In September 2002, I left home for the first time to study at the University of the West of Scotland. After matriculation, I met a fellow student called Billy, and we decided to head to the student union. In those days, you received your first student loan tranche by cheque on matriculation day, then the rest by bank transfer at the start of each term.
As Billy and I passed my bank, I realised I’d forgotten to pick up said cheque. I had two main options:
- Head back to the university, collect it, then join him later.
- Continue to the union and collect it later or the next day.
I chose the first. I don’t recall taking too long, but when I arrived at the union, I couldn’t find Billy. In fact, I never saw him again. I don’t know why we didn’t swap phone numbers at the bank.
But what if I’d chosen the second option? We might have had a few drinks then went our separate ways, or we might have become firm friends and been inseparable for the rest of our respective courses.
This decision therefore created a point of diversions where one sequence of events happened because of an action, and another sequence of events didn’t happen thanks to the same action. In real life, we can’t know what might have occurred if the other decision were made, but we can make logical assumptions in fiction to produce an alternative narrative.
The most famous example might be the 1998 film Sliding Doors. Gwyneth Paltrow’s character Helen Quilley catches a train in one narrative, but misses the train in the other. This creates two parallel but separate universes where two stories play out.
The technique also works in novels. In Fatherland, Robert Harris explores what might have happened in the event of a German win at the end of World War II. The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling imagines that Charles Babbage completed his eponymous machine and began the computer revolution much earlier than it actually happened.
I have unpublished novels that use the same alternative history technique: in one, men are extinct by the 26th century; in another, the petrol engine isn’t invented until 1999. I’m editing a third at the moment that takes the Sliding Doors approach towards the end. I’ve had to work out a way to show this without confusing the reader, and my current solution is to label the chapters so there will be one Chapter 13, followed by a Chapter 14A then a Chapter 14B.
Will it work? Only time will tell.