Scott Lynch – Writing Temporal Train Tracks

Temporal shifts in a narrative require careful signaling on the part of the author to ensure that the reader is able to reorient quickly. The human frame of reference models time as a single, continuous flow toward the future. As such, most writers choose to follow that convention, skipping only forward as necessary to maintain pacing and reader interest. One author who varies from this common narrative choice is Scott Lynch. The structure of The Gentleman Bastards Series is more akin to train tracks.

Although Lynch uses tangential flashbacks for expansion and explanation, the two major storylines in each book, the past and present narratives, exist on separate sections of the same timeline. Lynch structures his books so that the chapters that share a block of the timeline are grouped into sections, and so, he is easily able to signal a change in temporal perspective. By keeping the sections relatively short, the reader’s train of thought touches on both tracks simultaneously, allowing Lynch to smoothly shift the focus between the two narratives. Also, in order to bear the weight of reader scrutiny, each storyline must be constructed to be independently strong, continuous, and engaging. Though he manipulates the presentation, Lynch can’t entirely abandon the reader’s native frame of reference without risking confusion.

The use of character and the resonance between the two stories form the railroad ties. On the simplest level, Lynch is able to effectively tie the two storlines together by employing the same cast in both. The trickiest part of this tactic, however, is consistency. As people grow and mature, their voice and world view changes. It is necessary, therefore, to ensure that the character voice is not only consistent internally to each narrative track, but is also reasonable considering the character’s growth.

The strongest tie between the storylines, however, is their resonance. The events that Lynch chooses to focus on within each book form complimentary storylines, reflecting themes and varying enough in the details to retain interest and highlight contrast and change. The present storyline is able to hint at events in the past and allow for audience anticipation while the past storyline explains and expounds on the foundations of the contemporary reality. By interweaving them Lynch is able to make the two tracks of narrative feel like one unified whole.

Lynch's use of the nonlinear storytelling allows him to masterfully manage reader perspective. This grants him many advantages in regards to character, tension management, pacing, plotting, and resonance. These benefits, however, can only be leveraged if each of the storylines are written with strong enough craft to be stand alone works. Seamless transitions between the two sections of the timeline are also necessary. When reading Lynch, I don’t feel like my perspective is being managed, but rather that I’m exploring the lives of interesting individuals. Studying how he accomplished this feat has taught me that not even a master of timing can completely ignore reader expectation. He can only use his understanding to his advantage.


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