outlining multiple timelines for your novel

outlining multiple timelines for your novel

I’m so excited, I moved on to outlining my second novel! The scenes have been simmering in my mind for at least a year, and it felt good to sit down and put cohesive structure to it.

I’ve known I want the novel to tell two stories, hence two timelines, and this is something I’ve never tried to do before now.

I’ll most definitely bring you along for the ride as I delve in!

As I began to write out my two timelines, following the guide from the source below, I began to feel a lightheartedness about some of the material that might make it into the novel. Unlike my first novel, I’d like this one to have more humorous scenes as the young girl protagonist comes of age. Incorporating her love rebellious nature, mixed with her love of Flashdance and Footloose began to bring me alive as I realized this book can actually be a little more fun than the first one!

I’d say that was one of the major benefits of sitting down and writing out the multiple timelines… within the cracks of the main storylines I began to picture more detail with how this young girl will come of age and the events that will come into her life to charge her up!

How to Write a Multiple Story Timeline in Four Steps

I can’t include a link to this article because it is for members only at medium.com.

For $5/month it’s a good resource for all kinds of topics, so you might want to check it out. (Nope, not paid to endorse them.)

I’ll do my best here to relay the information from the article along with adding my own two cents here n’ there. For the sake of this post, we’ll concentrate on two storylines, the primary and the secondary (rather than three or more).

Step 1 – select a primary storyline

The author tells us, “The primary timeline is the one that gets the most screentime. It has our main protagonist and antagonist. The secondary timeline mostly offers context to the events in the primary timeline.”

The author goes on to tell us that we shouldn’t divide up both storylines 50/50 because that is forcing the audience to follow two separate sets of characters for the price of one; rather, 70/30 or 80/20 are better ratios, in favor of the primary storyline.

Step 2 – create the story for the different timelines

The author tells us it’s important for us to know what happens in each timeline because then we can determine our transition points. Thankfully, we don’t need to know all the details at this point, just the beginning, middle, and end. “By fleshing out both stories,” the author says, “we give each timeline the best story treatment possible.” And whatever, we do, the author tells us, not to make one storyline more interesting than the other! I’ve seen more than my fair share of movies and read more than enough books with this downfall, and it leads to zoning out or skimming pages before getting to the good stuff again.

Step 3 – break the story into sequences

“Usually, this step will be carried out simultaneously with step four. I only separated it so that it’s easier to explain both,” the author tells us.

The author goes on to explain that once we know the story from beginning to end for both timelines, we can then break each storyline into blocks. We can move these blocks (or sequences of scenes) in a way that makes it easier to plot (arrange scenes) for maximum impact.

Step 4 – select your transition points

“The secret is to use the major beats (big character or story moments) in the primary story as transition points. Again, this depends on what constitutes maximum impact for your story,” the author tells us. Then, the author goes on to use Interstellar and Arrival as two good examples of multiple storylines.

This next bit is directly from the article, and I used it to write out my outline. I found it extremely helpful:

  • Timeline 2 begins the story. Think of this as a prologue.
  • If a film, this would be a great place for the title credits.
  • Then we drop into timeline 1 (primary timeline). We stay here until something major happens. Usually, this is the inciting incident (an event that changes the status quo in the character’s life)or the big event (the event that forces the character to enter act 2).
  • We switch back to timeline 2 for another short amount of time, picking up where we left off in the prologue.
  • Back to timeline 1 and we stay there until another major event. Usually, this is the midpoint.
  • Then we flip to timeline 2 for another short amount of time. This time, the connections with the first story should start to really show even though the way it connects doesn’t come together yet. It’s a delicate balancing act, but it’s very possible and it reaps a bountiful emotional reward.
  • Back to timeline 1 and this time we stay until the climax, the story’s most emotionally intense moment.
  • And then to timeline 2 for that last time for its own climax. This is the point where the connection of both stories is made explicit. How this section is handled determines just how good the story will be. If you nail it, you’ve got a winner.
  • And finally back to timeline 1 where we stay until the story finishes.


I hope you find this post helpful! Until next time, happy outlining!