ASK MIMI #7: Writing Multiple Time Periods? Here are Some Tips!

Hello, my fellow readers and writers!

This question comes from Susan Manson. It’s also about craft, but I hope readers will also find it interesting!

Mimi,
I have my own series of books that I have a story outlined for characters from different generations & four overlapping planes of existence. How would you set up the very important past events?


Dear Susan,
This is an easy question to answer. It’s up to you! You have to decide where the reader needs to go, when to introduce past elements, and when to pull them back into the present. And l strongly caution you against listening to anyone except your inner author.

I would think about what YOU PERSONALLY like and dislike as a consumer of literature and film. Watch a bunch of “mixed time” movies. Read a few books. The Notebook anyone? (That’s a yes for me.) Take notes on what you enjoy or hate in the flashback scenes.

That being said, here are some thoughts based on my own preferences as both a reader and an author.

For me, going back in time is generally annoying. I’m not talking about Outlander, where the heroin literally travels back two hundred years. I’m talking about the overuse of the flashback, when it pulls us away from a story we are really enjoying. It’s like a backstory infomercial in the middle of our juicy episode of Game of Thrones.

So let’s say the main characters are in New York, present day. We are introduced to them, their lives, and the conflict at hand. For example, they’ve stolen some money from the bank they work at. They think they’ve gotten away with it. But…oh no! The police are pounding on their door.

Now we’re itching to find out what happens next, but we are pulled away to fifty years earlier and a scene with a woman knitting. The backstory shows us how she loves to cook and knit. It’s the heroine’s grandmother.

Okay…? So? We were just pulled back in time simply to indulge in backstory. It’s so, so, so annoying.

Then, sometimes the flashback really works. Think…Kill Bill. Pregnant bride shot on her wedding day. Boom! We aren’t really inside the story yet, but damn! Do we have a lot of questions. Cue backstory! But the backstory gets equal billing with the present day, and it’s interwoven with unique conflicts for both timelines (Uma Thurman waking from a coma, after revenge, versus how the heck Uma got involved with Bill to begin with.) Both story lines are great!

But let’s face it, that kind of seamless interweaving takes a plotting juggernaut. If that’s your strength as a writer, then consider giving both the past and present equally compelling conflicts and storylines—if you’re planning to divide a significant portion of the story between them.

If it’s not your strength, then my advice is to use the flashback as little as possible. Address the past in present time: Have the characters watch old home movies, read an old diary of someone related to those important past events, reference personal memories, have them discuss the past in therapy sessions, or reference backstory points in dialog.

But again, these are just general observations of my own. I wove in a lot of backstory into my very first book (ACCIDENTALLY IN LOVE WITH…A GOD?) My goal was to show two separate storylines and then have them meet up. It happens about 1/3 into the story, and then the flashbacks stop.

Honestly, I had tons of fun writing it, but if I were to write that story today, I might do away with all the back and forth.

Bottom line, though, do what you feel is best as the storyteller. Just make sure the flashbacks advance the plot in some way.

All my best,

Mimi


WANT ADVICE?

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One Reply to “ASK MIMI #7: Writing Multiple Time Periods? Here are Some Tips!”

  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my question in such a detailed way. I hate flashbacks that are there just for the sake of being there, as well as constant flicking back & forth. Oddly enough, the last technique you mention is what I’ve been working towards, by starting with my main female character & main male character having several out of body interactions, irregularly over most of their childhoods. Once the story gets to a certain point where they meet for the first time, everything kicks off and the earth literally moves under their feet! Their story together takes place from there. I’m also grateful you suggest ‘going with your gut’, essentially. I also agree with previous posts where you have mentioned that you have over your work to someone who is paid to point certain things out. Otherwise, I’d be editing for the rest of my life! Thanks again for your honest take on my question

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