Monday, August 17, 2015

What we're writing: Hallie Ephron on juggling timelines

HALLIE EPHRON: It's WHAT WE'RE WRITING WEEK and I get to start off with the usual, and now tiring admission that I'm not far enough along with this new novel to be sharing. It's in flux. It's in flux means I still don't know what the hell I'm doing.

What I do know is this will be a story of three generations of women, all of whose lives have been altered by the disappearance of a child. It's also about a doll.  (I ran my title by Elizabeth Lyon when she guested with us and she gave it thumbs down, so now my working title is WORKING TITLE.)

The challenge I've had writing this book is one that's familiar to me: how to manage multiple characters each with her own parallel timeline. I'm not much good at outlining, but I needed some kind of tracking mechanism to keep myself from going crazy.

In Night Night, Sleep Tight, I was writing about two women who hadn’t seen each other since they were fifteen. I needed to sort out what happened to each of them together in the past, when they saw each other last, and what's happened to each of them in the intervening 20 years before I could tackle what was happening in the novel's "now."

Sounds confusing because it is! I got hopelessly mixed up
until I created a timeline for each character, past and present, and lined them up so I could figure out see what Deirdre and Joelen were up to in their own parallel universes.

Here's part of the chart I came up with, starting with when each character was born and charting their parallel tracks, highlighting the key joint moments.

This was enormously helpful because if I started to write
“It had been four years ago that…” I could go to my timeline and see if that was correct. It also helped me dressing and coiffing my characters (torn-neck T shirts and long curly hair ’63-65 after the movie “Flashdance”` came out) and getting my “current” events and cultural references right. Moreover it helped me see each character in the context of her own past experiences.

For the new book, I've got five women's lives to keep track of, three generations. Right now my character chart has five columns.

The character are Miss Sorrel, Jane, Lila, Vanessa, and Tiffany. I started by jotting down how old each one is when the novel opens, and then pencil in a timeline with years noting when each was born. I'm busy filling in the key events in their parallel lives, and I know I'll have to add two more character columns. 

A lot of what goes into this chart will turn out to be back story that won't go into the book. But building a “real” past for each character
helps me think of them as three-dimensional human beings with logical, compelling reasons for doing what they do on the pages.

Which leads me to my question for today: What are the challenges of READING (or writing) a book with multiple timelines and multiple narrators? Any other tips for how to manage it?


  1. There's no challenge reading it when it's done well, as authors like you and Julia do, Hallie. When time skips around, it's helpful for a chapter heading to ground us in the month and year, perhaps.

    I haven't taken on the challenge of writing skipping timeline - yet. And I wish you all good speed writing the current book, because I already want to read it!

  2. I'll echo what Edith said. Chapter headings in books with multiple timelines and characters are very helpful to me as a reader. I don't mind, actually appreciate, being told the chapter I am about to read took place in 1963 and is being told by Marissa. I also like to know where the character is if there are multiple locations. So Marissa, Baltimore, 1963 is helpful to me as a reader.

    I'm excited you've taken this challenge on because then you can teach the technique to the rest of us who rely on you to tell us your writing tricks and tips. Looking forward to this book!

  3. gotta love that snappy title Hallie:).

    I too would love a class on this subject. heck, I haven't even written a book with more than one POV yet!

    And now I realize how little I plan ahead these days--mostly figure things out as I go along. The idea of the chart is brilliant!

  4. Edith, Michele, Lucy, I think in a way ALL of us are writing multiple timelines the minute we give our characters back stories which is like a minute after we put them on a page. A single narrator and writing what happened *before* as flashbacks makes the writing lot more straightforward.

    I agree, Michele - what you suggest (tagging each scene or chapter with the narrator's name, location, and year) can be a simple solution. But not long ago I read a book that had LOTS of different narrators and years and soon I felt like a cat tangled up in an unraveled ball of yarn trying to read the darned thing.

  5. Yeah, it's funny. I was watching Murder in the First last night--it has at least two distinct story lines, and because it's video, there's no problem in following. And so many TV shows have multi points of video, so it;s clear our heads can hold multiple stories.

    Of course my books have five points of view--Jake 's, and jane's, and three others. Points of view might change in a chapter, but it's always clear from the spacing that we're in a different person's head, and the first line always indicates whose we're in. ANd the POV never changes within a scene. And there's no timeshifting--it's all present day, but parallel lives.

    In my new book, (and more on that tomorrow!) I am experimenting with labeling the sections with names. But maybe I won't.

    I guess the iconic example is The Time Travelers Wife, which was the MOST complicated. But it was only fun to read, I thought, when you stopped trying to make sure you knew where you were (from the chapter headings) and just read the story, It all worked, if you just let go and let your brain understand it.

    Hallie, how about CRADLE DANCE

  6. Hank, you are THE consummate juggler.

    Time Traveler's Wife! An amazing book. Two characters, the wife is aging in real time, the husband is time traveling. I read that Audrey Niffenegger kept separate timelines for the two. In an interview, she says: "One is Clare's timeline. The other one is the order that things are happening in the book and where Henry's coming from so I can see what he would know at any given time. What I was mainly working with was who knew what when. So, if I needed a Henry who didn't have a lot of information I would a put a younger Henry in."

    WHO KNEW WHAT WHEN! Isn't that the essence of the mystery writer's challenge, regardless of how many viewpoints of timelines?

    Cradle Dance... hmmm.

  7. I also write in multiple POV (but only two) and I keep some advice from Hank in mind all the time: ground the reader in the first paragraph. Who's head are we in and where is she? I think Hank brought it up in the context of bringing a book to audio, but I've found it very valuable (even when I write 1st person - of course then the reader knows WHO is talking, but what's going on?).

    Good books, like the ones you all write - I have very little trouble telling the WHO. I can generally deduce the WHERE and WHEN from the writing (again, if done well), but I'll admit that chapter headings with location and time are often helpful.

    Then there are authors like George R.R. Martin who make me create my own spreadsheet to keep track of the characters and their stories. I don't know how he does it. (And I actually gave up on him because it got to be too much, so PLEASE don't follow his example!)

  8. I agree, Mary - One of my pet peeves is when a chapter starts with disembodied dialogue. You have to read down into the scene to find out who's talking, who else is there, where are they, and when is it. Writer is trying to be dramatic and intriguing; instead writer is being confusing and annoying. IMHOP

  9. Oh, thank you MAry! It's always so wonderfully reassuring to know someone is listening to me! (:-) Yes, I had the "grounding the reader" revelation when I listened to audio books, where you don;t have the option to flip back pages and think--wait, WHO is this? It proves how absolutely you must let the reader know instantly Who and Where. SO I write my books with audio in mind--and then it's sure to make sense.

  10. Wow, I needed that six months ago. (sigh) I appreciate the visible time line as the outline of backstory. Thanks for sharing.

  11. I love spreadsheets and formulas (formulae?) for ages and dates. Especially when writing about characters over long time periods. (e.g., so how old was Doris in 1939?)

    When I wrote my time travel romance (as Susanna Stone) I kept a spreadsheet with the corresponding times in separate columns, the 2013 column dates being the 1910 Date + X days, which worked beautifully to keep the two times in synch. (Until,of course, things went wrong in the story and time got out of synch and I could go wild.)

    In The Time Traveller's Wife, I like how she also put Henry and Clare's ages in each chapter heading.

  12. Yes, I did, too, Susan D, except I kept trying to do math, and that was a mess. (And so funny, yeah, when time goes out of synch, it makes things SO much easier. :-) )

  13. Aaaagh. I think my head is about to explode.

  14. I once had an agent who told me to remove the date identifiers at the beginning of chapters because they were confusing. I've never used them since even though they make sense to me, and as a reader I find them very helpful.

  15. C. C. I think date identifiers CAN be confusing. If you're alternating back and forth between 2 timelines, and each timeline is moving forward probably not. But I've seen books where there are multiple timelines and the timelines jump around. And it gives me a brain cramp trying to figure out the sequence of events.

    It's like anything else, do it well enough and you can get away with anything.

  16. I love it that you're so honest about being in a state of flux and not knowing what the hell you're doing right now. :-) I'm always that way when I start out. I get so stressed out. I'm about 15k into my first draft--it's moving along better now even though I don't have a formal outline and also don't really know what the hell I'm doing.

    That said, I love spreadsheets. Adore them. Because I work in multiple POVs too. For this novel, I decided to try out Scrivener. Does anyone here use it?

    I'm having a great time Scrivener. I can define various data categories (metadata for the technically inclined) for each scene and with a click Scrivener produces a spreadsheet with all the important data about my scenes. Otherwise, my usual modus operandi is to have about a zillion index cards and Post-It notes all over the place, which only confuses me further.

  17. As a reader, I congratulate the Reds on their POV writing! I always know where I am, without distracting chapter headings. That said, I have read some books where I REALLY appreciate the heads-up. Try reading Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, without character POV headings. Mary, George R. R. Martin needs a spreadsheet just for the characters he's killed!

    Hallie, your book sounds fascinating. I love WORKING TITLE.

  18. Lisa, I'm a sucker for index cards and post-its... especially in different colors! I have an entire set of those little post-it flags that you can put on documents (like "sign here" stickers) in 8(!) different colors. Can't wait to find a use for them.

    So I should be a sucker for Scrivener. I haven't tried it yet.

  19. Hallie, I read Night,Night, Sleep Tight recently and loved it. Mom is reading it now and enjoying it. I think having the character, if it is a point of view, or the place and date, if the story jumps back and forth, at the start of each chapter is very helpful. Especially if I have to pick up and put down the story when I don't want to. I have read books with so many characters that I have had to flip back in the book to see who the heck that is.

  20. Pat D, great point - I do think consistency is a huge factor. (Glad you liked the book! Hope your mom resonates to that time period.)

  21. Hallie, the character charts/spreadsheets are a great idea. If I were ever to write fiction, it would certainly be a tool I would use. I agree with others here that the Reds do a great job of writing their different POVs with clarity and flow.

    Having read and enjoyed The Time Traveler's Wife, I can only imagine what a challenge the "who knew what when" factor was for Audrey Niffenegger, Hallie. Those separate timeline charts had to be essential.

    Keeping track as a reader? I actually do like chapter headings with dates. For some reason, I have an obsession with wanting to know the date and often the ages of the characters at that time. One of the tools I utilize is those wonderful post-it flags you mentioned, Hallie. I rarely start a book without a set of those handy. They help with all sorts of aspects of the book. I try to use different colors for things such as character descriptions, quotes to remember, major action, and so forth. The problem is that I haven't designated a consistent color system. I need to employ the same system for each book. It is interesting to go back and revisit the items marked with the flags to get a sense of what struck me. Also, they help with book reviewing. Using these flags is one of the reasons I like a print copy to read. Hank, how interesting that you write with audio in mind. I do enjoy listening in the car to books, and maybe I should give audio more of a chance.

  22. Hallie, since I always write in multiple viewpoints, and sometimes in multiple timelines, I sympathize! And what you're doing looks a lot like what I do. I usually create a sort-of spreadsheet with vertical story lines for each major thread in the book, and after that I make a timeline chart that weaves them together.

    But I've used Scrivener for the last couple of books and that seems to have made things altogether easier. One of the problems with writing multiple POV is keeping up with exactly what your character said and did in the last scene your wrote in their viewpoint. Now, with Scrivener, I just mouse over the chapter/scene outline on the left hand side and a little box pops up with the synopsis of that scene I've put in the index card function.

    I know this probably sounds clear as mud. Maybe on Friday I can show everyone some examples.

    Hank, why did you decide on only five viewpoints for each book?

    And I always anchor a scene in the character's viewpoint in the first sentence or two of a new scene. I hate trying to figure out whose head I'm in. And NO SHIFTING VIEWPOINTS WITHIN A SCENE. I know some writers I really admire who do that and do it well, but it still bugs me.

  23. I have bought Scrivener and "taken" the class, but not gotten past looking at the first page. You really need time to learn it, right? Maybe after this book is turned in...

  24. I LOVE Scrivener, and I only write in one POV. You must give it a try, Lucy/Roberta. And Hallie! It will make life so much easier. I should get a job in their sales department...

  25. Only five, Debs? :-) Well, great question, because I started with six in THE OTHER WOMAN, and then it seemed like instead of adding to the suspense,it was adding to the confusion.

    And it's often the case that not all the points of view make it through the whole book, so I'm sometimes--sooner or later--left with four.

    And yes, Kathy, I wonder if it's also because my news stories are written to be read out loud, so I think of that, too. But considering how it'll sound on the audio book has certainly been writing-life changing. That first line of a new scene has to do a lot of work!

  26. I only write in one POV and one timeline, but I keep my chapters sorted by day, like a calendar. I also keep notes on what the other major characters are doing even though they don't have a version of events because I still need to know what they're doing and why.

    Scrivener makes it much easier for me to keep notes and chronology in order. I really don't know how I ever did anything with Word now.

  27. Looks like a lot of thumbs up for Scrivener... may need to bite the bullet.

  28. First I must say what a great photo!

    As a reader, I don't question much about timelines unless there is an obvious hole or error -- but I like to stay grounded in the story -- a lot of back story is distracting and unnecessary.

    I love the notebook paper chart!!

  29. I recently asked Scrivener customer service if they had any timeline available with their product coming up. They don't, but they passed alone Aeon Timeline as a recommendation. It's software can be integrated into Scrivener, which is cool. So, if anyone is interested in a Scrivener-like tool for timelines, this one is pretty fun! I haven't used it as much as I feel like I eventually will, but the longer certain series go, I start feeling like I need it. I'm a multiple POV addict! Nice job with the charts and spreadsheets!

  30. As a reader, I haven't had a problem with multiple timelines. I mostly listen to audiobooks and I have had to go back to previous chapters for the dates in the chapter titles. It's a little tougher with the audios than a print book but it hasn't been an issue. As long as things makes sense, it works for me.

    It must be a lot tougher for you authors to keep track of things as you write. Kudos to you all for the great work you do to make sure everything works.

  31. Thinking as a reader, something to anchor me to the character in the first line is important, if the POV is changing. Otherwise (I write one POV), I'm looking (and writing) for anchoring the reader in time at every chapter start. Then again, I'm writing stuff that's kept to pretty strict timelines: ten days, four days, or 25 hours. The latter was fun because I put the time of day and the countdown clock (24-hour race) at the start of every chapter.

    I appreciate your post because I do dearly love charts and timelines, and I'm considering doing a 2-POV book, with a cold case in addition to my first-person protagonist. I'm glad to see how you all handle it!

  32. Say No More is another great title. I can already see the potential uses of that phrase within a book. Everything from Say No More to something to Say "No" More. Definitely a Hank title!

    As for What You See, it is now very near the top of my blogging pile. I can hardly wait to dive in. I have already heard some great stuff from colleagues, so I know that I won't be disappointed.

    As for you notes, good thing you can read and make sense of them, because otherwise, you would be in trouble. ;)

  33. Count me as another Scrivener fan and I've looked at Aeon, but hesitant to try it. I did, however, start using Scapple as a way of throwing all my "what if" ideas on the wall and seeing if I can connect them. Sort of like virtual spaghetti - throw it against the wall and see what sticks.

  34. Colbymarshall, I am looking Aeon up!

    Hallie, if you decide to tackle Scrivener, David Hewson has a little e-book on writing novels in Scrivener. SO worth the $5 or so to order. Scrivener is a big program that does a lot of things that really aren't useful for novelists, so it's great to have a guideline to what you needs.