The Double Story
Do you fancy writing a double take story; one with two time threads running through it? Parallel lines are a really fun way to tell a story. It's a personal favourite of mine so I'm always keen to share the joys of the double tale. It's a popular method, provides the author with double narrative voices and offers fantastic scope for plot twists. So, what are your options? You can alternate the chapters, or you can spin multiple storylines. The trick is to link your storylines with a robust connection, preferably one that keeps the reading guessing until the very last page.
I have placed double time lines in all three of my Inspector Allen novels, and I have to say, it's the single most popular comment from readers. They love the back and forth between the time zones. It's interesting to write too. Readers can be confused so always make sure you place your time lines clearly in the readers minds. I tend to use the first person for one storyline and the third person for the other. It's immediately clear to the reader where they are.
Both time lines must be equal, have suitably strong plotlines and pull for the reader. An example of this would be Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing", which sees two couples courting, one then the other, then back to the first etc. One way to gage this is to use your own reaction. Do you prefer writing one more than the other? Is one more fun, more engaging, housing a more attractive cast? If so, you need to address the balance. By the end of course, you can link the two.
Personally, I tend to bring the two together at the climatic point and tidy up the loose ends just in time to conclude with the more modern day setting of the two.
The double story often works well for family saga novels, although I have managed to apply it to crime fiction, which means you can apply it to any genre. One thing the parallel narrative has in its favour is suspense, which is why I choose it for crime fiction. The reader is not only trying to fathom the mystery that you've carefully plotted across the pages, but also how the two time lines connect with each other. A great idea, and one I haven't tried myself but is already popular, is to switch between the police detective and the criminal. You don't even need a time zone difference for this, the entire thing would be set in the one time period.
In 1962 Alfred Hitchcock is said to have quoted the following, when asked about suspense during an interview with Francois Truffaut: "Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, boom! There is an explosion. The public is surprised but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there..." How would you set this up? In one chapter the bomb is positioned. In the next an innocent couple sit at the table. In the next chapter.... well, you decide. You get the idea. Take a tip from me. You do need to keep track of who knows what when though, to remember where you are at every point of the narrative.
The less obvious method of parallel narrative is the hidden back story. This would underpin the entire novel. A good example of this is Agatha Christie's "The Mysterious Affair at Styles". By this I mean that one storyline has already concluded by the time the second one starts e.g. Captain Hastings and his friend have already met, Hastings is already recovering from his injury at his friends house and the murder has occurred. Cue Poirot and the second storyline begins. The first part underpins why the second part is necessary and therefore both have equal depth in the novel.
It's not an easy writing method, I grant you, but very rewarding and great fun. Give it a try!