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Pinning down your story's timeline

By Madeline Ash

 

“So, what’s your favorite part of writing?”

“Oh, same as everyone else—keeping track of timelines,” said no one ever.

 

I get it—keeping track of timelines is not usually where the magic happens! But it can help you to avoid an even less magical part of writing—difficult revisions. Another bonus is that keeping track of timelines can lead to juicier, character-related discoveries. But I’ll get back to that shortly!

 

What do I mean by ‘timeline’?

This relates to the sequence of events in a story—events that occur within the narrative on the page, as well as outside of it (such as backstory, events that occur off the page, or references to future events). Timelines cover both small- and large-scale details, such as whether it should still be daylight outside considering the characters left the office at dusk and they’ve now finished dinner, as well as details like how many years since two families started a feud.

 

When we encounter timeline inconsistencies during an edit, many are minor, like a reference to ‘yesterday’ when the event that occurred was three days ago, while some are significant, like the miscalculation of an age gap between main characters, which can require significant revisions on the author’s part to correct the timeline without compromising the core story or characters.

 

One of the ways we assist authors with timelines during an edit is through regular timeline check-ins. These references pluck the timeline threads to the forefront to ensure readers can follow along smoothly. Ideally, we shouldn’t count on the reader to keep track of the date and time. Stories feel more immersive if we don’t have to think about time passing, but rather have it flow smoothly, almost invisibly, along with the plot. Often, timeline check-ins can be simple phrases buried within a sentence, e.g. ‘That afternoon,’ ‘The following morning,’ ‘A week later,’ or ‘After the meeting’. It’s better to avoid o’clock references with any kind of regularity, as this is less subtle and draws attention to the time in an almost clinical way, potentially drawing readers out of the story.


A small alarm clock with brass detail
Photo: Insung Yoon on Unsplash

For time-critical plots, it can increase tension to add a subheading timestamp to each new chapter or scene, as this adds the urgency of a ticking clock. Timestamp subheadings are also useful for stories that span long periods of time, years or generations, or when the story jumps back and forth in time. It can be a good idea to make a note to check over your manuscript once you’ve finished writing to ensure these timestamps are consistently used.

 

Regardless of how the timeline is made clear in a manuscript, you will never go astray with keeping a story calendar as one of your author tools!

 

A story calendar.

It’s very simple—and we’re offering a free template as a download, so be sure to reach the end of this post and save it to your toolkit! To create one yourself, it can be as basic as a table inserted into a Word document, with seven columns for days of the week and as many rows as the story requires.

 

For manuscripts that pack a lot of story into each day, a calendar is a fantastic way to keep track of the days of the week and the time of day that certain events take place (both on and off the page), as well as to remind yourself to accommodate for recurring events, like public transport schedules, school timetables, weekly work meetings, dinner with Mum on Sundays, etc. to ensure there are no inadvertent clashes and all events weave together smoothly. Where characters appear to be juggling a very tight timetable, mapping this out on a calendar can help you visualize how their days realistically fit everything in. This will prevent readers developing a niggling sense that too much is happening on a single day—and it might prompt you to adjust the character’s mood/exhaustion levels to accurately reflect their non-stop lifestyle!

 

For manuscripts that take place over greater periods of time, the calendar can act as a vital reference to keep abreast of changings seasons, character ages, relationships, careers, political climates, etc.  

 

What do I put in it?

Your story calendar can be as detailed or broad as your story requires. Personally, I like to add events that happened on the page, as well as events that occurred in the background. Here are some ideas:

 

-        External events/interactions that took place on the page

-        Internal events for the main characters (including emotional turning points)

-        Deadlines and looming deadlines (e.g. Hero leaves for Mars or Two weeks until coronation)

-        Meetings/appointments that are referenced in the story

-        Blank days to show time passing (perhaps with an explanatory heading, e.g., Day 1 in hospital, Day 2 in hospital, Day 3 in hospital).

 

It can be efficient to fill your calendar in as you write your story, perhaps every few chapters. That way, if there’s an error, you’ll pick it up quickly and correcting it won’t risk substantial revisions. As you write, check the calendar against your manuscript to ensure that you’ve remembered to inform readers when the story jumps forward a few days, weeks or months—or, just as importantly, when multiple scenes take place on the same day. Try not to assume that readers will figure out when things are taking place based on context alone. A simple, subtle, quick timeline check-in will ensure readers feel firmly grounded in the story at all times!

 

Here is an example of a story calendar taken from a single timeline, contemporary romance:


A grid has 8 columns, with 7 for the days of the week and one for the month. There are four rows across detailing events that could happen in a character's life, much like a real calendar grid.

 

A story calendar is also superb for keeping track of the timeline across a series. If the books take place back-to-back, use the same document for all stories! This way, any references to the events in other characters’ stories will be based firmly in the correct timeline. A reader who binges your whole series will appreciate it!

 

Isn’t all this an editor’s job, though?

Fair question. While editors can absolutely identify these discrepancies for you, many timeline continuity issues are choice-based, so it’s going to fall back on the author to decide how to approach the revision. For example, if a manuscript says two characters had their first kiss on Friday, but then a later reference moves the kiss back to the Monday and says the couple have now been dating for 10 days instead of five, it's often not as simple as changing Monday to Friday--because that will impact the length of the couple's relationship, and we don't know which date is your preference. The last thing we want is to take control of your incredible story, so we’re unable to make that choice for you and edit accordingly.

 

What was that juicy character stuff you mentioned at the start?

Ah yes! When you’ve marked out the events of your story, you can then use the calendar to determine character arc touchpoints. For instance, if you’d like your protagonist to grow from Mr. Business Billionaire Money-Makes-the-World-Go-Round at the start, to Mr. Philanthropist Wow-Employees-are-Humans-Too by the end, then assessing when this development occurs throughout the story, turning point by turning point, event by event, will make their character growth feel authentic. You can look at your calendar and ask, which events will best set him up to experience growth? Is there a clear sequence of events throughout the story that can act as emotional growth stepping stones to help him reach his final destination? If there isn’t, this could prompt you to write them in! The calendar will also serve as a reminder to refer to his character development on the page at each point, so readers can easily follow his journey and understand how he changed into Mr. Right by the end 

 

Please download your free sample of CREATING ink’s story calendar here:


Calendar
.pdf
Download PDF • 54KB

 

Good luck keeping track of your story timeline,

Madeline Ash


A beautiful woman with short dark hair and a kind smile is gazing slightly off camera.

Madeline brings a decade of publishing experience to CREATING ink. After working as a business and professional writer and editor for ten years, she's immersed herself in the world of fiction-where she truly excels. As an author, Madeline is a two-time RITA Award finalist, a five-time RUBY Award finalist and a two-time RUBY Award winner.

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