Keeping Your Readers’ Dual Attention Focus

Guest Post by Jeannette de Beauvoir –

Life is complex, multi-layered, and ever-changing, and some stories that take us into people’s complex lives can best be told by rolling back a carefully selected part of those layers—for instance, by creating a dual or multiple timeline.

When should you choose that particular structure for your novel? Like all choices we make, it shouldn’t happen in a void. Writers don’t just wake up one morning and think, “Wouldn’t it be fun to write a dual-timeline novel?” (Well, okay, maybe they do; but I’m suggesting it might not be the best approach!)

I always say that stories choose us. When I speak at conferences and events and when I’m interviewed, it’s inevitable that someone will ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” And I honestly don’t know. The process at its most visceral, I think, works the other way around: the ideas get us. Stories need to be told, told in a certain voice, and told in a specific way. Once you have the kernel of your story inside you, then you have the task of deciding how to tell it. And that’s when you might light on the dual-timeline approach.

The concern, of course, is that you might carefully craft dual timelines with intricate plotting and amazing characters—and then find that readers skip over the timeline that’s less interesting to them. That’s why it’s important to be absolutely sure that this is the best way, perhaps the only way, to tell this particular story. And I do emphasize that it is truly one story, not two separate ones, each within its own time period. It is, rather, one story layered into different timelines.

I’ve written about this in the past: the key to engaging readers with both of your timelines is in understanding that simply era-jumping isn’t enough. The past and the present need to work together in tandem. What is this novel really about, on a deep level? What’s the story that connects the two timeframes? The past has to be at work in the present; the present has to be looming in the past. In a well-written dual-timeline novel, there’s always a sense of working toward what visual artists call the vanishing point.

In a linear perspective drawing, the vanishing point is the spot on the horizon line toward which receding parallel lines diminish. Imagine standing in the middle of a straight road. Notice how the sides of the road, and the lines painted on it, meet in one spot on the horizon. The center line will go straight for it, and the lines on the sides will angle in until they all intersect. That point of intersection is the vanishing point.

The vanishing point in this kind of fiction is where your timelines come together. It generally happens at or towards the end of the story, but there needs to be the promise of that intersection throughout the novel. The reader will slowly—or suddenly—realize what these two stories have to do with each other.

The best tool for making that happen is in the transition between timeline shifts. Transitions are the glue that binds the stories together, that bring past and present and future into alignment, that move the narrative forward so no one’s tempted to skip one of the eras in favor of the other.

Each transition needs to give a reason for switching from past to present and back to the past. Think of these transitions in terms of a handoff in a relay race: each handoff needs to be clean and keep the forward momentum of the previous racer while providing something important and necessary to the story in the next relay. 

Along with your transitions, you want to have something that can link the two timelines together, provide an anchor so there’s no danger in going off in the wrong direction for the plot. This link can be an object (a lot of novelists favor this device), a place, or even an idea or a theme. Even though it may be unclear to the reader starting out how the two timelines are connected, this link will assure them that there will eventually be some sort of payoff, that a relationship will become clear with time. The link is at the heart of the story and very often at the heart of its characters as well.

Finally, don’t confuse dual or multiple-timelines with flashbacks. While memory can be a useful device in dual timelines that are close together—usually within one generation—it shouldn’t be relied upon for an entire timeline. Flashbacks are just that, flashes of the past that enhance and inform the current storyline. They often comprise a single scene or event, rather than a carefully plotted story working in tandem with the more recent timeline.

Multiple timelines can enrich and add texture, depth, and emotion to a story. They’re among my own favorite devices to use in writing and to enjoy while reading. Try asking your story if that’s how it needs to be told.

If you listen very closely, you’ll get an answer.

Jeannette de Beauvoir is a bestselling author of historical, mystery, and literary fiction and poet whose Sydney Riley series is now on its 10th book. Her work has appeared in a number of literary journals and anthologies, and she is a member of the Authors Guild, the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the Historical Novel Society.

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