Lessons learnt from an attempted dual timeline story

Before I had that many readers, I had a number of posts lamenting the bloated, sickly first draft of my sixth Max’s House book. Its original planned title was Starting Out Fresh with Samantha, then changed to Two Happy Endings. It seriously needs a new title after undergoing hardcore surgery. One of the numerous problems with this draft is that it has two storylines which are linked together, the main storyline of December 1942–June 1943, and the contrasting future storyline of 2007. The main story is told in the usual past tense, while the 2007 story is in present tense.

While writing the fourth through sixth Max’s House books, I kind of forgot my focus was supposed to be on Max’s family, with Kit’s family in the secondary roles. These three first drafts spend too much time on Cinnimin and Levon’s budding relationship, and to that end, the sixth book tells the story of the first six months of their relationship contrasted with the marriage of their granddaughter Livia and Violet’s grandson Liam. (I created Liam in 1998, some years ahead of the name becoming super-trendy and oversaturated, and his father is Irish–American.)

Some of the painfully obvious problems and mistakes plaguing this draft, which can be applied to any dual timeline story:

1. Stretching the story too thin. Dual timeline stories can be done well, but there has to be a solid reason for it. Here, it just feels gimmicky, and each story suffers because it doesn’t have complete attention.

2. Way too many infodumps and telly passages in the future storyline. Since the reader isn’t familiar with a lot of these characters and referenced storylines, the narrative frequently stops for several paragraphs of backstory explaining things. That kind of ruins the forward momentum.

3. It’s obvious now that a big reason I used this future storyline was to write down a lot of planned story developments while they were still fresh in my imagination. At the time I wrote this, my handwritten magnum opus Cinnimin was only up to the Eighties, but I was thinking well ahead as always. Therefore, I had all these great future storylines and characters planned out in detail, and I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t forget them. I’m really glad I wrote them down, since I wouldn’t have remembered some of them otherwise, but they should’ve been written down as notes, not part of a dual timeline in another book.

4. Way too many spoilers. The future storyline gives away quite a few storylines from over the decades, thus taking away the element of surprise. It reminds me of that episode of The Simpsons when Moe gets fired from a soap opera and has Homer sneak on as the Angel from the Future, giving away a year’s worth of storylines.

5. Character development fell by the wayside in the future storyline. We’re told about Livia and Liam, and how they’re such a brave interfaith couple who left town without a trace to be together because Livia’s mother disapproved, but they don’t really come alive as more than a collection of characteristics. Livia is very petite and socially conscious. Liam is over six feet tall, a proud Wiccan, vegan, Irish–American, tabloid- and talkshow-lover, and leftist activist. Both have a serious sweet tooth. The other characters are more told than shown too.

6. Infodumpy, “As you know, Bob” dialogue for the sole purpose of catching the reader up on backstory. Enough said.

7. Unrealistic reactions and flat emotions. I blame my past difficulties with learning how to realistically depict emotional situations on being an Aspie, but still. For example, in one scene, Cinni’s spunky oldest daughter Anastasia catches Livia and Liam hiding in a closet at her oldest daughter Vikki’s house, and doesn’t even cry, hug her long-missing niece, anything, after four years apart. Neither does Anastasia’s 19-year-old youngest child Raisa, who just says, “I want to break the news first.  I think our grandparents ought to know.”

Granted, Anastasia can really blow hot and cold, and is often hard to read, but she’s had a fiery, feisty temperament since she was a baby, spoilt rotten after three boys in a row. There’s no way this character would just shrug and be like, “Oh, there you are! I’d recognize that red hair and those purple eyes anywhere! Everyone wondered what happened to you!” I’ve known this character for almost 20 years, and subdued she’ll never be.

8. The book is unnecessarily long. When it comes to my Atlantic City books, they tend to be super-short by my standards, 50,000–63,000 words on average. There’s an obvious problem when a draft is 90,000 words, and there’s no epic scope or particularly long timeline.

9. The entire thing was an anomaly. Length, dual timeline, present tense, future characters, preponderance of infodumpy passages grinding the story to a halt, too much telling, you name it. It just sticks out like a sore thumb among my other Atlantic City books.

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9 comments on “Lessons learnt from an attempted dual timeline story

  1. I can’t imagine dealing with multiple timelines. That brings a whole new set of challenges to the writing process!

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  2. That would be hard to keep up with. Are you going to separate them into new books now?

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    • Carrie-Anne says:

      The 2007 storyline will be going into the future Saga VI (the 21st century Aughts) of Cinnimin, while the 1942–43 storyline will be split up among Saga I of Cinnimin and the sixth Max’s House book.

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  3. Chrys Fey says:

    Info dumping is tricky because there’s thing you feel like your readers need to know but then you don’t want to dump it all on them. I’m still not even sure if I figured out the right way to do it. lol

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  4. kellysteel says:

    Great post, thanks for sharing! I’m bookmarking for future reference.

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  5. oh my goodness, I could never do it. So impressive!

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  6. dlhammons says:

    Stretching a story too thin is always a concern of mine, but I can definitely see where it would be a serious issue with multiple timelines. 🙂

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  7. Arlee Bird says:

    Good analysis. I think this would be tough to pull off, though entirely possible in the right hands. Maybe you could handle this.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

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  8. Trisha says:

    It must be so interesting to look back after quite some time on a very early draft, and see it with such fresh eyes.

    I’m definitely guilty of info dumping, too, but I think I’m getting better at cutting that out. But I’ve never info dumped in dialogue – I get annoyed when I see that in published works. 😉

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