(By 'chapter timestamp' I mean the text at the beginning of a chapter indicating when it is taking place).

Here is a basic summary of the story so you understand what I'm working with:

A man named Andy has a lot of problems in his life that he attributes to a traumatic event from his childhood. He decides to go back in time to prevent this event from happening.

Andy succeeds in changing his past and the world is reset. As a result, there is now an alternate version of Andy, called Ryan, whose life progresses without the traumatic event. The rest of the novel follows Ryan's adventures as he eventually learns about Andy and Andy's reasons for changing the past. He also deals with some unintended consequences of Andy's time travel.

Some notes:

  • Andy and Ryan have different first names (there is a logical reason for this which is explained in the story)

  • Ryan is the 'main character' of the book, not Andy (although there is a fair amount of focus on Andy as well)

Here is the basic structure of the book:

  • Prologue: we learn about Andy and his reasons for wanting to change his past. At the end of the prologue, Andy decides that time travel is the only solution.

  • Rest of the novel: We follow Ryan's adventures and eventually learn about his link to Andy. By the end of the novel, we learn that Andy successfully traveled through time and changed the past.

My main problem is what chapter timestamp to use for Chapter 1 (in relation to the prologue).

I am currently using '24 years later' because this is the amount of time that has passed since Andy's reset. But technically, because there's time travel involved, both the prologue and first chapter take place in the same year.

I definitely need some kind of timestamp because both the prologue and first chapter take place in the same city, and there are significant changes between the 2 versions of this city because of Andy's time travel. So without a timestamp, things would be very confusing.

Appreciate any ideas!

  • 6
    Maybe make it intentionally cryptic, and at the same time completely accurate: “The same year, 24 years later”
    – celtschk
    Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 8:58
  • 2
    If Ryan is the MC and does not time-travel, and also you say there are "significant" changes to the two timelines, I don't see how a few numbers at the start of a chapter will explain it all. Shouldn't the reader learn about Andy and t-t by reading the book? Why announce the whole plot on the first page of Chapter 1...? Spot-the-difference is half of the fun of time-travel stories.
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 12:16
  • 1
    Animorphs had a very well executed version of @wetcircuit 's comment. The opening chapter was a pretty bog standard opening for the character and the series but the character is talking about the wonderful weather and giving the general plot details of the series. All pretty standered, except at the very end of the comments, he observes that the town beach is very crowded, and with good reason: "It's such a nice day, even the slaves are enjoying themselves." The fact that he casually dropped slavery in the US in the 1990s is the first and only hint that the world is not as it should be.
    – hszmv
    Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 15:30
  • 1
    FWIW, this entire concept was explored in one of my all time favorite series, Sheri S. Tepper's Marianne Trilogy. The main character of the first book is your "Andy" figure. The main character of the second book is "Ryan." In fact, I believe she travels back in time once again at the end of Book 2 and is yet a third different person in Book 3. The series is very hard to locate, but well worth the effort. Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 20:05
  • 1
    I suggest you read Robert Heinlein's "All You Zombies". When your poor tattered mind recovers, consider that a simple time and date will typically work well. If you must, you can add a qualifier like "Line A" (short for timeline A). Alternatively, don't identify the different timelines explicitly at all, but provide enough hints (subtle or not, depending on taste) to let the reader figure it out. As a final alternative, start at the earliest "objective" date, and deal with what is in your prologue as a series of flashforwards (objective)/flashbacks(subjective). Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 16:56

3 Answers 3


I think this sounds like a strong concept for a book I would like to read. But I also think your question is disguising a deeper issue --your prologue is giving away things you seem to want to keep hidden. If a character is considering time travel, and then everything is suddenly different, most readers of speculative fiction will connect the dots right away.

If you want the alternate timeline to be a gradual, unexpected discovery, drop the prologue, and let the reader discover it along with Ryan. On the other hand, if you want to put all your cards on the table at the start, keep the prologue, and clearly label the alternate timeline as such (for example "2025 AD, Timeline 2").

Personally, I think the former approach is stronger, but it depends on your aims. Either way, remember the iceberg theory, it's important for you to know more than you tell the reader.

  • 3
    I think you're right, dropping the prologue is the best option. I think I may have simplied the story too much when I was writing the question, but basically, when Andy decides to travel through time he only wants to go back a few years and prevent himself from making certain choices. But, he ends up going too far back, to Ryan's birth, and realizes that the traumatic childhood event is the real catalyst for everything that went wrong in his life, so he prevents that from happening. But, your point still stands. I think I'll go ahead and remove the prologue.
    – souzan
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 5:16

I agree with Chris Sunami; ditch the prologue.

If Andy is in the past and prevents some disaster, and the world is reset with him in it, I imagine he still retains all his memories of the prior world, and lives through the new world. But I think Andy is severely disconnected, watching this world unfold, and would have a strong natural urge to watch himself (as Ryan) grow up, perhaps even insert himself into Ryan's life in some way. Become a teacher or coach, or boss.

Andy also has the problem of identity. Presumably he could travel into the past with fake IDs and old cash or old gold coins to sell. But his fingerprints, irises, and DNA are all the same as Ryan's; and the resemblance would be strong.

Nevertheless, without telling us Andy and Ryan are the same person, you can have these two interact throughout the book from the POV of Ryan (because he doesn't know who Andy is), and have him unravel the mystery of who Andy is.

Ryan might have suspicions at some points, might get some DNA from Andy and think perhaps he (Ryan) is a clone of Andy, or before that think Andy is a relative due to their resemblance (and Andy's secrecy), etc. And then, Ryan gets interested in physics, and the potential of time-travel is being discussed by the heavyweights ...

I wouldn't give away the mystery up front. It is more fun to know *something's fishy and get clues along the way but not figure it out until the end.

It is much LESS fun to know what the POV doesn't know, and get frustrated with him being dumb and not figuring it out for the length of a book. That's just too long, and there is no twist for the reader. The story ends like they knew it would from the prologue.

But if you are in the same boat (information-wise) as Ryan throughout, you think his guesses about Andy are reasonable, or clever. Not dumb. the reader only thinks wrong guesses are dumb when they know the answer.

  • You're right, Andy does live through the new world and inserts himself into Ryan's life. I should note that this is fantasy, not sci-fi (the time travel is done through magic, not science). After the initial time jump, Andy cannot time travel again. It's a somewhat medieval, low-tech world, so he doesn't have the problem of identity.
    – souzan
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 5:21
  • I definitely agree that it's much less fun to know what Ryan doesn't know ... I'm going to remove the prologue. Thanks for your ideas!
    – souzan
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 5:22
  • I would add, you DO need to show that magic works, early in the novel (first 15%). You don't want the answer to seem a deus ex machina. I would include some minor time-magic in that, like time-restoration, so Ryan has seen it before but thinks it is limited to small things. Say nobody can reverse more than a few minutes, to correct a broken cup, or undo a cut finger. Maybe after those a big one, a stray arrow kills a child, and a powerful good witch on the spot time-restores the life of the child. Then your reveal is just Andy engineering a time restoration of huge magnitude; the whole world.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 11:45
  • Ryan can even be explicitly told by a magician (perhaps in an early magic lesson), nobody can do more than 15 minutes, and nobody can reverse more than about a dozen pounds, until he sees the witch break both limits in her successful effort to save the child. So his (and the reader's) sense of the limit is cracked, Ryan is not sure what the limit is, but still thinks perhaps it is an hour (not 24 years). That unsure state can be what later pushed Andy (along with despair) to discover there was no limit but magical energy, and he (somehow, with difficulty) overcame that barrier.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 12:02
  • It would be a bit awkward to show that time travel is possible because it isn't a skill that everyone can/does use - however Ryan does time travel for a very short duration (a few hours back) before learning of Andy's actions, so it's definitely not deus ex machina. It's hard to summarize here, but basically, the reader knows early on that there's no limit to how far a person could travel through time.
    – souzan
    Commented Dec 21, 2018 at 13:32

I love time travel stories and have rad a lot of them. I've written a few too. The issue, as I understand it is that you have chronological time which is what Ryan experiences but you have a folded time which is what Andy has lived. Effectively we have two frames of observational reference (Einsteinian relativity concept) while we are used to treating time as a fixed frame of reference (which it actually is not).

By age

The Time Travellers Wife deals with this by giving you the age of each character in the chapter. This helps us get a feel for where each of the two characters are along their own timeline. You might wish to do that.

Chapter Six: Andy 51, Ryan 26

As there is a single loop, these numbers will increment at the same rate after the journey back.

Chapter Seven: Andy 52, Ryan 27

But you would also have something like this for pre-change time.

Chapter Three: Andy 27

Personal timelines

Another approach might be to reference the time and the frame of reference.

Chapter Nine: June 7th 2012, Andy's time

and the second timeline something like this:

Chapter Ten: June 7th 2012, Ryan's time;


Chapter Ten: June 7th 2012, Ryan's time; Andy +25 years

By Epoch

The choice is partly down to how and what you want to express. If you want to talk about pre-change and post-change timeline, then use the jump as an epoch.

Chapter Nineteen: June 18th 2014; 24 years, six months, four days, three hours post change.

or just express the epoch in hours

Chapter Nineteen: June 18th 2014 +214,719 hours

This works well for the old timeline too

Chapter Twenty: June 18th 2014 -184 hours


Chapter Twenty: June 18th 2014, 184 hours before Andy changed everything

As long as you are clear...

Pretty much every combination of those ideas would make it very clear to me, if I were reading this story, which timeline I was reading. I honestly cannot pick a favourite. Speaking of which, I really do want to read this story.

As a side note, this could be a situation where a prologue could be powerful and effective. Generally, I hate prologues as they do not work and should be banned but, every now and then, a writer comes along and breaks the rules and it is wonderful. Break the rules as often as you need to - but do so knowing that there is a rule and that you are deliberately and purposefully breaking it.

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