History is neither simple nor linear, but when we show events in a line they seem to make sense. We see the results of cause and effect when we show sequences that exist in relationship to each other. We see patterns, turning points, and progressions. One of the main reasons we read is to make sense of the world.
A timeline suggests a past, present, and future. Using one for plotting allows us to see a beginning, middle, and ending. Linking units of time to events allows writers to plot a book in a graphic way. We are able to see the book from the reader’s perspective. Is there a pattern? Does it make sense?
A timeline helps us choose what to include in our story. It also gives us a map to follow. It is the big picture of a novel – a place where we get the chance to see the overarching storylines and how they intersect.
Seven questions that will help create a timeline
- How old are your characters when the story begins?
- Where are the characters in the story?
- Why does the story start?
- What are your main characters’ story goals? [Read The Story Goal]
- Who are their co-stars?
- How old are your characters when the story ends?
- Where will it end?
Remember that a time-span has nothing to do with the length of a book. We can cover a lifetime in one paragraph. A week, a month, or a year could span an entire book. A timeline helps us to include only events that are relevant to the plot in our novels.
Beginnings and endings
- We should never start our novel on the day our characters take their first breaths – unless that moment is important to the story. We are not writing our characters’ biographies. Try not to bore the reader with a factual re-telling of their first years.
- A timeline can help us remove unnecessary backstory. We get to see how much information we tend to dump in the beginning of a book. It can be used as a tool to help us work through where we should start our stories. We can use this part of our timeline to help fill in a character questionnaire.
- Start at a point of crisis or change. The reader will immediately want to know what happened before and after that point. Start when the reason for writing the story begins. [Read The Importance of Inciting Moments]
- Carry on by inserting the events needed to get us through the middle of the story to the end. We tell a story in (action) scenes and (reaction) sequels. We usually have 60-80 of these in a novel. You can use these to create the events on your timeline. [Read Why Writers Should Always Make a Scene]
- Stop when the main character reaches his or her story goal. [Read The Sense Of An Ending]
Create a timeline for your story.
Make sure they all work together.