Years ago, when I got editorial queries on my first ghosted manuscript, the most tricky to answer were the comments about the novel’s timeline.
Scratch that; they weren’t just tricky. They were a forensic slog.
I’d already checked everything that affected the central plot events – journey times, important dates and so on. But that was months before. Not only that, there were countless niggles I hadn’t realised would alert an editor’s eye. It was amazing what I didn’t know about my own book. How many hours had passed since the hostages were taken? On what day did the characters meet the mysterious man? She questioned every plot beat, flashback and nightfall.
Sitting down to answer that exhaustive list, I felt like Arthur Dent when he lamented that he couldn’t get the hang of Thursdays.
Thankfully my timelines held, give or take a minor snag, but I learned my lesson. Ever since, I’ve been fastidious about them.
Timelines are mainly invisible
Unless you’re writing a time travel story or a novel with condensed action, timelines are mainly invisible to readers. Like plot and character arcs, they’re the unseen looms of the storyteller’s art. And this means writers often don’t realise they need to take control of them. Until they face an editor’s interrogation.
You’ll be astonished what editors – and readers – will call you on. Is it possible for Joe to have recovered from his broken leg enough to climb a ladder? Are those characters in two places at once? How can that scene be back story if the event hasn’t happened yet?
If you take control of your timeline, you’ll find it much easier to know if your plot is plausible, and to sort out the hiccups.
Here are my tips.
If the timeline drives the story, you might want to design it before you start writing, or sketch out the main markers – historical events, calendar landmarks. Some writers use year planners, but a sheet of A4 is just as good.
You might also want to verify possibilities that require precision – such as travel. (And if you’re writing time travel you need to be very precise.)
Otherwise, be casual. You can decide these details in revision. If you stop and fret every time you need to write ‘last night’ or ‘next June’ you’ll probably get paralysed by indecision. Write something magnificently vague such as ‘the other day’ or ‘soon’, and sail on.
Before you revise
Now get serious about time. Before I revise a manuscript I analyse the first draft with an exercise I call a beat sheet. Essentially it’s an at-a-glance summary of every scene. You can make it on paper or a spreadsheet, and one of your columns is reserved to record when the scene happens.
As you summarise each scene for the beat sheet, notice if you’ve made a point about the date, time or event, and record it in the timeline column. If you haven’t, leave it blank.
Also write in if a deadline has appeared – for instance, 20 minutes before the bomb detonates. If your plot includes a race against the clock, the timing often needs to be worked out to the minute. With the beat sheet it’s simplicity itself to write the timings against plot events and check they work.
Then fill the blanks, deciding what will be plausible for those sections of the story. Perhaps the precise date isn’t important and you can bracket them together as ‘summer’, to ensure your weather descriptions are consistent. Or you might decide you can enhance the action by setting it at Christmas or even a time that corresponds with a newsworthy world event – whatever suits you.
But when those editors and beta readers quiz you on your story’s plausibility, you’ll have the answers ready. Painlessly.
The beat sheet is my go-to method for revising my novels’ structure, plot and character arcs. It’s explained fully in my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence.
Do you have problems keeping track of time in your novels? Have you found a solution? Share in the comments