The task of a novelist is to tell a story so riveting that it will hold a reader’s attention for hundreds of pages. To do this, the author must first know the story intimately herself—which is the reason we write rough drafts (also known as “discovery drafts” or, my favorite, from the beloved Anne Lamott, “shitty first drafts”). After you’ve finished a first draft (or many drafts) and are convinced you know the story inside out, you can start thinking about structure (though there may well be a lucky few who write novels with the perfect structure from the outset). Structure is the way your story is presented to the reader—the ordering of scenes and chapters.
Writers whose novels contain a lot of important backstory often struggle with ways to weave in flashbacks without stopping the forward motion of the story. One approach is to “chunk” in the flashbacks: present several chapters of the story line to get the action moving, and then pull in several chapters (a “chunk”) of explanatory backstory.
But what if your backstory is so compelling or so important to the protagonist’s character arc that you don’t want to wait several chapters to impart it? This is the issue I struggled with repeatedly in writing my first novel. My heroine moves to a new part of the country, which is where the action begins. Yet what makes her move so painful, and the action unique, is her deep love for her left-behind home. My problem was how to get the story moving and keep the reader engrossed while also showing Collie’s ordinary world—the place she left behind.
The answer finally came in a critique session with trusted fellow novelists. Why not try running a dual story line? Tell Collie’s story from the moment she moved to Santa Fe as one narrative arc, and intersperse the backstory in alternating chapters—a dual story line. Chapter one begins the story and immerses the reader in the contemporary story line, chapter two moves back to the beginning of the flashback story line, Chapter Three returns to the present, and so on.
I’ve christened this the Two Nows Structure, because one important feature is the immersion in the “now” of each arc. This is the key element of this construction. We are in the head of the characters as they are at the moment. The flashback storyline is not told retrospectively, with the wisdom of the years that have passed. It is told in the now of that narrative arc. Accordingly, such a structure works best with a limited point of view, either tight third person or first person.
Each storyline has a distinct narrative arc, with its own conflicts, disasters, and troubles for the characters, and its own forward movement and mounting action. To decide where to begin each throughline, bear in mind the advice of writer Jack Bickham, from his book, Scene and Structure, which is “start your story at the time of the change that threatens your character’s major self-concept.
In my research on this structure, I’ve discovered two main variations. The first is a linear style, in which each story is told in strict chronological order. This is the structure used in the recent novel, A Blessed Event, by Jean Reynolds Page, which is the story about a woman desperate for a baby, and the controversial actions she takes to get one. In dealing with the consequences of those actions, the protagonist uncovers secrets from her past. The contemporary story begins in Texas in 1983, and the backstory action starts ten years earlier. Chapters alternate between the two time periods, and each story line moves steadily forward until they begin to merge about three-quarters of the way through.
A permutation on this linear storyline structure is found in Jane Hamilton’s novel, The Short History of a Prince. While Hamilton’s two narrative arcs also follow chronologically, her novel begins with the flashback storyline. The book alternates between 1972 and 1995, with each distinct arc covering roughly the same period of time—the months of a school year, September to June. In Prince, the events of the past storyline are so strong and compelling that they have affected every single character in the twenty years since, which is no doubt why she chose to begin in the past.
The second variation on the Two Nows Structure is the thematic style. In this construction, the flashback chapters are arranged in seemingly random order, but the author has placed them so for thematic reasons. Maryanne Stahl’s novel, Forgive the Moon,, is fashioned in this manner. The story of a woman whose marriage is threatened, the contemporary action takes place over a one week vacation on Long Island, and the flashbacks show snapshots of the protagonist’s past which illuminate her current behaviors and decisions.
Both the linear and thematic structures tend to follow a similar pattern—chapters alternating consistently between the two nows with an equal emphasis on each storyline. Occasionally, authors allow us to remain in the contemporary storyline for more than one chapter, but this rarely happens with the past storyline. Its important to keep the contemporary narrative moving (which is why you chose this structure) and lingering in the past will not accomplish that. By the last third or quarter of the novel, the two storylines will, of necessity, start to merge until there is one seamless narrative remaining.
Why choose this structure? In rewriting my first novel, I found it benefits my writing in several ways. By not relying on flashbacks and instead immersing my characters in the “now” of their lives, I am forced to write with more immediacy. Instead of lapsing into telling, I easily see ways to show. This, in turn, helps me to show character motivation in real time, instead of using a flashback that stops the action of the story to explain why a character does what he does. For instance, in my own novel, I revealed a crucial character motivation in a flashback scene. Try as I might, I could see no way to get this information out in any other way—until I recast the novel in the Two Nows structure. Immediately, I saw how this bit of info could be revealed in the contemporary story line, thus pushing the action ahead and keeping the story moving.
The Two Nows Structure is a useful paradigm for a variety of novels, but especially for those which rely heavily on backstory. Ultimately, I decided not to use this structure for my novel, but its certainly something I’ll consider using for future novels.