It’s true. It is possible to be in two places at once. It’s even possible to be in two different times at once! It’s the fascinatingly complex and incredibly revealing method used by authors in books with two separate timelines. You’ve read them — part of the book is marked “Now” and another part “Then.” Or “Present day” and “Earlier.” Or “Before” and “After.” It’s the method the author uses to illustrate two threads of what will emerge as a single story.
With a dual timeline, the author can reveal two realities. And it allows us, the reader, to have two times that mean “now.”
In a linear book, the author must insert explanation and backstory into the manuscript’s “now” timeline. But multiple timelines let us be immersed in what could be called a “past present.” To feel the importance of events the main character did not know would matter — because when they’re happening, “later” hasn’t happened yet.
They’re familiar, too, because a dual timeline develops the same way our own lives do. Every decision we make and every action we take is based on our history and our experiences — even though the other characters in our life story may not know that.
My books The Murder List and The First to Lie use this structure, with characters in the present and in the past. I wanted the reader to understand not only why decisions are made, but to experience first-hand how betrayal and resentment simmer and — eventually — boil over into action.
Dual timelines also allow readers to know more than the main character does. Readers get the perspective (and fun) of recognizing which events in the past are important, and which will someday affect the character’s motivations and goals. We also understand that the character does not know — and that’s fun too.
Yes, it requires the reader to juggle two unique stories, but smart readers understand that the separate stories are actually one, and the way they coalesce will be the essence of the book. And when those story threads start weaving together, when we see the picture of the tapestry, it can make for a textured and in-depth reading experience.
Whether it’s simply the case of then and now, a shifting time-travel fantasy like Diana Gabaldon’s brilliant Outlander series, or Audrey Niffenegger’s calendar-twisting The Time Traveler’s Wife, a novel with multiple timelines has a depth that’s difficult to achieve in a more linear story.
I know you have some favorites of your own — how do they compare with mine?