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This goes for any amount of narratives, dual, triple, quadruple, whatever.

I'm writing a story with three points of views going on simultaneously right now, about at the same time. However, is it okay to have one of the characters a day ahead of the others, or one a day behind? If I end one chapter with the character's day ending, and I go back to resume from a cliffhanger on a different character where it is still daytime, and by the time I finish that I switch to the other POV where its already tomorrow, is that okay?

In a dual narrative, does time have to be absolutely in sync? Can characters be days ahead of each other?

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    Unless you are a pupil writing for a teacher, you can do whatever you please. Seriously, I don't understand this question. Does narrating out of sync make sense in your narrative? Then do it. Does it confuse the reader? Then don't do it. That is the simple answer to all question of the type "Is it allowed to do X?". Of course it is! Whether or not it will work in your narrative is something you must ask your test readers. Without reading your story we cannot tell. – user5645 Nov 3 '16 at 8:04
  • I agree with @what. There is little to consider except whether or not it works for your story. If you do not want to confuse your readers, make sure the timestamps of the scenes are clear. If you do want to confuse your readers (I can see that scenario as well), do it consciously. Use it as a tool. Remember "Memento"? – Lew Nov 3 '16 at 12:43
  • Basically you have to realize that two (or more) parallel narratives can never be completely in sync, unless you print them in parallel columns on the same page. When you switch to another character and setting in some next chapter, you'll always have to go back to where your preceding chapter started. Something like: "While John had been saving the world, Robert had been asleep. But at about the time that John knocked Dr. Evil out, Robert finally turned on the tv." Even if the asynchronicity is different or larger, your efforts to synchronize them through such markers remain the same. – user5645 Nov 3 '16 at 13:11
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Stories are not organized according to time sequence, they are organized according to narrative arc. A narrative arc is built on rising tension, not the passage of time. Narrative arc can often be asynchronous. Any story with a flashback in it has an asynchronous narrative arc.

A multi narrative story usually has multiple narrative arcs. The important thing is to make sure each of the narrative arcs works as an arc. If you try to hard to keep the narratives time synced, you may mess up both narrative arcs. (Remember, a narrative arc is build on rising tension. A cut away may add tension or defuse it.)

But it is also possible for a single narrative arc to have two intersecting timelines. Consider a story in which two lovers are separated and are trying to reunite. This could be told as a single narrative arc with frequent communication between the characters and perhaps multiple missed rendezvous, all requiring close time synchronization.

But it could also be told as two separate arcs. First you take her through a series of adventures leading her to the rendezvous point at the appointed time. Then you leave her there and tell his narrative arc leading to the ultimate intersection of the arcs (or their failure to intersect). Tension is built through her arc because she does not know if her lover will meet her. Tension is built through his arc because the reader knows she is will be waiting for him, but not if he will choose or be able to meet her.

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Not only is it okay for characters to be out of sync, it's also widely used in nearly any major fiction work that uses multiple POV's.

As The Doctor said:

"People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it's more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly... timey-wimey... stuff."

The same applies with writing.

What it means is that the more Points of view you have, and the greater area they cover, the more you can advance and regress within the setting timeline to make your story work. And it is a popular and successful took used by some highly successful authors, and it allows you to explore, in depth, events and situations behind your major plot points:

Robert Jordan did it in his Wheel of Time series - multiple main characters that ended up all over the place. Events occurring because of one character impact events occurring around another character, or you get to see the same event from a different angle. When it's done well, you get a much more immersive setting.

George R R Martin with Game of Thrones - again has multiple characters and events that occur generally in a linear fashion but has the flexibility to really develop the story and setting.

Steven Errikson and his Malazan Book of the Fallen series - similar to the two mentioned above - but goes one step further in that the books themselves aren't chronologically ordered. The published order and chronological order of events varies a great deal - but it works and flows because you are getting so much more information and a greater understanding of the setting.

There are too many other authors to mention that do this, but the one thing that it needs, and you need to keep in mind when writing, is that you must have a point of reference or fixed point in time for your readers to fully understand when, how and why some events are occurring and show the progression of each characters story.

And that's another thing - all those authors aren't just telling one story, they are telling each characters story within the greater story and that is part of why it works so well.

  • personally i'd also add this timed link for that quote – Memor-X Nov 3 '16 at 22:52
  • @Memor-X - except I can't access youtube at work :) – Thomo Nov 3 '16 at 22:54
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As long as you clearly mark what the date is so that the reader knows your scenes are not in sync, you're okay in terms of clarity. But you should have a good narrative reason for doing so, and not just "the cliffhanger was exciting."

From a reading perspective, I prefer that the scenes not be out of sync by more than a day or so. If you have characters who absolutely don't interact, it's easier to manage.

(This also assumes that you're not telling a story which involves time-travel of any kind, in which case go nuts with asynchronicity.)

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