Story Within Story

I have read a few books with dual or non-linear timelines lately, not choosing these on purpose, but merely liking the premise, or the author’s earlier work, and making the purchase to my Kindle. I enjoyed each story although a couple of them were fairly close in their original idea.  One thing I discovered in my reading was I always subconsciously chose one character over another, reading fast to get to my chosen one desperate to hear their story. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the other character, but it seemed one had a greater strength or a better plotline than the other. Has this ever happened to you or do you find you like both characters and timelines equally? One story, Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline, was told from one woman’s point of view but switched from present to past in her memories. The chapter headings showed the location, and year.


I’ve spent a couple of years playing with a “bigger” book (yet to be finished) while writing other stories and having those get published and doing the myriad requirements of marketing and promotion. In thinking about my novel I can see where I could easily do a dual timeline, one for the grandmother and one for the granddaughter. At the moment I have my story structured with the viewpoints of the granddaughter and her love interest, which allows it to fit nicely into the romance genre. The granddaughter is reading from a journal, plus researching events from newspaper archives, finding photographs, interviewing people, while trying to piece together the true story of her grandmother. The other style would definitely shift the story toward women’s fiction with the two female protagonists and the male in the story would take a secondary role. It would also make this project an even more complex one than it currently is, but that’s okay, I’m not on a deadline.

Some authors used the main character name as a chapter heading along with a date. An example that comes to mind is What She Left Behind, by Ellen Marie Wiseman. Others used only a date as a marker, or the usual chapter heading by number. The latter made it a little bit harder to switch from character to character and time period to time period in the beginning, but by the end of the first act it was no longer a problem as I was deeply invested in the characters. In Sweet Water, the author chose to write the character’s memories in italics at the beginning of a new chapter so the reader knew instantly that they were stepping back into the past.

The dates only style had less of an impact on me, in fact those dates barely registered so I found those harder to connect with. Another book did only the character name, no year. The style I liked the best (that read with smoother transitions in switching storylines) was to have both date and character name. Most of the novels made a point of view switch after two or three chapters, which created both positives and negatives. The positive was I didn’t have that whiplash feeling one gets from POV switches with every scene or chapter, but the negative was I would become deeply involved with my character’s unfolding story and then be frustrated with the switch from past to present.

Thanksgiving 056I’ll take a walk and think on it a bit, but in the meantime tell me if you’ve written a novel with a dual timeline?

Did you find it difficult to keep both stories and both main characters equally as strong?

Does one character naturally dominate? Would you write another story like this again?

Do you enjoy reading this type of story, or find it frustrating?


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2 Responses to Story Within Story

  1. Hi Robena,
    Obviously I have not, but I have read a couple of Tess Gerritsen’s novels where the book took place in dual timelines. The Bone Garden (ten years back) and more recently Playing With Fire. Like you, I chose one timeline over the other, especially in the Bone Garden – preferring the historical story by far. In Play With Fire, I still preferred the historical plot, but found the present day story a bit more compelling, especially toward the end.
    It is a tough undertaking, and if you choose to do it, I will be very interested in what you discover and how you pull off the entire story.
    Good luck!

  2. robena grant says:

    Thanks, Lynne. I’m still undecided. However, I’m leaning more toward not doing the dual timeline, and keeping the focus on the H&H uncovering clues to the past, plus becoming more deeply involved in each other.