#LetsDiscuss2021 #3 – Multiple Timelines: Brilliant or Bogus? – #DiscussionSunday.

#LetsDiscuss2021 Landscape

I recently read a novel where there were two timelines, and I wasn’t terribly impressed. Some of the comments on my review noted that it seems this trope has been overused of late. So, the question is…

Multiple Timelines: are they brilliant or are they bogus?

Discussion Sunday 2021


These are my personal opinions. I do not expect anyone to agree with anything here, and in fact, I’m certain that many will disagree and/or even hate many of the things I’ve written below. Sorry about that, but you are always welcome to express your own opinions – be they contrary or comparable – in the comments section. So, with that out of the way… let the controversy begin!

What made me think about this topic?

As noted above, in a recent review on this blog, I noted that one of the timelines in the novel seemed superfluous. Several people noted in the comments of that post that it seems that writers are using this mechanic more frequently than before. While I don’t know if that’s true, I did wonder what other people are thinking about this. (I should add that the book I’m reading right now has only one timeline and I’m really enjoying that fact.)

My Thoughts…

Okay so “bogus” might be a touch harsh, but I was looking for alliteration here, so I ask you to please forgive me (should I have used “marvelous or a mess” instead? Or perhaps “perfection or passé” would have worked. Another idea was “genius or gauche.” Then again, I could have just done the mundane “love ’em or leave ’em” as well). Whatever way I phrase it, you must admit that dual (and sometimes triple or more) timelines have been popping up in lots and lots of novels these days, right? I don’t think its just me; you’ve noticed it too, right? I mean, most of the books I’ve read blurbs for recently seem to include “YYYY: X is doing something and is somewhere in the past. YYYY: Z is doing something when they find a clue/learn a secret that leads them back to X.” Ahem… but… do all historical mysteries of the past have to connect to someone or something more contemporary in order to be uncovered these days? Can’t we just follow one timeline anymore?

But then it occurred to me that perhaps it is the fault of the author. See, in the right hands, multiple timelines can be amazing. Take for example Ariel Lawhon’s novel “I Was Anastasia.” In that book, Lawhon recounts the last days of the Czar’s family with one timeline moving forward towards the terrible shooting of the whole family. In the other timeline, Lawhon goes backwards (yes, you read that correctly) starting from the end of Anna Anderson’s life, working back to the time when she started claiming she was the long-lost daughter of the Czar who somehow survived the mass murder! Not only did Lawhon work these timelines so that by the end of the book they almost meet up, but she also changed the points of view here so that one was first person, and the other was third person. In this case, you HAD to have two timelines, or the impact wouldn’t have been the same. That’s when using this mechanic can be brilliant.

The thing is, I also have to agree that this seems a bit overused these days in general. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if some authors are using it to pad out their books, instead of using it to enhance the impact of their storytelling. I mean… sometimes one story with one timeline can be enough, and it can be amazing. Yeah, sure, throw in a few flashbacks here and there, that’s fine; that can help with the backstory of the main characters – no problem. But if the bulk of your story is in one era, you don’t always need to jump forward (or back) a bunch of years or decades just to try to heighten the tension of the plot. I’m thinking… unless there’s a real, creative reason for more than one timeline, then maybe authors should think about sticking to one timeline again. (Mind you, I could be putting my foot in it right now. You never know but I might end up giving 5/5 stars to a bunch of books that have bunches of timelines this coming year, but I’ll risk that for now!)

There you have it! That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking with it!

So… what do you think?

Do you think authors are overusing the multiple timeline mechanic? Have you read books where you loved one timeline but didn’t care for another one? What books have you read that would have been less effective if they didn’t have more than one timeline? What books have you read that might have been better with only one timeline?

Let me know in the comments below (or in your own discussion blog post, if you decide to write on this topic)!

This post is my 3rd entry in the 2021 Discussion Challenge, hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!


35 thoughts on “#LetsDiscuss2021 #3 – Multiple Timelines: Brilliant or Bogus? – #DiscussionSunday.

  1. I usually like multiple timelines, but it all depends how well it’s done and how it serves the plot. Your example of I Was Anastasia sounds like a perfect example. But not all multiple timelines are born equal 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with what many are saying here, it depends on the author. I like the ones where the main characters of both timelines actually meet or come together at some point. One of the authors I love is Fiona Davis. I think she does a dual timeline exceptionally well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve only read one of her books, but now that I’ve finally read one, I want to read more of her works. I like her concept of placing the story around a place, and then she builds characters around that place. Unique!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I completely agree that multiple timelines are overused, especially the one where a person in the present time is somehow connected to a person in a historical time (many books will also take the same character and tell their story in two timelines, which I don’t mind as much). I love historical fiction and I’ve often wondered if publishers feel like readers connect better with a person in the present time, but I often find these present day stories superfluous or distracting from the real story or they are overly coincidental. There are times that it’s done really well though – The Weight of Ink is a recent read that I recommend. I wish it was used more sparingly.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m bored rigid with both multiple timelines and multiple viewpoints. It’s all style over substance, with exceptions being rare. If a story is good, then all it needs is good storytelling, not over-complication and over-padding. In my humble opinion, of course… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I like them a lot when well done. I think Susanna Kearsley and Kate Morton are the best. I went to an event with Susanna Kearsley several years ago and she thinks it is inevitable that an author prefers one of her settings and sometimes it shows. I thought that was interesting. I certainly agree there are some very weak dual timelines being published currently but that is always what happens when a genre is working (preserve me from any more YA dystopian fiction!). I read one by Lucina Riley that was so awful I had to ban her from my TBR permanently!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I am sure you noticed the overabundance of WWII fiction! And I am also noticing a lot of gilded age historical fiction and I also find that very hit or miss (have any of these authors actually been to New York or Newport? Maybe they could describe them better, if so).

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t know Newport, and hardly know New York, so I wouldn’t be able to tell if they’re described well or not. But I can tell you that when an author screws up with a description of somewhere I know, I’ll DNF that book!


  6. Very popular of late yes. And I do believe that Lucinda Riley’s Seven Sisters are the absolute exception to the rule and manages the dual time-line perfectly. Maybe that’s why everyone jumps on the bandwagon.

    I don’t really mind a dual time-line, but please not more than two. Then you are going to lose me completely!

    Lovely discussion post Davida!

    Elza Reads

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting post! I don’t know if multiple timelines are overused because I don’t read new releases. I usually like multiple timelines, though. If they’re done right, they can build suspense. I have to be equally interested in both timelines. It sucks to be stuck in a boring timeline and constantly want to skim ahead to get back to the interesting one. I have the same issue with multiple POV books. I have to be interested in every character for them to work.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I don’t mind them as long as they are so well written that i have a vested interest in each of the time lines. The problem occurs when I get bored by one timeline and those chapters feel an intrusion on the one timeline that I am enjoying.
    The Huntress by Kate Quinn was a triple timeline and that one worked for me. I’ve come across them in histfic and some mystery stories, but not sure that I can remember this in other genres.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I agree with you, multiple timelines have been everywhere for the past few years and they are starting to seem overused and dated to me. Like you, that doesn’t mean that I won’t love the next one I read, though! I’ve just read a story which used alternate realities which rolled alongside each other, which I thought was a clever idea.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I agree. I think it can be done well so that it has great impact on the story, and I think it can be done badly so that it is just confusing and serves no real purpose. It’s not my favorite device to read but if there is a good reason for it and it’s done well, I applaud it.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I’m really not keen on them. It’s nearly always a present day timeline and a historical timeline, rather than say, one in the 19th century and one in the 16th century – it’s as if authors think readers can’t cope with historical fiction and need it to be linked it today.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I tend to agree with you — I often get annoyed with multiple timelines. I don’t HATE them, but it always seems like one timeline (usually the historical one) is much more interesting than the other (usually the contemporary one). Or both stories suffer because neither one is fleshed out enough, due to the book’s split focus. I can think of a few novels that do multiple timelines well — Susanna Kearsley’s A Desperate Fortune comes to mind — but in general, they’re not my favorite thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Oooh this is such an interesting perspective. I love the dusk timeline in Kate Mosse’s Carcassonne séries. But I’ve just read a crime novel where sometimes it was a bit clunky and I was a bit confused about the significance for quite a while as it distracted from the main story. If done well, I adore this trope.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. At times I enjoy them simply for the mental challenge of keeping them straight in my head! It is a more complex reading experience. I read a book recently with one straightforward timeline that included a few flashbacks and it was a refreshingly easy read! Sometimes it seems the second timeline is simply a filler. I almost always enjoy the past timeline to the present time…there is one exception that I can recall where I enjoyed the present one more. The only thing that truly annoys me is when one timeline mirrors the events in the other….just seems too gimmicky. One read was so bad that I had to groan because before I even went to the next chapter I could predict what would happen in the alternating timeline. I think I enjoy a story with multiple perspectives more than multiple timelines. These are my random thoughts on the subject! Great post Davida!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I think it’s being overused. Milan Kundera did it, but he’s genius. The average mystery writer? Not so much. I prefer a straightforward chron, maybe with a prologue from the past, and/or clearly labeled sections, which is what I did (she says modestly)…

    Liked by 1 person

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