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My story is broken into 8 sections. Sections 1 and 2 take place simultaneously, in two different worlds. The other 6 continue in a linear fashion (switching back & forth between the two worlds as needed).

Right now it's not particularly obvious that 1 and 2 are happening at the same time. There's only 1 character who appears in both (he appears towards the end of each section).

What can I do to make this more obvious to the reader?

Some options I've already considered:

  • Give up and merge 1 and 2. I'm really trying to keep 1 and 2 separate - otherwise I'll be introducing about 20 different characters and worldbuilding info for 2 separate worlds all at once.
  • Put dates on each chapter. This feels heavy-handed, and the two worlds aren't supposed to be using the same calendar.
  • Leave it as is. Hopefully, the shared character gives enough information for the reader to figure it out. (The trick here is to make it look less forced.)

Edit: Time flows at the same rate in both worlds. Sections 1 & 2 last for 1 month.

There is one event at the beginning that affects both worlds, but it doesn't look the same in both worlds.

  • No real answer here: this is hard. My only advice is to find someone who has done it well and see what they did. – ShadoCat Mar 15 at 18:55
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    Why is it important the the reader knows the two sections are happening simultaneously? Is there some event that triggers/completes both? Will it become obvious once part 3 starts that parts 1 and 2 happened at the same time? – Kitkat Mar 15 at 19:43
  • Is there a common mode of communication between the worlds? – Rasdashan Mar 15 at 19:45
  • @KitKat There's one event at the beginning that sets everything off in both worlds. When I refer to it in 1 and 2, I need to make it clear that it's not two separate events. At the end of 1, a minor character travels to the other world and meets the MC. But the reason he had to travel to the other world isn't given until the end of 2. – Evil Sparrow Mar 15 at 19:51
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    @EvilSparrow I mean, if the same event triggers both and you make it clear it's the same event, I think that naturally people should realize the two parts happen at the same time! Or at least start at the same time, and then the passage of time/the arrival of the character should help solidify it. – Kitkat Mar 15 at 20:04
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You have three issues to solve:

  1. There are two different worlds.
  2. The sequential nature of each world's chapters (that there are not gaps where the other world's chapters are).
  3. The two timelines run simultaneously (vs one being a flashback or something).

I would solve 1 and 2 the same way: with a clear calendar system for each world that is different enough to show that they aren't different dates in the same system but totally different calendars.

For example:

  • World 1: July 27, 3009.
  • World 2: The 18th day of the 3rd month in the reign of Kala year 47.

Number 3 is a lot harder and the solution will need to revolve around the shared character. This isn't hard to do...it's hard to do well. Drop hints, show the character's thoughts if narration allows, or he can speak about the transition.

Do this subtly but more than once. It's easy for a reader to miss a single reference, but multiple references will get their attention. If the mission is the same or related, this may be the best way to make things clear.

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    Added a chapter from the shared character's POV to section 2 and added a number or references to a shared event to section 1. Much better. – Evil Sparrow Mar 20 at 0:19
  • How will 2 different calendars enable reader to understand that- "July 27, 3009" is the same actual time as "18th day of 3rd month in the reign of Kala year 47"? That will need additional explanation, without which it is unclear that the events are simultaneous. – Shanty Mar 20 at 3:50
  • @Shanty It won't. That's just one piece of it. The two different timelines set up the "2 different worlds" and also show that each world's timeline is fairly continuous in story (no skipping around). You need the shared character to tie the two timelines together. – Cyn Mar 20 at 4:07
  • @Cyn, Ok. Though the passage of time (1 month) has to be be shown without the shared character as the shared character only appears towards the end of the sections. Depending on how its written, possibly the shared character may tie the stories together but not the actual time period. – Shanty Mar 20 at 7:15
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Tolkien dealt with exactly the same situation in The Lord of the Rings, starting with the breaking of the Fellowship. For example, we have simultaneously Merry and Pippin being carried by orcs; Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli chasing same orcs; Frodo and Sam getting lost in the Emyn Muil.

The way Tolkien lets us know how events relate to each other on the time axis is by having "landmarks" that are "seen" by two or more groups. That is, an event occurs, two parties see it, so we know event X in the first group's story occurs at the same time as event Y in second group's story. A nazgul is seen by Pippin. Same nazgul, many chapters later, is seen by Frodo and Sam. We know that those two occur at the same time, since it's the same nazgul.

Your situation is complicated by the fact that you start with two separate groups, while Tolkien starts with the party together, and then splits it up within the narrative. Nonetheless, is there any event that could be shared by both your section 1 and section 2? That would be a very clear indication to the reader that those occur at the same time.

Alternatively, you say your sections 1 and 2 do not occur in the same world. Does time flow the same way in both? Does simultaneity have meaning between worlds?

Reading of events that are very separate, with no shared characters or locations, I would not automatically assume that event II occurs after event I. If there is some cause-and-effect relationship between them, then yes, I would assume effect happened after cause. Otherwise, I would hold my judgement on how the two events correlate on the time axis until the plotlines merge, or I'm given some other form of explicit information by the author.

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    'Landmark' is a wonderful analogy here: Used right it can also convey relative position. Also, landmarks do not have to have much to do with the rest of the landscape - you can introduce, say, a comet , the appearance of which has no bearing on the story, but is remarked upon in both worlds. – bukwyrm Mar 19 at 13:57
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As soon as you see the shared character in section 2, make it obvious that he hasn't changed since section 1. Some examples of this could be the same outfit, or an obvious wound that hasn't healed yet.

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    Please clarify your answer. What do you mean by "As soon as you see the shared character in section 2"? Who do you mean, the author (OP), or the reader? – imatowrite Mar 15 at 22:49
  • @imatowrite, whether 'you' referred to the reader or the author, how would it change the answer? Either way, it's the character's unchanged state that is the point. – wetcircuit Mar 19 at 11:11
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You're overcomplicating the question.

All you need to do is this: write the events of each section. Start each section off as being distinctly different places and your readers should be able to get the picture. They don't need to know the exact chronology as long as they know the events in Section 2 are not following the events in one.

For example, in my story I have two Main Characters. The audience is initially only introduced to one MC in the Prologue and the same MC from the end of the Prologue is the MC in Chapter 1. Both my Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 start with the following bit of text:

Urgh... What was that? My head is pounding as I struggle to open my eyes. At first, my body just won't seem to move. After some time, though, I awaken to see a ceiling that is not mine. As I look around at the room around me, I feel a thick haze in my mind slowly starting to lift before my ears catch the clicking of the doorknob...

By using the same text to open up both Chapters, I alert my readers that what they're reading isn't a continuation and that they need to wonder what is going on. These events are happening somewhat simultaneously, so it will let the reader know that the perspectives they are seeing are separate and different. For some reason though, both MCs have the exact same thoughts, instincts, and reactions towards their different circumstances which is in itself meant to be a cue that the reader needs to question what is going on.

Likewise, by making use of how you open each section, you should be able to get your readers to think about what is happening as well. This really can be done by making the openings heavily similar or heavily different. Either way works.

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Actually, I am also working on a non-linear timeline story.

I think there is nothing wrong with pinning the start of a scene to a specific moment in time "9:30 March 19, 2019".

And I agree landmark events observed from various POVs are a great way to help the audience keep track of the timeline.

Finally, i think there should be a structure to set expectations. When you are following one cast of characters, time should be moving in a set direction (be it forward or backward).

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    Agreed. Although in this case when the only simultaneous things are in the beginning, using a date is probably bit clumsy. Just make up a land mark event just before the events start and start both chapters with a reference to it, possibly with a bit different perspective. The advantage is that, well to be honest, when people write chapters starting with dates, times, places I never even read that info. I wouldn't remember it anyway and if the text doesn't make the time and place clear it almost certainly does not matter. – Ville Niemi Mar 19 at 17:02
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Firstly, once a reader completes both the sections, your timeline will automatically become clear. So, since the beginning(Common event) and ending(Minor character meeting MC) of the timeline are well defined, keeping the sections as they are is a viable option.

Now you also want the reader to understand that-

  1. The starting event mentioned in section 1 & section 2 is the same. Describe the event in ways so that the reader can identify the common details. For example if the event is an earthquake in the north, the north knows it was an earthquake (and mentions it in the story as an aside), but to the south, there is only talk about the tremors felt at the northern outposts a few days back. - Let the reader figure it out, but give enough clues. If the event is described such that there is no doubt about it being the same in sections 1 & 2, you don't have to worry about readers being confused.

  2. The stories in section 1 & section 2 are happening simultaneously: This need not be conveyed within the sections if-

    • The stories of the 2 sections are independent except the 2 events mentioned above.
      If not, use references/messages/gossip/news/word on the street etc to mark points of intersection.
    • The timelines of both stories are short(days/weeks/months). If the story includes normal travelling(which requires time), you might want to give the reader some idea that time has passed.

Most readers will probably treat each section as an independent story if you write it that way. But it should be possible to give just enough information to keep the reader involved in the larger story.

  • Also, since this seems to be a fantasy setting, you might want to look up examples given in previous answers- Tolkien, GRRM, Robert Jordan all handle parallel timelines in their works. – Shanty Mar 19 at 10:20
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I think the best answer is to see what other authors have done, like many have suggested. I was listening to Worm, and in arc 11, Infestation, all 8 interludes (we realize) all take place simultaneously.

In 11.a, the dogs are howling, and some superheroes battle Rachel (who owns the dogs.)

In 11.b-11.f it's not clear that things are necessarily happening at the same time, but it's a different MegaVillain in each, interacting with isolated groups of heros or less-evil-villains, with no overlap.

In 11.g, there's mentions of "fires downtown" (which matches 11.c) and in 11.h, the text mentions explicitly that, of this hero group focused on, some of their family members are the heroes fighting "Hellhound" and her dogs at this moment.

It becomes clear that ALL the sections were simultaneous, not just the first and last (although they are the most explicitly linked.) Each Interlude here is focusing on a single MegaVillain and their interactions in the city

Chapter 12.1 resumes with the narrator's POV and more sequential events.

(In this book, main chapters (end in numbers) are always first person POV. Interludes are tight-third-person, almost always a single person, and much more subject to flashbacks and time oddness. One follows a dog, one follows a TV reporter, many have the "origin stories" of the character in focus, plus their real-time story stuff (but some stay only in the past.) So the lesson you can learn from that is "establish a pattern of "this is normal" and "this is the potentially more experimental area." Then the reader can know what they can take for granted or question.)

  • Another work to check out is the movie Timecode from the year 2000. 4 cameras shoot in real time, and all 4 are displayed. Sometimes you track a character from one quadrant to another. They used earthquakes as unifying actions. imdb.com/title/tt0220100 – April Mar 19 at 18:30
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It is useful to understand if the OP requires the reader to know that the events in chapters 1 and 2 take place simultaneously. These are different places, perhaps it is not important that they take place with some special synchronization. If it is important, then the synchronizing events can be emphasized, and the reader will align the timelines to those events.

It is perhaps cliche, but simply beginning Chapter 2 with an italicized "Meanwhile on <place 2>..." could be all the hint a reader needs. If the setting is bouncing between chapters, a localizing tag at the beginning of the chapter is a device that, as a reader, I find helpful.

Chapter 1 <Place 1>

Chapter 2 Meanwhile on <Place 2>

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Interweave the 2 initial stories that happen simultaneously - short chapters, place 1 chapter 1, place 2 chapter 2, place 1 chapter 3, etc...

Potentially have an event that winds through the activities in both places - the arrival of a ship, an unusually frigid wind, etc. that is mentioned during the course of the activities in both places - this will allow the reader to sync.

You could even cut from one location to the other via character actions - drogans sword lashes out and upwards, parrying the attackers weapon in mid strike, pushing it out wide and to the side, steel wailing all the while... [while on planet B] vetta stands back as she pulls her blade out of her gasping opponents guts, unleashing a torrent of blood and what she assumes are severed portions of the man's vitals - then without conscious thought she swipes the blade smoothly across the man's back, wiping away most of the offal, and quickly reverses its direction so that it glides effortlessly into its scabbard. The men around her, senses heightened by the unexpected attack, notice the fluidity of her moves and mark her as someone to respect. "What the hell was that!", she exclaims. "I certainly wasn't expecting there to be this much resistance so soon!"

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