Getting the Timing Right
Timelines will kill you… as a writer… in your novel.
Let me clarify this.
When you are writing a book (and, I’m sorry to say, this happens a lot more with pantsers than plotters) and focused on what needs to happen next to a) advance the plot; b) develop the characters; c) solve the murder/save the kingdom/get the romance moving in the right direction; you may not be focused on when events in your story are happening. It’s perfectly fine to say “the next day” or “the following week” at the start of a new scene but if, for example, you’ve said in an earlier chapter (as recently happened with a coaching client of mine) that X event is going to happen in a week and then you have eight “the following days” and two “a few days later”s before that event happens you suddenly have a timeline problem.
Luckily, the problem my client had was easily fixed by simply removing the sentence that said exactly when the event was going to happen. “Soon” worked well and gave him the ability to have two weeks pass in the world of the story in order for everything that needed to happen before the event.
But what if you’ve got a bigger problem than that. What if you’ve got two concurrent timelines (perhaps that of this book and the next one in the series; or this book and one in another related series set in the same world)?
You must know when events in your story happen.
You have to have a timeline or a calendar so that (as I had with a series I wrote) one person being in two different places at the same time (oops!). Or something happening in the second book before the instigation of the event happens in the first. (Ex: the murderer strikes again, killing a second person in book two before he’s killed the first time in book one – all because you didn’t write down what date or how far into the story these events occurred.)
Now, your readers may not even notice the problem. They may be too involved in the story to make note of the date that the murderer killed for the first time, so they don’t realize that they killed again before they even killed the first time.
But you can’t count on this!
Some eagle-eyed reader is going to realize that you messed up—and you can be sure they are going to tell the world in a scathing review.
So, what can you do about this?
Well, there are, of course, a number of excellent timeline aps. The one most beloved by writers is Aeon. I don’t know if it was written specifically for authors, but it’s got everything a writer needs, even the ability to relate people and events, show narrative structure, and look at your timeline from different points of view and angles. It’s incredible. It also costs $65 (and that entitles you to use the program forever and includes one year of updates).
Alternatively, there is Plottr. This is a program specifically written for writers. You can organize your timeline however you want—by chapter, year, day, etc., and can have multiple timelines happening together—one for Main Character A, another for Main Character B, etc. For each event you can write a detailed description or follow one of the many built-in templates depending on how you are structuring your story, or create your own. This is even more expensive than Aeon, but I think it’s worth it. It’s $139 for the basic lifetime access (and updates forever) or $299 for Plottr Pro which has a few more bells and whistles, but it does go on sale every now and then, so keep an eye out for that if you’re thinking of buying it.
There is, also, ye olde bulletin board, or even sticky notes if you happen to have a blank wall near where you work (and no one in your family minds or will remove them). I have used both of those options as well, and I have to say, there is something very satisfying about having your timeline right there for you to look at whenever you raise your eyes from your computer screen. On the other hand, if you’re working at your local coffee shop it’s hard to bring your wall with you.
The important thing, however, is that you need one. I don’t care if you create it before you write or afterwards, but you do need to create one. I don’t care if you use a piece of paper or fancy timeline software, just do it. Map out the events of your story. Create another timeline for your series, and, if necessary, for all of your series which take place within the same world. There is nothing worse than having published a book and then realizing that you have a major time inconsistency.