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The Write Time: Crafting Linear, Parallel, and Non-Linear Timelines in Fiction

Most books are written with a linear timeline. It’s easiest for the reader to follow, and the easiest to write. I think parallel is the next as far as difficulty goes. And non-linear is the hardest because you need to withhold and reveal information in more strategic places.

Each approach offers unique opportunities and challenges, but all are enjoyable for the reader when done well.

A linear timeline is what readers are used to. Cause and effect are shown mostly in chronological order.

Parallel timelines work well for showing two characters and how they view and react to similar events, and the reader is let in on multiple characters’ motivations.

Non-linear timelines can create more suspense and can involve changing the reader’s mind about characters. For example, a character could commit a heinous crime and the reader will most likely not approve of the character’s actions, but when the events leading up to the crime are shown, readers may be more sympathetic to their actions.

Let’s take a look at the challenges and opportunities these timeline structures provide.

Linear Timeline

A linear timeline follows a straightforward chronological order, where events progress sequentially.

While writing a linear timeline, you need to ensure your story is engaging and use dialogue, the characters’ actions, flashbacks, and backstory to let your readers in on character motivations.

Establish clear cause-and-effect relationships.

Ensure that each event leads logically to the next, creating a sense of coherence and progression.

Develop strong story arcs.

Introduce conflicts, challenges, and resolutions and keep raising the stakes and consequences.

Utilize pacing.

While pacing needs to be varied, slower for moments of refection and planning and fast for action, it’s most important in a linear timeline to make your reader want to know how a character gets out of a situation or finds out the truth. The cliffhangers need to be impactful for creating tension and suspense.

Use flashbacks selectively.

While the timeline is linear, you can enhance the narrative by occasionally including well-placed flashbacks to provide context or add depth to characters and their motivations.

Reveal backstory using varied techniques.

Flashbacks achieve this well, but there are different ways of revealing a character’s backstory, including dialogue, narrative, and actions. Through what a character says or what others say to them, indications of a character’s history can be told to the reader. How they act in certain situations can show how their previous experiences still affect them.

Using the narrator to explain backstory is a bit tricky as their reveals should be limited to a line or two, not a paragraph or more. Paragraphs may bore and overwhelm your reader, and the risks are them skipping over large sections of your novel and not knowing what is important for them to remember.

Parallel Timeline

A parallel timeline features multiple interconnected storylines that occur either simultaneously or one in the present and one in the past, and may involve different characters, settings, or perspectives. Both storylines must relate to the present and directly impact the resolution and character growth.

Writing this timeline structure is fun for many authors and gives them the opportunity to reveal what is going on at the same time for different characters or showing how previous events affect the future.

Establish clear connections.

Ensure that the parallel storylines have some thematic or narrative linkages. This could be shared themes, similar conflicts, or overlapping characters.

Balance the timelines.

Give each storyline adequate attention and development. Imbalances may cause readers to favor one over the others and make them think the only reason for an alternate timeline is to provide backstory.

• Create suspense and tension.

More cliffhangers and strategic reveals will need to be used to build anticipation and keep readers invested in each timeline.

Make Timelines Converge.

Not all novels’ timelines or storylines will converge, but if they are concurrent, you may want to consider bringing the characters together at a certain point or points can be impactful and provide opportunities for character connection, tension, and resolution.

Non-linear Timeline

This timeline presents events in an out-of-order sequence, requiring readers to piece the story together. When employing this approach, keep the following in mind.

Provide clear signposts.

Use chapter titles, dates, or other indicators to help readers navigate the non-linear structure and understand where each event fits in the overall narrative.

Develop compelling transitions.

Smoothly transition between different time periods, ensuring that the shifts feel organic and purposeful.

Reveal information strategically.

Withhold or reveal information at specific points to create suspense, surprise, or enhance the reader's understanding of the story. Readers can be more engaged as they piece the puzzle together.

Maintain coherence.

Although events may be presented out of order, make sure there is a coherent underlying structure or theme that ties everything together.

Regardless of the timeline structure you choose, it's crucial to consider readability, clarity, and the impact on the reader's experience.

Experiment with different approaches, revise diligently, and seek feedback to refine your storytelling skills.

If you need more guidance, schedule a consultation with me.

I hope you enjoyed this article.

Happy writing and revising!

Kristin Noland - Speculative and Crime Fiction Editor and Ghostwriter

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