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Juggling Timelines in Your Novel by Hallie Ephron

NNSTFinalCoverNote From Rochelle

Dear Writers,

Last fall, I had the privilege of attending Mystery Writers of America MWA University. While there, I heard Hallie Ephron speak about Dramatic Structure and Plotting—which changed the way I think about writing fiction. I’ve invited her to the blog to talk about one small aspect of plotting—how to juggle timelines. She demonstrates that skill brilliantly in her brand new suspense novel, Night Night, Sleep Tight.

Happy Writing! -Rochelle, the Write Now! Coach


Juggling Timelines in Your Novelby Hallie

I had no idea I was making trouble for myself when I started writing a novel that began by reuniting two characters who haven’t seen each other in twenty years.

In Night Night, Sleep Tight Deirdre Unger and Joelen were fifteen years old the last time they were together on the night when Joelen’s movie star mother’s boyfriend Antonio “Tito” Acevedo was stabbed to death.  They’re reunited twenty years later, soon after Deirdre finds her father floating face down in his swimming pool.

So there’s the story of what happened back in 1963 and the story of what’s happening in the “present” (1985). With two timelines, the storytelling can’t be straightforward. It has to zigzag as events in the present trigger memories from the past.

Writing the back and forths, I got hopelessly mixed up until I hit on a way creating a timeline for both characters, past and present, and lining them up so I could figure out see what each was up to in each one’s parallel universe.

Here’s part of the timeline I created for my novel. The highlighting shows when the characters are together, same time and same place.


I went on, laying in parallel timelines for 6 other characters, stretching it back to their births and forward to the end of the novel’s timeline.

This was enormously helpful because if I started to write “It had been four years ago that…” I could go to my timeline and see if that was correct. It also helped me dressing and coiffing my characters (torn-neck T shirts and long curly hair ’63-65 after the movie “Flashdance”` came out) and getting my “current” events and cultural references right.

Much of what I wrote down—what was going on in the characters’ timelines—never found its way into the novel. But building a “real” life for each helped me to understand why my characters behaved the way they did on the page.


HallieRedCoatRtched4by6About the author. HALLIE EPHRON is the New York Times bestselling author of Night Night, Sleep Tight. She also wrote the Edgar-nominated Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel and is a regular crime fiction book reviewer for the Boston Globe. Night Night, Sleep Tight, is inspired by an infamous murder that took place Beverly Hills when she was growing up there in the ‘60s, surrounded by but never part of Hollywood glamour. The book received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly (“a captivating thriller”) and the Richmond Times-Dispatch raves, “So hooray for Hollywood, hooray for homicide, and hooray for Hallie Ephron, who begins with a seed of truth and grows it into a bumper crop of crime and cynicism.” Her earlier novels—Never Tell a Lie, Come and Find Me, and There Was an Old Woman—were all finalists for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Visit her online at:




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