Writing Books With Overlapping Timelines

Stack of BooksI’ve always been fascinated by the idea that the same set of events from the point-of-view of two different people can result in two completely different stories. So it shouldn’t have surprised me that I’d end up writing books with overlapping timelines—that way I get to explore the same events from multiple perspectives. But, the first time it happened, it was a complete surprise. I’d written what was supposed to be a standalone romance novella, but toward the end, the heroine’s brother made a surprise announcement that he was getting married. I wanted to know what had brought him to the altar so quickly, so I decided to write his story. And, let me tell you, coming up with a satisfying story arc that didn’t conflict with the events of the previous book almost killed me. So, of course, I decided to do it again.

After struggling through the overlapping-timelines thing with a second pair of books, I’ve come up with a few guidelines for myself, in case I ever decide to attempt this craziness again, and I’m sharing them with you here.

Minimize the actual overlap

Be conscious of which book A scenes include / are relevant to the characters from book B, because you’re probably going to have to show them (or at least mention them) in book B.

Let’s take a birthday party. If the main characters from books A and B both attend the party, it might seem strange to show the party in book A, but not mention it in book B. But if the scene was designed to move the arc of book A forward, it might not fit well with the arc of book B.

Catching CleoBecause it’s difficult to write scenes that move both stories forward, I try to make sure there aren’t too many of them. Books 4 & 5 of my Voretti Family series start with the same scene (from the perspective of different characters, of course). But, while book 4 takes place over the course of a few weeks, the majority of book 5 takes place months after book 4 ends. So, while I have a few scenes that you see in both books, the majority of each book is unique. Thus, I could design most scenes to move the arc of their specific book forward without worrying about the other book.

Plot it out

For those plotters out there, it might help to plot both books before you start writing the first. That way, if there’s something you have to change in book A to fit with the plot line in book B, you know about it before you’ve written hundreds of pages. I note the day that each scene in books A & B takes place so that I can tell if I have any conflicts or inconsistencies between books.

Just say no

Even with all the planning and plotting in the world, it’s still really hard. So don’t do it, Ava. Just don’t do it anymore. (Who am I kidding? I’m totally going to do it again. What can I say? I’m an addict.)

What about you? Have you ever written books with overlapping timelines? Do you like reading them?

17 responses to “Writing Books With Overlapping Timelines”

  1. I bow to your powers! I think my brain would run away screaming if I tried that–but you’ve got it down! Great post!

  2. jbrayweber says:

    Wonderful post, Ava. I think it’s awesome that you can do this. I know not everyone can.

    I’ve never written a book with overlapping timelines…yet. I have my pirate series (close to releasing book 8!) that will have one book that takes place in the now, unraveling a story that takes place in the early 18th century. I’m questioning my sanity on this. LOL!

  3. Tamara Hogan says:

    Ava, thanks for this. Writing overlapping timelines is hard! I’ve done this on one occasion, in my TOUCH ME novella/short – where I took a scene from my first novel, TASTE ME, wrote it from another character’s POV, and then revealed new details about a hook-up that occurred off-page, when two of the series’ main characters slipped away from Scarlett Fontaine’s homecoming show at Underbelly.

    Though the hook-up occurred in the TASTE ME timeline, and the characters ultimately become the hero and heroine of my third book, TEMPT ME, TOUCH ME works as a stand-alone short, giving readers a taste of the series, the cast of characters, and the world. And anyone who reads CHASE ME, the second book, has some inside scoop into why there’s so.much.tension(!) between these two characters. 😉

  4. WOW! I’ve never tried this, but it’s such an interesting concept. I’ll need to give it some thought and maybe try it out on writing a novella between tow full length novels. Hmmmm… I hope you don’t mind if I ask questions of you in the future.

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Oh, I’ve always wanted to do this! Years ago, I read a trilogy by Cherry Adair that did this, showing the overlapping timelines of three brothers (one of whom could control time because this series had a paranormal twist, and boy, that must have been difficult to write!). I was blown away. I definitely have writing something like this on my “author bucket list.” 😉 Thanks for the post!

  6. Kathy Crouch says:

    I’m writing a second book in a series involving members of a Navy SEAL team. In the first one I wrote, I mention the hero and one of the other men was injured. When I went to write the injured guy’s story I had to figure out how the other man who was with him was injured to tie it all together, because it’s mentioned in the beginning of the book.
    Now, I have another guy back in Texas burying his uncle who was like a second dad. The hero from the first book and his wife will show up to offer moral support since they’re both from Texas too, which just made me think that’s something that Hero # 2 didn’t reveal in the first book when he was in conflict with the hero. It wasn’t relevant then. Not a plotter. I even struggle to grasp GMC it keeps missing the entry way into my brain cells.

    • I tried to write my first few books without plotting first and that didn’t work out well for me. 🙂 I’m totally in awe of those of you who can do it. Good luck with your Navy SEAL series, Kathy–it sounds great!

  7. Katharine Ashe’s Prince Catcher series has some overlapping scenes. I can see a scene or two maybe but to have them happen side by side in the same time frame would be wow, mind blowing but neat too. I’m not sure I could do it but now you’ve got me so I want to try. Dang you, you shouldn’t have put ideas in my head.

  8. I’ve done this multiple times and I *love* it! Both reading and writing them – though writing them is definitely a challenge. It definitely helps to have an idea of what you want to accomplish with each story before you start rather than trying to mash them together after the fact, but I flat out LOVE this kind of exercise in perspective. Great post, Ava!

  9. Fascinating post, Ava! I’ve never tried to write one of these, but I’ve read a number of YA titles with overlapping timelines, including a fantastic book about a single night at a party from a ELEVEN different viewpoints. I wonder what makes YA such a rich genre for this treatment. Perhaps the intense emotions and focus on the teen self?? I admire authors who do it well. Kudos!


Subscribe to the Blog

The Latest Comments

  • Darynda Jones: Kylie, I LOVE LOVE LOVE your voice!!! Way to go! And thank you for being our first victim…I...
  • Vivi Andrews/Lizzie Shane: Hope your mom recovers quickly, Tammy!
  • Vivi Andrews/Lizzie Shane: I really love the sense of place, time and character that you’ve established in just...
  • Autumn Jordon: Kylie, Good opening. I wondered immediately what the two villains might be scheming about? I might add...
  • Tamara Hogan: Kylie and Ruby community, My apologies in advance for being scarce at the blog today. I’ll be...