Welcome to the Bite Size Edition of the Editor Roundtable Podcast. Here on the Roundtable we’re dedicated to helping you become a better writer, following the Story Grid method developed by Shawn Coyne. In these episodes we bring you some shorter solo articles and interviews on topics that interest us as writers.
In this episode, Kim Kessler and Anne Hawley explore the Power of Past and Present with stories that include dual timelines, onstage events in the present and the past that, together, to create a rich global story arc.
Kim: These kinds of stories have been on my mind lately for many reasons. First and foremost, a client and I have been working to weave together past and present storylines for her debut novel. And I have several of my own stories-in-progress that I’m wondering if/how best to include onstage scenes from the past.
I recently watched two great examples of stories that are powerfully structured across dual timelines.
- The current TV series This Is Us, a multi-generational story of a blended family
- Present – the story of three siblings Kevin, Kate, and Randall turning 36 and navigating their lives …
- Past – the story of their parents, Rebecca and Jack Pearson, raising their children …
- The 2012 film Philomena based on true story of an Irish mother looking for the son she was forced to give up for adoption fifty years before.
- Present – Philomena searching for her son with the help of a reporter
- Past – Philomena as a young woman with her son
They are both fantastic and if you haven’t seen them I highly recommend them, especially if you like laughing and crying in the span of the same story. I know I do.
Anne: I have a client with a dual timeline story where the timelines are 2000 years apart, and connected by an archaeological find in the present. The two stories connect mostly thematically, and the question of where to interrupt one to go to the other is tricky to answer. Well tackle this specific topic in the next ep.
Kim: But stories that deal with multiple timelines are not simple or easy, they are a complex story form. This is precisely why I’ve asked Anne to help me get to the bottom of things. Anne looked at complex story forms in season four. And a quick glance through our episodes shows we’ve covered numerous stories with dual timelines. A handy reference list will be in the show notes of today’s episode.
Today we’re going to begin our discussion by taking a closer look at what Anne is coining as “converging timelines” — that is to say stories that establish the present and then at some point jump to the past before catching back up.
Why would a writer choose to bounce around in time, rather than the more straightforward linear structure? The best answer we can point to is narrative drive. Now Valerie gave us some fantastic insight into this topic in season four. So we know that there are three types of narrative drive:
- Mystery is when the protagonist has more information than the audience (information is withheld from the audience) which creates curiosity.
- Suspense is when the protagonist has the same amount of information as the audience which creates curiosity + concern
- Dramatic Irony is when the protagonist has less information than the audience (information is withheld from the protagonist) which creates concern.
Now I would argue that empathy is necessary for every story, but it is essential in stories that are driven by concern. If we aren’t emotionally connected to the character then we can’t be concerned about them.
So what does this have to do with dual timelines in a story? Well, the order that information is delivered to the audience (i.e. which events in which time period come first, second, third, and so on) will determine what form of narrative drive is taking place. And so a story while a story that is told linearly may generate drive through suspense, a story that jumps around time is likely to use mystery or dramatic irony. Based on their storytelling intent, the writer must decide which form of narrative drive will best create the experience they want the audience to have, and so which structure helps them achieve this. This also directly ties to the writer’s POV/Narrative Device.
So we want to see if we can make sense of the what/when/why/how, not to mention IF AT ALL, of writing a story with dual timelines. So Anne, can you walk me through your thoughts on what you see as the convergent timeline.
Anne: I think a good starting place for a discussion of nonlinear timelines in a story has to start with why you want to write it that way.
I have a writer friend who has said, “What you need to know to write your story isn’t the same as what I need to know to read your story.” One of the commonest problems in manuscripts I’m asked to read–and in manuscripts I’ve written myself–is too much backstory.
Too much backstory is a problem for modern readers of a Victorian novel like Jane Eyre, and it was interesting to look at the 2011 movie adaptation as a model for handling the problem.
That film used a type of dual timeline that I’d call a “converging timeline,” and it’s one great way to get yourself out of the backstory bind and tell the Real Story You Mean To Tell.
The Jane Eyre movie story opens just after the global crisis of the novel. A woman–Jane Eyre–is wandering across the moors in bad weather, desperate and alone. She knocks at the door of an isolated house, seeking shelter.
Shortly after this opening, we zoom right back to what was the beginning of the novel–which is to say the beginning of Jane’s life. The film proceeds mostly linearly from there, and gradually converges on that opening moment.
This is a popular nonlinear timeline trick. You used to see it a lot in series television, where the episode would open on some critical event–the main characters being pinned down in a gunfight, let’s say–and then cut to a card saying “Three Days Earlier.”
What’s the value of switching timelines in this particular way? First of all, it raises a big question in the viewer’s mind: how did this character get to this place? In Jane Eyre’s case, how did she come to be so desperate? In the case of the series episode, how did these well-known characters get into this jam, and how will they get out of it?
We keep watching to find out.
Clearly, the character knows the answer in that opening scene–because whatever happened happened to them–but we don’t know. When the character knows more than the reader or viewer, we call this mystery, and it’s a form of narrative drive because it raises a question that drives you, the reader or viewer, to keep reading or watching.
But here’s an interesting twist: the moment we go back in time from that opening at the story’s global crisis, we know something that the character doesn’t know. We’ve already seen that at some point when Jane Eyre is grown up, she’ll be alone and wandering in desperation across the Yorkshire moors.
When the you, the reader or viewer, know something the character doesn’t know yet, that’s called dramatic irony. And it’s a form of narrative drive because it raises empathy for the character. You care what happens next, and that drives keep watching or reading.
So far with this type of nonlinear opening, we’ve leveraged two forms of narrative drive simultaneously: mystery–that all important question the reader or viewer wants the answer to–and dramatic irony, which makes us care what happens to the character next.
From the moment we go back in time to Jane’s childhood, every choice she makes along her childhood-to-adulthood journey, we’re doing two things: solving the mystery of how she got to that opening crisis, and holding our figurative breath for her, empathizing, already knowing where she’s heading.
And–get this: the third form of narrative drive kicks in along the way. Neither of us, neither Jane or the viewer, knows yet what’s going to happen after the crisis that we saw in the opening scene. When both character and reader or viewer have the same amount of information, it creates the narrative drive of suspense.
Now, the original novel Jane Eyre depends largely on suspense. It proceeds from childhood to the end of the story linearly. The character, young Jane, knows no more about her future than we do. We must absolutely empathize with her in order to care enough about her to go on her journey with her.
The novel generates that empathy by showing us in detail the frightening, unjust, and difficult circumstances of her life. She’s an underdog and we root for her, step by step as her life takes a turn for the better, then for the much, much worse, and finally rises again.
But a film, unlike a Victorian novel, doesn’t have all day to engage our empathy. And a modern novel probably doesn’t either. If you’re telling a story that covers a long time period, you will have to skip over some of it, no matter what.
And this brings us back to the problem of backstory. You might say that the chapters of Jane Eyre leading up to her first meeting with Mr Rochester are just her backstory–the prologue to the Real Story.
One of the best ways to figure out how much of your character’s backstory to tell and how much to leave out is to try starting your story at the global crisis or climax, the way the film version of Jane Eyre does, then backtrack and speed on through until you reach that point again.
When you already have your global crisis on the page, you’ll know exactly what target the first 75% of your story needs to be aiming for. You’ll be able to see more clearly what the reader needs to know in order to stick with you and your character as she approaches that crisis and climax. And you’ll much more easily be able to jettison backstory elements that you needed to understand as the author, but that the reader really doesn’t need to know in detail.
And then, you might decide to go back to the linear, single storyline after all. You might discover that much of the backstory isn’t really necessary.
Kim: So this reminds me of the film Passengers, which didn’t work all that well told linearly from the male POV character Jim (played by Chris Pratt) who is awoken early from hypersleep and spends a year in utter solitude until he makes the difficult choice to wake another passenger, the beautiful Aurora (played by Jennifer Lawrence), which dooms her to live out the rest of her life alone on the ship as well.
Our conclusion was that this story could have benefitted from a converging timeline structure. In fact, there is a video from one of my favorite YouTubers Nerdwriter1, “Passengers Rearranged” In it, he recommends rearranging the story to have Aurora as the main POV character and shift the opening of the story to when she wakes up. This would change the Narrative Drive to suspense for Aurora, where we know as much as she does, and mystery for Jim, where he knows everything that’s happened since he woke up and we don’t. The converging timeline structure would come in as we flash back to the past intermittently and gradually understand what he went through and ultimately what he did to her.
Passengers lost most of its narrative drive the moment he decided to wake Aurora because what began in suspense shifted to dramatic irony but not even for the protagonist, and all of the suspense has shifted to when is Aurora going to find out what he did to her, and when she does what is going to happen. Not to mention it makes a mess of the genre and viewer experience.
Join the Roundtable Editors next week for another episode in which we’ll all deepen our knowledge of story and level up our craft.