Switching From Main to Subplot when Subplot consists of Flashbacks?

by Vernon


I'm in the early stages of writing my novel. It will be fantasy, set in the modern world. To make a very convoluted story short, I decided on having 2 main stories: first with the protagonist as a 20 something detective who specializes in crimes committed by magicians, and a second with the protagonist as a teenager who is under the tutelage of a couple of wizened magicians.

My plan is to have the 2 stories sort of mirror each other (e.g. in the past the protagonist meets someone, falls in love, then breaks up, while in the present they are fighting, break up, then get back together). I've read stories that are similarly constructed, but they have been in comic books, where readers are given visual clues as to whether the story takes place in the past or the present. What devices or techniques can I use to signal to the reader that this part of the novel deals with the character in the past so s/he doesn't get confused?

Answer: You are correct in thinking it's important for the readers to know who and where they are at all times (that is, whose point of view are they experiencing the story from - the younger or the older main character).

Unless the flashbacks are very short, you should only switch timelines at chapter breaks. In addition, you want to signal each switch by including information that orients the reader in the new time/person right away.

Sometimes you can use a simple device like putting the date upfront, either as the chapter title or at the start of the first line, in the manner of a journal entry. For example, "November 3, 1984: it was three days since the break-in..."
This kind of lead also reminds the readers of the previous event in this timeline and lets them know that what follows is a continuation.

Sometimes, you can accomplish the same effect if you leave out the date and just mention the last event in the timeline.

The first time you switch timelines, make sure you include information upfront that lets the reader know they are now in the past. In first person narration, it can be as simple as, "On my fifteenth birthday..."

You can also use a device to trigger a flashback. For instance, the main character might come across objects, places, or people in the present that trigger memories of the past. One chapter might end with a trigger that leads into the next chapter which is the flashback.

Another way to separate the timelines is to use a different style of narration for each one. For instance, you could write the present timeline in present tense and the past timeline in past tense. Or you could write one timeline in 3rd person and the other in first. You could write the past timeline from a different character's point of view. Or you (trickiest of all) you could alter the character's voice. For instance, perhaps the present day character is more jaded while the younger one is naive. This is a little more complicated to pull off and you still may need to put in the orienting information at the start of each chapter where you switch timelines.

Best of luck.

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