historical fiction example. Modern archeologists at a dig in one time line and the ancients who lived there in another.

You can probably find some events in the child's life that tie in to the later story, even if they merely explain a skill, behavior or flaw of the character.


Posts: 746 | Registered: Jun 2007  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
micmcd
Member
Member # 7977

 - posted      Profile for micmcd   Email micmcd         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
There are definite connections to what he does as a child to the way he operates as an adult, and there are lots of interesting significant moments... for example, he is a mute child that (like many mute children) is perfectly capable of talking, and the first time he speaks, it is to tell a lie to someone he loves (a theme throughout his life).

I think it's workable. I suppose I was more wondering if there are some easy gotchas that people know of from others who have tried and failed to incorporate child/adult past/present storylines. I've only read a few examples in published works, and those went quite well, but it's the kind of storytelling device that I could easily see being misused.

As a contrast, I know the silly pitfalls of bad description and classic examples of tell vs show. "Bob was scared of the ghost and was too afraid to run." vs "Bob fell back into the corner, his eyes fixated on the pulsating wisp floating like the breath of a tomb. He wanted nothing in the world but to flee, but he couldn't force himself to move."

Does anyone know of a few cardinal sins of parallel timelines, particularly when used with the protagonist as a child and then as an adult?


Posts: 499 | Registered: May 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
TaleSpinner
Member
Member # 5638

 - posted      Profile for TaleSpinner   Email TaleSpinner         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I don't know about cardinal sins, but The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger is the best example I've ever read of a time travel story--and I read it despite that it's a love story. The interweaving of the timelines, histories and memories of the two lovers is absolutely masterful.

Pat


Posts: 1589 | Registered: Jun 2007  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Crystal Stevens
Member
Member # 8006

 - posted      Profile for Crystal Stevens   Email Crystal Stevens         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I'm not sure what your definition of "mute" is, but a mute cannot talk... at least not verbally. That is what "mute" means. Check the dictionary:

mute - 1. not speaking; silent--adj 2. unable to speak--n 1. a deaf mute 2. a device that softens the sound of a musical instrument

I know it's not science fiction or fantasy, but the best example of parallel timelines that I've ever read was Brotherhood of the Holy Shroud. The author was a master of intertwining the two from going from present day back to over 1000 years into the past. She knew her history, did all the research, and wrote the book. Although it is more a mystery than anything else, it's well worth the read.

[This message has been edited by Crystal Stevens (edited November 08, 2008).]


Posts: 1318 | Registered: May 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
philocinemas
Member
Member # 8108

 - posted      Profile for philocinemas   Email philocinemas         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Crystal, what I believe micmcd is referring to is a condition known as "selective mutism". Typically it occurs in children who have experienced some traumatic event, but not always.
Posts: 2003 | Registered: Jul 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
Administrator
Member # 59

 - posted      Profile for Kathleen Dalton Woodbury   Email Kathleen Dalton Woodbury         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Confusing the reader is one of the major sins writers have to watch out for. With more than one timeline, the potential for reader confusion is much greater, so I'd recommend that you make very sure that you are clear which timeline you are in as soon as possible every time you switch.

Nicola Griffiths' Nebula-award-winning book, SLOW RIVER, has three timelines, and she did a masterful job of making the timeline changes absolutely clear.


Posts: 7996 | Registered: A Long Time Ago!  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
micmcd
Member
Member # 7977

 - posted      Profile for micmcd   Email micmcd         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Crystal - my definition of "mute" is the same as the medical community's:

A child suffering from mutism often is perfectly capable of speaking, and furthermore often does so at home, but usually not in a public setting. It does not correspond with a lack of confidence. In fact, such a child is often very much in command in a setting where they refuse to speak (though are often expected to do so), such as at school.

http://neurology.health-cares.net/mutism.php
"Mutism is the inability or unwillingness to speak"
"The child has the ability to converse normally, and does so, for example, in the home, but consistently fails to speak in specific situations such as at school or with strangers. It is estimated that one in every 1,000 school-age children
are affected."


Posts: 499 | Registered: May 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
micmcd
Member
Member # 7977

 - posted      Profile for micmcd   Email micmcd         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Thanks for the examples of other novels that do multiple timelines well, everyone.

I am indeed worried about the cardinal sin of confusing the reader about what is past and what is present. I'm hoping that making it obvious that in one setting/timeline, the characters are children, and in the other they are adults, this is made pretty clear. I was hoping to avoid the bluntness of printing a date at the beginning of each chapter, and I think I'll be able to do so.

Out of curiosity, has anyone ever read a book where timelines were done in a confusing manner, or the child/adult parallel storylines failed? Sometimes a negative example can be even more powerful than a positive one... we always want to write like a good published author, but I have have several occasions myself where I saw something dreadful and realized I had a few of the same mistakes in my own writing.


Posts: 499 | Registered: May 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
Administrator
Member # 59

 - posted      Profile for Kathleen Dalton Woodbury   Email Kathleen Dalton Woodbury         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
A book I read recently (and liked very, very much) had chapters that took place in the main character's past, and while it was clear they were children, in all but one chapter the author neglected to say what age they were, and I found that confusing.

The author may have felt it wasn't necessary, or even edited the ages out under the idea that they were boring, but I was a little frustrated by it because the chapters were not inserted in a consistent order, and I wanted to know which incidents/scenes happened in what order.

The book was WHEN CRICKET CRY by Charles Martin, and it was very good in spite of the above frustration.


Posts: 7996 | Registered: A Long Time Ago!  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Unwritten
Member
Member # 7960

 - posted      Profile for Unwritten   Email Unwritten         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Earlier in the day, I wrote a post about Holes for this thread. Maybe I put it in the wrong thread--anyway, it's lost. If someone finds it, could you let me know?

The gist of the post was that although Holes has a rotten premise, it very well-written. It's a YA story, and I think it's well worth looking at if you want a simple story with multiple timelines.
Melanie

[This message has been edited by Unwritten (edited November 10, 2008).]


Posts: 938 | Registered: May 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
steffenwolf
Member
Member # 8250

 - posted      Profile for steffenwolf           Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Another thing you have to think about in multiple timelines of a single character's life is that you may not be able to garner as much life-or-death tension in the earlier timeline, since you already know this person survives to the later timeline.

Another thing to think about is whether the character is experiencing the time jumps with you, in the form of flashbacks. He sees a person or an object that reminds him of something, the scene ends there, and begins the next scene in the earlier time, for instance.

I'm currently reading a story that doesn't have exactly the dual time line idea you're referring to, but is a similar idea with a little more blurred boundary. It's Duma Key by Stephen King. The first 100 pages or so were a little confusing to me (but still good), because the character is telling the whole thing in first person after years and years of events, and they're not totally in order. This makes sense, given the story, he has brain damage and the character's memory is very associative, jumping from topic to seemingly unrelated topic and not necessarily in chronological order. Later on the storytelling becomes much more linear.


Posts: 297 | Registered: Oct 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
deebum25
Member
Member # 8286

 - posted      Profile for deebum25           Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I have a friend (seriously, he's a friend) who wrote a John Grisham-y type thriller and when you got to the end the killer was a surprise but there was absolutely no backstory. (Probalby why he was a surprise.) So my question would be since you speak of multiple timelines would you be looking to rely on flashbacks all during the story, perhaps in alternating chapters or one gotcha flashback at the end that explains it all?
Posts: 44 | Registered: Nov 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
deebum25
Member
Member # 8286

 - posted      Profile for deebum25           Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
And now that I've fully unwrapped my brain you mention that your readers are happy to be surprised by your MC, but at the end are they going to be scratching their heads because all the puzzle pieces don't fit? That was where I was inching toward in my previous post. Readers were surprised at the end but not satisfied. Whew!
Posts: 44 | Registered: Nov 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
micmcd
Member
Member # 7977

 - posted      Profile for micmcd   Email micmcd         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Thanks again to everyone for all the feedback. I don't intend to use the earlier timeline as a flashback from the POV of the character. The point about not trying to create does-he-or-doesn't-he survive tension is a good one! It's something that, while seemingly obvious, could be an easy thing to forget.

The point of the earlier chapters is to get into the head of the MC a little and understand how he became the way he is. It also gives a little bit more time for the story to be focused exclusively on him.

Is that a danger though? I didn't particularly plan to go through the lives of the other major characters - few of them are as interesting as the MC and many of them have more "standard" childhoods. This isn't the story of a childhood group of friends who grow up to work together, (like King's IT). Some of the characters knew each other as children, and that childhood background plays a small part in how they know each other as adults, but it isn't a focus of the plot.

My idea in keeping it focused on the main character (shameless plug** whom you can interview in the Character interviews board on Hatrack) was to give that storyline almost a feel of its own, rather than using glimpses of the past to explain a mystery in the future.

Will readers then expect to see a glimpse from the childhood of all the main characters? Will they expect to see the villain at this time frame? The MC has no interaction with the villain as a child, and the villain is 1 generation older than the "heroes" anyhow.

Hmm... interesting.


Posts: 499 | Registered: May 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
micmcd
Member
Member # 7977

 - posted      Profile for micmcd   Email micmcd         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Just wanted to clarify what might be a point of confusion - the MC is rarely the POV character, so it wouldn't work to have him be experiencing the "flashbacks" with the reader, as suggested. In the "present" timeline, I stay out of the head of the MC as much as possible.
Posts: 499 | Registered: May 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
steffenwolf
Member
Member # 8250

 - posted      Profile for steffenwolf           Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I'll mention Duma Key again, because it's fresh in my mind. In this book, most of the book is 1st person from Edgar's point of view, but there are interspersed short sections in 3rd person from another character's point of view. It took me a little while to figure out who she was and how she was related to Edgar in the story. King pulled it off well, because it shows this character is vital if we're spending this time learning about her childhood, and some of things that happen in her timeline have parallels in the current timeline so it's related in several ways.

That being said, doing that would be difficult. You'd have to be very careful how you did it. I don't think I could pull it off at this point in my career..

And I don't think showing the childhood of one character implies that you need to go through the childhood of others. The fact that you're doing only the one might imply to a reader that this character is the most important to the story. As opposed to King's IT, where each of the six adults was equally important, so you want to get details about each of their childhoods.


Posts: 297 | Registered: Oct 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
deebum25
Member
Member # 8286

 - posted      Profile for deebum25           Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I agree that you don't have to tell everyone's childhood and it seems like it would just funk up the story. Let us know 3rd person (I think that's how you said you were writing) what's relevant in the childhood and leave it at that.
Posts: 44 | Registered: Nov 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
   

Quick Reply
Message:

HTML is not enabled.
UBB Code™ is enabled.
UBB Code™ Images not permitted.
Instant Graemlins
   


Post New Topic  Post A Reply Close Topic   Feature Topic   Move Topic   Delete Topic next oldest topic   next newest topic
 - Printer-friendly view of this topic
Hop To:


Contact Us | Hatrack River Home Page

Copyright © 2008 Hatrack River Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.


Powered by Infopop Corporation
UBB.classic™ 6.7.2