Nonlinear narratives – stories where events don’t happen in chronological order – are extremely useful for tension and pacing, but can be confusing to read and are notoriously difficult to write.
Movies such as Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and The Usual Suspects have nonlinear structures, as did the rom-com Sliding Doors. But visual cues can more readily demonstrate the subtle time shifts a reader might otherwise miss in a novel (cue Gwyneth Paltrow’s different haircuts).
Attempting a nonlinear narrative for my first novel was ambitious, although I was no stranger to stories with that structure. Josie Lloyd & Emlyn Rees’ The Boy Next Door, Jojo Moyes’ The Girl You Left Behind or Lisa Jewell’s The House We Grew Up In are all examples of books I’d enjoyed. I was used to being shifted back and forth in time, and liked the suspense it created – unravelling the past and the present a little at a time, and in alternating chapters, always a source of excitement.
Both of my novels have nonlinear timelines. My first, Time After Time, had a simple premise; unhappy, forty-something Hayley wonders about the choices she’s made. One morning she wakes up married to her first boyfriend, Chris, whom she hasn’t seen in twenty years.
At this point the nonlinear narrative kicks in – back to the late 80s when Hayley met Chris, how their relationship started and subsequently fell apart. Then, in the alternate present, Hayley learns how her life would be had she and Chris stayed together. Hayley gets these glimpses with her other exes, too.
My second novel The Neighbors (available March 13, 2018) was more complicated because it has four viewpoint characters (and goes against point 3 below, which I ignored at my own peril!). The Neighbors is about two families, and deeply buried secrets that resurface, setting everyone on a destructive collision course. The first chapter shows an accident from 20 years ago, while the second is in the present. Over the course of the novel, and through a changing timeline, the reader discovers what each character is hiding, and what really happened all those years ago. All worth it in the end, but I’ll admit it led to many tear-your-hair-out moments as I wrote it.
If you think your story might work with a nonlinear timeline, and are unsure how to write it, here are some suggestions to help get you on your time-hopping way:
A 2,000 word story is easier to lay out in a non-chronological order than an 85,000 word novel. Start small, see how it works, and build from there.
Grab two sets of different coloured sticky notes, use one for the past, the other for the present. Write your chapters or scenes in bullet point form, pop them on the board and start playing around with interweaving the timelines.
If you can, stick to your main protagonist’s point of view. Writing a nonlinear story from one person’s perspective will be simpler than attempting to interweave chapters with different timelines and alternate POV’s. You can always consider adding a second (or more) POV’s later.
Or make a list of events in chronological order so you fully understand the timeline. If it’s not clear to you, it probably won’t be to your reader, either.
Once you’ve written the chapters (or list of events) in chronological order, physically interweave the pages to work out the best possible flow.
Have fun taking your readers back in time but think about time-hopping all over the place or you’ll risk losing them. Confused? Fair enough. This is best illustrated with two examples:
|Example 1||Example 2|
|Chapter 1||January 2017||Chapter 1||February 2017|
|Chapter 2||April 1985||Chapter 2||May 1985|
|Chapter 3||February 2017||Chapter 3||January 2017|
|Chapter 4||May 1985||Chapter 4||April 1985|
In Example 1 there are two storylines; one in 2017 and the other in 1985. While the chapters are interwoven present/past, the story of 2017 follows in chronological order (January, February) as does the story set in 1985 (April, May).
In Example 2 the chapters shift from 2017 to 1985. However, they also jump backwards within each year (e.g. February to January of 2017, May to April of 1985). This is difficult to pull off because you’re “double-shifting” the reader.
Use a chapter heading with “XX years ago” or “Present Day” or simply the date. This will remind the reader which storyline they’re in. Add the character’s name if you have multiple points of view.
Enquire how they felt about the timeline and the structure of the story. What, if anything, did they find confusing?
I’m editing my third novel, which has (*sighs with relief*) a linear narrative, and I see the attraction of structuring a manuscript this way. It’s saved me lots of head-scratching and under-my-breath muttering about the “ruddy timeline” (but not about the plot or the characters). Then again the story wouldn’t lend itself to a nonlinear narrative, so there’s little point in overcomplicating things for myself or a potential audience.
Whether you use a nonlinear narrative ultimately depends on your story. Start by asking yourself if it’ll make the novel more compelling, and if it’s a journey you think you – and your readers – will want to take. And if the answer is a resounding yes, buckle up, and enjoy the ride. Best of luck!
Have you tried time shifting? Ever wanted to? Any tips for us?
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Hannah Mary was born in the UK, grew up in Switzerland and moved to Canada in 2010. After a successful career in recruitment, she quit the corporate world in favor of writing. The Neighbors is Hannah Mary’s second novel. She lives in Oakville, Ontario, with her husband and three sons, and is delighted by her twenty second commute. Connect with her on Facebook, on Twitter @HannahMMcKinnon, and on Instagram @HannahMaryMcKinnon. For more, visit her website, www.hannahmarymckinnon.com.
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Good Post. I have enough trouble keeping things clear for readers when I change POV characters when they're separated, and the new scene starts even a short time before the previous one ended. I feel like I'm playing hopscotch.
It's tricky isn't it? The best advice I've had on this is to make sure the characters each have a distinct voice. I've also seen different POV's being handed by using e.g. first person for one and third person for another - or even first person present tense for one and third person past tense for another. Still - I think it comes back to voice and making them different from one another, to ensure the reader knows whose POV they're in.
interesting. yes, the beta-readers are the key to whether it works or not. my current novel- in- progress is very complex and confusing, unfortunately. i've seen what i am attempting to do done before in book form - almost a play in structure with very short discreet scenes from different POVs. the timeline is continuous, but there are flashbacks. i've completed a first draft and have received feedback on a couple of pages at a time from my writing group. they find it confusing, but they are only hearing two pages at a time, and not every member of the group is there each week. i have a Character List with a blurb on each person, or what each character wants, and plan to include this as the first page of the book. anyway, the book won't appeal to a big publisher, but hopefully a medium-size publisher or, if not, a small publisher 🙂 it's my third novel.
It's so tricky when your writing group only gets a few pages at a time. If you could get three people to beta-read the entire manuscript for you, perhaps they'll be able to point out where the sticking points are, if any.
Great post Hannah!! Wish I had read these tips before I wrote BLACKBIRD SEASON! Maybe I wouldn’t have needed 3 calendars and ten rewrites haha! It’s definitely a struggle 🙂
LOL Kate! But I love THE BLACKBIRD SEASON - it's brilliant. And now I know how you managed that timeline. Genius!
You are braver than I - since I don't plot much, this would really kill me. Although it's sooooo tempting. I think I'm at heart, a masochist.
LOL, Laura. After reading Save the Cat I'm a (somewhat) reformed pantser. Love my storyboard & sticky-notes!
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I love novels that pull off the nonlinear format well! (Hello, The Time Traveler's Wife!) It's more ambitious than I've tackled so far, but I like how you break it down so that it's more manageable to plot and write. Thanks for the great info!
My pleasure! Very happy it was useful, and good luck with your manuscript. Rome wasn't built in a day and all that!! 🙂
Oh, Mary, I don't think I could ever juggle this and get anything but smashed bits on the floor. Kudos to you and to those who are trying to do this. Your advice is an excellent roadmap to a beyond-tricky technique!
I heart this post spook much, Hannah because I think this needs to happen in the third book of my current series. I will be saving this post!
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