How best to leap through time?
February 17, 2008 9:16 PM   Subscribe

What books have you read that handle the mechanics of an expansive timeline well?

I'm not in want of a plot, but rather samples to study for the mechanics, alone.

I've realized the collection of scenes I'm writing is becoming a novel. It's also blooming into a rather sprawling story, with scenes that span several centuries of time. I'm good with that, but I'm less than certain how best to handle the mechanics of the narrative; i.e. how do I best jump from, say, the nineteenth century to present day and back again, and hope to have my reader follow?

What books have you read that do something like this well?

(P.S. Just to be excruciatingly clear, this isn't a genre thing about time-travel.)

posted by deCadmus to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Cyptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson, jumps between related storylines that take place during WWII and the present day. The books of his Baroque Cycle trilogy expand the timeline to include various parts of the 17th century.
posted by indyz at 9:22 PM on February 17, 2008

Not exactly centuries but The Hours skips back and forth across time pretty well (1923, 1949, and 1998).
posted by mto at 9:46 PM on February 17, 2008

Best answer: Whenever I'm working with multiple chronicities all I do is to make sure that the dominant chronicities make sense. EG if I have three connected narratives in Time A, Time B and Time C, then I will make sure that the A, B and C narratives makes sense *taken individually* and then try to interleave them in a wake that makes sense for the compound narrative.

Sometimes the dominant narrative is one which flips between chronicities, in which case that is the one that needs to make sense (ie, X happens in Time A, Y happens in Time B, Z happens in Time C). But you still have to make the narratives of the different eras make sense.

In order to make this work, a bunch of index cards of different colors are really helpful. You can use colors to distinguish chronicities or narrative strands (eg Pink = 1800s, Yellow = 1900s, Blue = 2000s). Then you can brainstorm by simply writing plot points on cards of the correct color. Then you can start trying to linearise them.

The important thing to remember is that plots are ultimately linear things, and even when you have multiple chronicities the aim is to collapse them into what is, for the reader, a linear flow of causality.
posted by unSane at 9:58 PM on February 17, 2008

check out "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell. He weaves together an amazingly diverse set of stories from vastly different times.

of course, I don't believe studying other works from the "outside in" is all that helpful to a writer, but that's an answer to a different question
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:01 PM on February 17, 2008

Trust your readers. If you make things clear enough by, for instance, including chapter breaks, the reader will generally follow along. I'm writing a novel which alternates between a long, multi-chapter narrative set in the present over a period of 9 weeks and short scenes from the main characters' pasts. The way I differentiate the chapters is that those set in the present have a title like (for example) "Exchanging a Pie" while those set in the past are titled the from the name of the character(s) that appear in it and their age, such as "Jason, 43." Now, I'm not saying you should take that form up wholesale, but indicative chapter titles is a one way to let the reader know what's going on with the minimum amount of information required. Of course, something as simple as titling the chapters by the years in which they take place might work best.

As for books which do this well, I was going to recommend Cloud Atlas but drjimmy11 beat me to it. I always thought Walter Jon Williams handled the jumping between times thing rather well in his novella Green Leopard Plague (complete story hosted by Asimov's Science Fiction magazine).
posted by Kattullus at 10:31 PM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Time Traveler's Wife skips back and forth between ... 20 years, maybe? Not much of an expansive timeline there, but the time-leaping happens 2 to 4 times in each chapter.
posted by Xere at 11:23 PM on February 17, 2008

Seconding Cryptonomicon. I was going to suggest Stephenson before I even finished reading the question, and indyz beat me to it.
posted by jewishbuddha at 1:15 AM on February 18, 2008

I can't remember how much the perspective leaps around but I really liked Sarum and Russka by Edward Rutherfurd and Texas by James Michener. These are the narrative-following-all-human-history-in-one-location genre, which both authors have written multiple books in. There's also James Clavell's Asian Saga of that flavor.

To get really retro on you there's the Chinese classic (well, circa 1700, not so classical for China) 紅樓夢 The Dream of the Red Chamber, which spans several centuries.

One non-time-travel device used for this that occurs to me is when a character has a clairvoyant dream or premonition. I've seen that used to foreshadow and consequently smooth the transition between a past and a future perspective, or a dream of a past life as a way to smoot the transition between the future and past.

In The Dream of the Red Chamber a device that functions this way is that there are two oracular, immortal characters - a Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest, if I remember - who appear occasionally in cameos sort of strolling through other scenes and having a conversation, making comments both explanatory and mysteriously foreshadowing.

It seems like the basic tack you have to take is to begin talking about things that will make the reader think about the other point in the timeline before you make the transition. And I would say always make it easily discernable what point in time is currently being described, don't rely on the reader recognizing character names or something.
posted by XMLicious at 1:55 AM on February 18, 2008

One very wide-ranging example in terms of managing a lot of different time frames is John McPhee's nonfiction book The Annals of the Former World. (I feel as if I link this title in every book-related AskMe.) The subject is the geological history of the United States at the 40th parallel, and the book leaps around in time over the course of four or five billion years, always adroit and precise.

Another example, probably more useful to you, is A. S. Byatt's Possession, which leapfrogs between its nineteenth century story of a secret affair between two poets as revealed in their correspondence and published poems, and the twentieth century story of the academics who study them and who fall into an affair of their own.

You might also be interested in Stephen King's It, a behemoth of a book that manages to crisscross its 1958 protagonists with the same kids in 1985, now all grown and facing the same evil they faced in their small-town home in Maine 27 years ago. Their stories splice, catching up with themselves in a bunch of intricate, coolly told ways.
posted by cgc373 at 3:03 AM on February 18, 2008

That reminds me, Mystic River by Dennis Lahane is a recent one that also does the going back-and-forth between childhood and adulthood thing. But without any demonic clowns.
posted by XMLicious at 3:35 AM on February 18, 2008

Best answer: Pff. I cannot recommend a book without any demonic clowns.

But XMLicious's remembrance reminded me of Poul Anderson's Boat of a Million Years, an sf odyssey with a bunch of basically immortal people trying to hide amongst the normals, and that reminded me of the whole subgenre of vampire stories, which often involve some element of long timelines. Among them, I'd recommend Suzy McKee Charnas's book The Vampire Tapestry and maybe Dan Simmons' Children of Night. Interview with the Vampire does a pretty good job of establishing its times, too, and they range from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. (Rice's later books weaken badly, in my opinion, but The Vampire Lestat completely retells the story from Interview, encompassing and revising as it goes, this time from another point of view, which is an interesting effect considered from the standpoint of the mechanics of writing, and it's still readable, unlike Queen of the Damned or Tale of the Body Thief, which I hereby disrecommend. I read no further in the series.)
posted by cgc373 at 3:47 AM on February 18, 2008

There is no greater time-line in fiction that Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker. It is the 'sequel' to Last and First Men and explores a narrative set over THE ENTIRE lifetime of the universe.

It is one of my all time favourite books and must be read by everyone. Last and First Men is itself a temporal epic, occuring over a duration of several billion years of human evolution.
posted by 0bvious at 4:36 AM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm going to suggest Forever by Pete Hamill. The span is about three centuries and covers the history of Manhattan. And like Interview with a Vampire, the narrative is first person. The protagonist is trapped in immortality by a prophecy. Man, it's a good book. One of my favorites I read last year.
posted by kimdog at 4:43 AM on February 18, 2008

Orlando by Virginia Woolf covers centuries. AND the main character switches between male and female.
posted by ohio at 4:52 AM on February 18, 2008

And Orlando is really, really good, too. Unlike, say, my Boat of a Million Years thing, which is just okay. The Stapledon stuff has the potential to blow minds, which I heartily endorse, and which I wish I'd remembered. Stapledon's vistas make McPhee's Earth stories look parochial. But I imagine you are probably thinking in historical terms, not in cosmological ones, right, deCadmus? So I recommend another set of books, Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy set on Mars, Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. They span a few centuries, and the sense of history imparted by the third book is impressive. It's a frontier story set on Mars. It doesn't do much cutting back and forth, but it does succeed in making time seem colossal, historic, implacable, and grand.
posted by cgc373 at 5:30 AM on February 18, 2008

Best answer: Okay, I've got another one then: The Years of Rice and Salt, also by KSR. In a Tibetan Buddhist framework it follows a group of soul who get reincarnated down through history. And it's an alternative history novel too.
posted by XMLicious at 5:49 AM on February 18, 2008

Let me also recommend The Years of Rice and Salt. I vacillate between thinking it's a work of genius and that it's a complete, preposterous mess. But either way, it handles the jumping forward long periods of time thing very well.
posted by Kattullus at 6:27 AM on February 18, 2008

i think the dream of scipio handles the century-shifts rather well.
posted by garfy3 at 6:32 AM on February 18, 2008

I came to suggest The Years of Rice and Salt as well.
posted by PenDevil at 7:02 AM on February 18, 2008

Time Enough For Love by Robert Heinlein has an amazing structure. Each part is a self-contained story, but the whole is sewn together as well as an epic. Also, all of the historical periods (spanning 24 centuries) are not in order. (Actually they overlap a little, but it's science fiction.)

Another book that comes to mind is Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. It's not exactly what you're after, but it does have a lot of hopping around in non-consecutive time.
posted by strangeguitars at 7:11 AM on February 18, 2008

as well, as an epic.
posted by strangeguitars at 7:12 AM on February 18, 2008

Iain M. Banks' Use of Weapons alternates two threads:

1) Moving from Present to several years in the Past, discontinuously

2) Moving from Present to Future continuously

One alternative each chapter. It's confusing at first, but you pick it up somewhere around the 3rd or 4th chapter.
posted by signal at 7:12 AM on February 18, 2008

Best answer: Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco?
posted by Roach at 10:33 AM on February 18, 2008

Benford's Timescape.

Welsh's Marabou Stork Nightmares
posted by meehawl at 1:28 PM on February 18, 2008

Response by poster: Many thanks for the hints, tips, and titles. ( thanks you, too... and my book pile now teeters ever higher.)

Wouldn't ya know the list includes many favorite authors of mine, including the only Neal Stephenson I haven't yet read, a Kim Stanley Robinson I wasn't aware of, and an Eco that's already on my to-read pile.

Thanks, y'all. (For the grammatically minded, I imagine that should be, "all, y'all!")
posted by deCadmus at 7:41 AM on February 19, 2008

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