A Glimpse at Dual Timeline Novels

Hi, SEers! Happy first day of Spring! You’re with Mae today.

For my next few posts, I’d like to talk about dual timeline novels. I’m sure most of you are familiar with them. Some of you, have likely even written a dual timeline book. Story Empire’s own Joan Hall wrote a post about using timelines, which you can find HERE.

When I look back to my earliest published works, most drew on history. One used the American Civil War, another maritime superstitions and history. I suppose it was only natural I would advance from touching on history to doing in-depth research for a series that relied heavily on historical fact and folklore. I quickly became hooked and started each book of my Point Pleasant series by writing a chapter set entirely in the past—something I had never done before. 

concept of time: Victorian woman holding parasol, beside old fashioned clock face, sepia tone background
All images courtesy of Pixabay

History always intrigued me but writing an entire chapter in an earlier time frame seemed intimidating. 

After finishing that series, I read my first dual timeline novel—The Night Sister—by Jennifer McMahon. This was true dual timeline, with alternating chapters between past and present. To say I was blown away is putting it mildly. I quickly devoured everything by her I could get my hands on, and she immediately became an auto-buy author. I now pre-order any new release from her the moment it’s announced.

As a writer, I didn’t think I could manage alternating chapters of past and present, but it was time for me to start a new series. I dipped a toe into dual timelines by beginning each chapter in book one of that series with a scene from the past.

woman on beach walking toward ocean waves

Carrying that formula throughout the book was difficult, but after finishing the novel, I gained an immense sense of satisfaction. More than that, I was hooked! The remaining two books in the series followed the pattern Jennifer McMahon had set forth—a chapter in the past followed by a chapter in the present, then past, present again, etc.

When you write this way, you’re creating two separate novellas, and tying them together in a larger work. That means two sets of characters and two plots that have to dovetail at the end.

Since finishing my Hode’s Hill series, every full-length work I’ve written employs a dual timeline to some degree. I might alternate chapters or insert a random collection of “past” scenes somewhere in the present story frame. There are multiple ways to approach dual timeline, but all bring satisfaction. 

In my next few posts, I want to take a closer look at dual timelines by putting several elements under the microscope. We’ll look at developing history, characters, connection, and place.  I hope you’ll join me.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts about dual timelines. Many people love them, but some readers find them hard to follow. What’s your take, and would you—or have you—written one?  Drop your thoughts in the comments.

Ready, set, go!

84 thoughts on “A Glimpse at Dual Timeline Novels

  1. Pingback: Elements of a Dual Timeline Novel: Timeframes and Settings | Story Empire

  2. Pingback: Elements of a Dual Timeline Novel: Character Development | Story Empire

  3. Pingback: Overused Techniques and Genres? I Think Not! | Story Empire

  4. Pingback: A Glimpse at Dual Timeline Novels – menthor of mind

    • Hi, Liz. I’m so glad this subject is timely for you.
      There are a number of ways to do dual timelines. I’ve used several different ones, though the bulk of my work comes down to alternating chapters.

      I’ve also had a “past” scene set at the start of every chapter in a novel.
      I’ve stepped into the past for several chapters in a book I’ve yet to publish (rather than alternating those chapters with the present timeline).
      I’ve also used journal entries, letters, and flashbacks to relay past events.
      In another book I’ve yet to publish, I have chapters set in the past but have placed them where I need them, not in an alternating AB, AB structure. There are many ways you can choose to share that past timeline.

      I hope this series will be beneficial for you!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Mae, I also like dual timeline books. There is more than one why to write them as you suggest. It can be different people in different places like Stephen King did in The Stand. He also uses past and present but not necessarily with different characters, he goes back in time with one set of characters in The Shining and Salem’s Lot. Bram stoker also used dual timelines with different characters in Dracula’s. It is a great formula for a book.

    Liked by 2 people

    • All wonderful examples, Robbie. Salem’s Lot is my favorite King book, and The Shining is probably the one that frightened me the most when I read it. I’d like to read that one again. I picked up a fresh copy last year and forgot it was on my bookshelf!

      Thanks for adding to the discussion. I’m glad you enjoy dual timelines as well!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I enjoy reading dual timeline stories, Mae. I’ve even gotten as far as outlining one of my own. I haven’t written one yet, but it’s on my to-do list. Your post has encouraged me. I just really need to finish the two novels I’ve been working on for the last two years!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m so glad to hear you enjoy dual timeline books, Beem. I hope you eventually get around to writing the novel you’ve outlined. I’m sure it will be excellent.
      I do, however, also understand how it feels to have a backlog of books you’re working on. I’ve been sitting on two for the last two years as well!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post, Mae 🙂 I have enjoyed reading dual times lines including all of tours. I wrote one for NaNoWri and it still sits waiting for me to finish it. I will appreciate your insights into it. Might encourage me to grt back to it!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m intrigued by your NaNoWri project, Denise. I remember when you were working on that, and would love to see you complete it. Hopefully, some of what I share in this series will be of help to you. I think dual timelines are so intriguing to write (and so rewarding when you finish one, LOL). I’m glad you’ve enjoyed my novels, and I’m thrilled you’re looking forward to the series!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I am very much looking forward to this entire series, Mae. (Hoping I can read them as they are posted, but sometimes, I can’t visit until a bit later.) As you know, my first book (Wake-Robin Ridge #1) was supposed to be my ONLY book, and I wanted to fill it with everything I’d ever longed to write about, so I set up a dual timeline to tell the stories of both women who lived in the old cabin Sarah bought at the start of the book. I had a great time going back and forth, but I really didn’t know if I was doing it “properly” or not. And I never worked up the nerve to try another one, as it can be quite complicated to keep things sorted.

    With all that in mind, I’ll really be looking forward to your series, and will no doubt be saving your posts for future reference, too. (As I do so many SE posts.)

    Great start, my friend! 😀 ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    • I do recall that first Wake Robin Ridge book, Marcia (erm, the whole series actually, LOL). You did an excellent job with that cabin, and found it the back-and-forth so appealing. I’m sure if you ever did decide to tackle a full dual timeline, you’d handle it exceptionally well.

      And I’m glad you’re looking forward to the series. I really enjoyed working on this one!)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for the encouragement, Mae. Don’t know if I’m going to try another full length novel or not, but I would certainly entertain the idea of a dual time line, if I did. I wouldn’t even mind doing one in a novella, if I thought I could make it work without it being disruptive. going off to ponder that idea, now 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I love reading dual timelines, especially yours. Your Hode’s Hill series is still one of my favorites, along with The Haunting of Chatham Hollow that you co-wrote with Staci. Like Staci, getting everything right in a historical setting makes me nervous. Doubt I’ll ever write anything that needs that much research. It’s so easy to miss something small.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for the wonderful comment, Judy! I’m so glad you enjoyed all those books!
      The historical aspects are challenging. Thank heavens for the Internet! Although I now own a lot of books about the 1800s and early 1900s.

      My next release (if all goes according to plan) will be a dual timeline with the “earlier” time frame set just ten years prior. Believe it or not, I still had to do research to refresh my memory about a time I lived through, LOL!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I love dual timeline stories, and you’re a master at them. I’ve often considered writing one, but you know I have a fear of getting historical details correct, language included. I’ve written the occasional journal entry or letter in the past, but so far, I haven’t tackled a full plot. Can’t wait to read the rest of this series. Thanks, Mae.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Great post, Mae! While complicated, dual timelines can satisfy in unique ways. My favorite is Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours. For writers, an excellent “study” on how to write dual timelines without confusing readers. The proof is in the 45K+ Amazon reviews (with only 1% single-star).

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I haven’t written dual timelines, Mae. It seems intimidating, even in fantasy where I don’t need to do much (if any) period research. I liked your description of the process as weaving together two novellas. That’s a great approach since it keeps both of the stories interesting in their own right, instead of one merely serving the other. I’m looking forward to the series!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yep. Each timeline has to tell it’s own story, Diana. Since I write suspense, each needs to have an individual mystery built into the plot. I was so intimidated the first time I attempted it, but now I love doing it. I guess all things get easier with practice.
      I’m so glad you’re looking forward to the series!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. When done well, I love dual timelines. Jordan Dane wrote an excellent dual timeline book. It fluctuates between the times of Jack the Ripper and present day. And, of course, the title escapes me at the moment. If I think of it, I’ll pop back in. You’d love it.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. I have never tried to write a dual timeline story, but I have enjoyed all of your novels, as well as Joan Hall’s story in her newest release. In my opinion, it gives the story an added layer of depth. My hat is off to you for work well done and isn’t it exciting to discover your writing niche? I look forward to learning more about this method of storytelling in the posts to come. Thank you for sharing, Mae!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the lovely comment, Jan. I remember being petrified with my first attempt at dual timelines. I do feel like I’ve found my niche to a degree, but surprisingly, my current WIP is set entirely in the present (at least so far, LOL).

      I also loved Joan’s story that alternated timelines. I devour books and stories that use the technique.

      I’m glad you’re looking forward to the remaining posts in this short series. I really enjoyed writing this one, perhaps because it is so close to my heart!

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I haven’t written any, but have read a few. My cousin has even written a books ( she has a whole big series planned) that involves time travel that she would like to publish some day. I’ve read some of it, and the story switches back and forth in chapters between the present and the team that traveled into the past.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Jeanne. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed reading a few. I’m completely enamored of them.
      And–wow!–it sounds like your cousin’s series is quite the undertaking. I wish her well with it and hope that she’ll move ahead and publish one day!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. My first novel had a duel timeline, however it was the same character in both. The protagonist was helpless in a care home and used the endless hours to reminisce about her past and what had brought her to this terrifying situation. Eventually, both timelines converge and the rest of the book moves on in that way to its resolution. I agonised how to differentiate between the two paths as some of these memories are brief – interrupted by the care home routine – but in the end I simply italicised the opening sentence of the past version and only one reviewer (out of 153) said she didn’t like it. I haven’t read any of the Hode’s Hill series nor anything by Jennifer McMahon, but I intend to remedy that very soon! I loved the dual timeline in your collaboration with Staci and I don’t know if the two of you are planning on a follow-up to The Haunting of Chatham Hollow. Very much looking forward to the next in this series! ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi, Trish. It sounds like you handled your dual timeline well (especially given the feedback from reviewers). I think it might be harder to write a dual timelines with the same character in both. I’ve done that in The Keeping Place, a book I have yet to release, and in some ways it required me to remember more “past” aspects than when I set my timelines centuries apart as I did with Hode’s Hill. I’m honored it’s on your TBR. You’re going to love Jennifer McMahon as well. I can’t get enough of her books.

      Thanks too for mentioning Chatham Hollow. Staci and I haven’t talked about doing a follow-up, but I never say “no.” 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yep, you got that right, LOL! If it isn’t hard enough keeping track of one set of characters and plot, you have to do it with two, then make sure they all come together in a neat bow at the end. There’s also generally a lot of research involved, but I think writers are at least familiar with that aspect! I’m glad you enjoy reading dual timelines. I love them as well!


  17. I’m pretty sure the first dual timeline novel I read was one of your own, Mae. And I was hooked! Since then, I’ve enjoyed reading several, although I haven’t read anything by Jennifer McMahon. (I’ll have to check her out.) My Legends of Madeira series books are dual timeline. I don’t alternate chapters, and most of the action takes place in modern times, but I do include flashback scenes to the late 1800s. They are fun to write, but a bit challenging. I also did a dual-timeline short story set in the 1860s and 1960s in which I alternated timelines.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I loved both of your stories, Joan! And I’m honored one of my books introduced you to dual timelines. Definitely check out Jennifer McMahon. She is amazing!

      I agree with you that it’s difficult writing in another time period (especially when you’re diving into another century). It’s a good thing writers like research almost as much as we like writing, Dual timelines certainly involve a lot of that!

      Liked by 1 person

  18. The second book I wrote, The Glade, had two timelines that eventually came together into the same time stream near the end. Even though I labelled everything clearly at the head of each chapter, some readers did not like it while others loved it.

    These days, I’d probably find it more difficult to keep track, but it is a fun way of writing a novel. I love what you do with your books, Mae, and I look forward to the rest of this series! Thanks for sharing 💕🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  19. Pingback: A Glimpse at Dual Timeline Novels | Legends of Windemere

  20. My only shot at dual timelines is a manuscript I wrote about 15 years ago and have not yet published. The timelines are at different points in the life of the main character. One is in first person, the other in third, and one uses present tense, the other past. I intend to have another look at it someday and see if it works as well as I thought when I wrote it.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Audrey, it’s amazing you were experimenting with timelines fifteen years ago! As popular as dual timelines have become, you should definitely dig out that manuscript and take another look. I also experimented with tense in my Hode’s Hill series. Each book has at least one section in present tense (although those sections were set in the past). It may sound odd, but I my editor and publisher thought it worked well!

      Liked by 5 people

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