Choosing Your Timeline
Some writers want a more complex timeline than straight chronology. They might like to move in and out of time. Maybe their story is heavily dependent on something that happened ten years ago--a backstory. How do you slide in and out of that far past, and keep the reader's attention firmly on the present story as well? What if the backstory is more compelling than the present-time story, like a suicide or a huge financial loss that changed the family's lives?
Two ways to handle this.
If you are clear about one story being the most important, you allow that story at least 3/4ths of the page space in your book. The secondary story becomes brief flashbacks, not longer than a few pages at a time, ideally.
If your past and present stories have equal weight, then you create two (or more) storyboards and go back and forth between them. You've probably seen this in books like The Time Traveler's Wife, which has alternating chapters and three storyboards.
Long Time and Short Time
Once you have the basic structure decided, via the storyboard(s), you can then play with the next element of time: long time and short time.
Long and short time can also be translated into summary and scene. Each has a different purpose, and it's fun to know that and begin playing with your choices more consciously.
Long time covers the passing of hours, days, weeks, when not much happens. Writers summarize long time--"The next few weeks were a blur to Jason, as he studied the log book and tried to make sense of Eric's notations." Putting this in short time, or scene, would be boring. The actions Jason takes are repetitive and don't add tension to the story. So viewing them in long time makes sense. Long time has an element of telling about it, since the events are summarized.
Long time can be dry for the reader, though. To make it more vivid, to make it count, pro writers add in specific details. "Each evening, alone under the harsh glare of the halogen light, Jason would find one or two possibilities among the marks the old man added to the margins." Not the greatest example, but maybe you can see that the addition of "harsh glare of the halogen light" and "old man" and "margins" puts us more clearly in a tangible moment, within the long time.
Short time, or scene, is a choice you make when you have something dramatic to show. Scene contains two things, always: action and dialogue. If you don't have these, you don't have a real scene. Because of the dialogue, we are immediately there. Because of the characters moving in real time, we are also there. It's a much more intense experience.
Varying the Two
Both short and long time are essential in fiction and memoir. Imagine a book that is all scene--one intense moment after another. It becomes more of a screenplay or a play script than a book. Equally, a book that's all summary has a distant feel, where we never really get into the emotion or the immediacy.
Understanding long time or short time, then making conscious choices about each, is a good skill to develop.
Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1. Find a chapter of your book-in-progress. Go through with two colors of highlighter, marking the long time (summary) and the short time (scene).
2. Did you use each consciously? Many times in early drafts we just do the best we can, making placeholders of the time choices. Now, see if you can become more conscious of the effect of these time choices. What might you change?
PS A great little book on the topic, which I highly recommend is The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silber.