Rebecca McKanna, author of the thriller Don’t Forget the Girl, joins us to talk about her latest book, the hit show Yellowjackets, and why multiple timelines ramp up the tension like nothing else.
Most people remember a serial killer’s name far more easily than they can recall the names of their victims. Jack the Ripper. Dahmer. Bundy. There have been countless movies and TV shows made about these murderers, and the true-crime genre has fanned the flames of their notoriety without always paying proper tribute to the people who lost their lives along the way.
Rebecca McKanna speaks to this topic in her latest novel, Don’t Forget the Girl. The official synopsis reads:
“Twelve years ago, 18-year-old University of Iowa freshman Abby Hartmann disappeared. Now, Jon Allan Blue, the serial killer suspected of her murder, is about to be executed. Abby’s best friends, Bree and Chelsea, watch as Abby’s memory is unearthed and overshadowed by Blue and his flashier crimes. The friends, estranged in the wake of Abby’s disappearance, and suffering from years of unvoiced resentments, must reunite when a high-profile podcast dedicates its next season to Blue’s murders.”
This debut thriller promises to tackle many of the topics relevant to this discussion right now—from the impact of true-crime podcasts to the friends and family left behind to relive their loved ones’ deaths over and over again. And it does it all by bouncing between timelines, which only adds to the tension of the story.
If you’ve ever watched Lost or Once Upon a Time, you’ve watched a show that employs multiple timelines for the sake of adding tension and creating complexity within the story’s narrative structure. Yellowjackets is no different, and Rebecca McKanna is here to talk about the popularity of the show and offer a few book and TV recommendations if you’re looking to fill that void in your life while you wait for the next season.
‘Yellowjackets’ and the addicting tension of multiple timelines
By Rebecca McKanna
Showtime’s Yellowjackets just finished its second season, and there are a lot of reasons why it became the channel’s second-most streamed show in history. Its premise: Lord of the Flies but with a girls soccer team stranded in the wilderness after a plane crash. Its excellent use of ’90s nostalgia and actors like Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci, Melanie Lynskey, and others. But one element that immediately created tension and suspense was the show’s use of multiple timelines. By alternating between the girls’ past, stranded in the wilderness, and their present, 25 years later, questions large and small are raised, and viewers keep tuning in to get the gaps filled in.
In her book, Wired for Story, Lisa Cron explains that the brain is primed for curiosity, releasing dopamine when we consume stories that raise questions and create suspense. It’s why some page-turners actually feel addictive—we keep reading to get that next hit. Alternating between past and present storylines raises questions seamlessly. We want to know how the characters got from where they were to where they are. That tension hooks us, and if the storyteller is careful in how they reveal and withhold information, we’ll be riveted until the final pages or moments on screen. To me, this is the addictive nature of multiple timelines.
In my novel, Don’t Forget the Girl, I alternate between a past timeline—2003—and the book’s present—set in 2015. In the past, readers meet three college students, including Abby, who, in the 2015 timeline, is revealed to be presumed dead at the hands of a now-notorious serial killer. The 2003 timeline follows the last months of Abby’s life, while the 2015 timeline follows her friends as they grapple with the past and the media circus now surrounding her suspected killer’s upcoming execution. Alternating between the past and the present raises questions for readers, building suspense as they piece together the gaps between the two timelines.
So, if you’re already missing Yellowjackets, here are five more TV shows and books that use alternating timelines to give you your suspense fix.
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt. This 2016 novel alternates between two timelines. In the past, siblings and orphans Ruth and Nat channel the dead in a bid to escape the religious cult they live in. In the present, Ruth’s niece finds herself pregnant and goes on a journey with her aunt. The timelines intersect throughout the novel, creating an inventive mystery.
Now and Then. In this 2022 bilingual thriller from Apple+, six friends celebrate their recent college graduation with a party on the beach. However, a terrible accident claims the life of one member of the group. Twenty years later, as the group nears their college reunion, they receive an I Know What You Did Last Summer-esque blackmail threat from someone who claims to know what happened that night two decades earlier.
People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry. Henry’s 2021 bestselling rom-com novel tells the story of Alex and Poppy’s friendship by jumping back and forth between the past and the present. Although Henry’s witty dialogue and sharp characterization would be compelling on their own, this structural choice allows her to build tension, as readers flip pages to answer questions—like, what exactly caused their falling out and will their occasional flirtations lead to something more than friendship?
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth. This 2020 novel is a metafictional delight, alternating between Brookhants School for Girls’ infamous history and a present storyline where two actresses film a movie on location at the school. This dark, funny thriller uses its multiple timelines to keep readers invested throughout its more than 600 pages.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Both the 2014 novel and the 2021 HBO TV adaptation alternate between the past and the present, building tension as we see a sweeping cast of characters struggle to survive and thrive after a deadly virus kills off the majority of the population.
‘Don’t Forget the Girl’ published on June 20, 2023
Look for more recommendations on our books page.