Duelling with timelines – Lexie Elliott

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By Lexie Elliott

Book reviews. I’m going to be honest: I fear them.♥

Clearly I’m talking about reviews of my own book — I can read reviews of other authors’ books without experiencing fear. (Jealousy, maybe, but not fear.) It’s very different for my own book, I actively avoid engaging with them. If I accidentally find myself in a situation where I can’t help but run my eyes over one, I quite genuinely experience heart palpitations.

But every once in a while a review can reaffirm the writer’s faith in a choice that was made when writing the manuscript. (Also known as confirmation bias, but if I took that position, this would be a very different article…) 

Quite a few of the reviews for The French Girl commented very positively on the fact that whilst the story revolves around a pivotal event in the past, the narration is entirely in the present, as I chose not to take the “dual timeline” approach that we see in many books (Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth spring immediately to mind, but there are many examples).  This was a deliberate choice, and one I spent a lot of time musing over when the story first started unfolding in my head. Ultimately my decision came down to the answer to three key questions:

  • Is there enough meat in the story of both timelines for each part to carry their weight? I’m sure I’m not the only person who has read a dual timeline book and found themselves skipping over the pages in one timeline, eager to get to the story that’s unfolding in the other. The lesson I take from that is that if the dual timelines aren’t balanced, the novel will ultimately feel uneven.
  • Can you achieve your goal in a different way? If there are scenes from an earlier timeline that you absolutely must include, can this be achieved in a different way? Perhaps through a flashback or a prologue? Or through memories surfacing in the present? In The French Girl, my protagonist Kate is forced by circumstances to reconsider events of a decade ago, and to re-evaluate her memories of them. That allowed me to reveal those events without having to jump back in time.
  • Does this construction best serve the story you are trying to tell? This is perhaps the most important question of all. What are you trying to say? What are the themes underlying the story? My story dealt with the fluidity of memories and our interpretation of those memories. Present-day Kate only has her own murky memories to examine and reflect on, and I couldn’t see how it would serve the story better for the reader to have access to something more than that.

Ultimately I think I made the best decision I could in the case of The French Girl, and it’s very pleasing to see that others agree with me. But I still dread book reviews.

Lexie Elliott grew up in Scotland at the flood of the Highlands. She graduated from Oxford University, where she obtained a doctorate in theoretical physics, and now works in fund management in London. A keen sportswoman, when not writing she can often be found running, swimming or cycling whilst thinking about writing. The French Girl is her debut novel.


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