Timelines are tricky beasts. They are one of my personal downfalls as a writer when working on a story that spans longer than a year. Weaving in backstory can make tracking time-sensitive plot points even harder. So, what do we do? We get organized! Here are some tips for keeping tabs on time.
Choose the Details
How important is time to the story? Does the book span a day? A week? A lifetime? The longer the time frame the more difficult it can be to make sure plot points don’t overlap, but shorter time frames have their difficulties too. For example, if a major plot point is that a character breaks a femur, that character can’t be expected to be back in action after a few days rest. Likewise, the amount of characters in the book can effect the way the plot unfolds. If the reader has to follow several main characters with intersecting stories, it’s crucial the timelines match up. So it’s important to consider the details and to decide how relevant specific dates and times are to less impactful plot points or characters.
My bad habit for getting around timing issues is to simply not give enough information to the reader, letting the story float somewhere in the unknown reaches of the eternal. Not a suggested solution. An easy way to guide yourself as you go is to include headers at the start of or throughout chapters as time and location shift. Of course, it can’t stop there. You will still need to keep track of what happens when and will need to refer back to previous headers in order to make sure things are always in order. Which means that even with headers, it’s usually best to…
Make A Timeline
There are plenty of online tools you can google to help you along the timeline making process. Templates and programs are out there. However, some people prefer to make their own through Microsoft Word or other programs already on their computer. Other people are more hands-on organizers, meaning they prefer to have a physical paper in front of them (shoutout to my fellow traditional paperback book lovers out there). It can be a bit more tedious to make a timeline by hand, and mistakes are bound to happen, so I recommend writing in pencil. But, having a physical timeline is a handy tool to have if, like me, you’re the type that prefers to see the whole picture rather than bits and pieces as you scroll through your laptop. Either way, take the details you’ve decided are important and map them out on the timeline–character, plot point, day, year, time of day, etc.–and you’ve got yourself a workable way of tracking what happens when.