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A few novels I read recently were told via dual timelines, with chapters alternating between a "current" plot and a "background" story.

It felt to me as a "modern" story-telling technique, since I mostly witnessed its occurrence in other contemporary media (movies, TV shows).
I guess its pacing can help maintaining the interest of a public whose attention is a more limited resource nowadays.

Is it really a recent thing however, or are there more "classical" examples of dual timelines story-telling?
What would be the first recorded one?

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    A trivial example that has been used for a long time is the concept of a framing story, that is where there is an outer story within the scope of which the inner story is told, e.g. Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), where the mariner meets a guest at a wedding and proceeds to tell him the story of a rather unfortunate voyage he had been on. But these don't usually have the two timelines progressing together, but an outer one that stops in order to tell the inner story, and then (maybe) resumes at the end.
    – Jules
    Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 18:30

3 Answers 3

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I don't know about the first purely double timeline, the only one I can even think of that uses only two timelines is Diana Gabaldon's Outlander novels which started in 1991.

On the other hand Red Shift by Alan Garner, first published in 1973, uses three timelines, separated by a space of centuries to tell its tale. H.P. Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulhu", 1928, also uses several separate timelines from different POVs that all converge on the hapless narrator.

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The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (1974), takes place in two time frames, one going backwards, the other forward.

As to "The Call of Cthulhu" (1928) by H. P. Lovecraft presenting different events in different timelines, Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronte does the same, as does "Rashōmon" (1915) by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, with the additional twist in that it gives mutually contradictory accounts of what really happened.

Also, I think that this question belongs in the Literature StackExchange.

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  • Rashomon was the name of the film based on the story. The story itself was titled "In the Grove" referencing the location all the accounts agree the event happened. Rashomon is the name of the gate house in the film where the trial witnesses discuss the contradictory accounts. What makes the story unique is that all participants in the Samurai's death (including the Samurai) tell different stories to blame the man's death on themselves... I.E. we have three subjects telling contradictory stories that implicate themselves as the sole responsible party.
    – hszmv
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 13:32
  • I thought, that too, but Wikipedia lists "Rashōmon" as the name of the short story. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rash%C5%8Dmon_(short_story)
    – Ria
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 13:34
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    So reading your link, the film and the story are not the same. The Film uses the name of the short story, but the contradictory story themes are from "In the Grove" The short story is a different tale... some themes were added into the film, but the film by this title is largely "In the Grove" especially the contradictory scenes.
    – hszmv
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 13:39
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"Canyons" by Gary Paulsen published in 1990 is the first dual time-line book I recall reading. To tell you the truth, I've run across older ones since them but do not recall the book names or authors, such as one I written in the 1940s that belonged to my grandmother. In earlier times books that revealed events of the past and the present timeline at the same time, such as "Wuthering Heights" use a character to tell the earlier the story to the narrator. However, the "telling" of the Heathcliff and Catherine's earlier days, reads as if it were written in a book.

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