When writing a story, be it fiction or non, the timeline plays a vital role. It can singlehandedly excite or bore readers, and yet so many authors don’t spend enough time making sure their timeline is perfect.
Considering timeline and story arc, there are, of course, writing devices used to go back or forward in time. Foreshadowing is one way to hint at what is to come, and flashbacks are exactly what they sound like: a flash back to a particular scene or event that occurred before the start of the narrative.
For the purposes of this post, I’m only going to focus on timeline issues that occur when an author is not purposefully using one of these techniques, since discussing the techniques themselves and proper usage is a post of its own.
Timeline confusion most often occurs when the story isn’t consistently moving forward at all times. Say it again: forward. I know it seems original and creative to jump back and forth; and it’s easy for you, as the author, to understand the forward/backward motion of the story because you wrote it. But a new reader isn’t going to so easily follow the back and forth and will quickly lose interest if you aren’t careful.
>One way to know if you need to work on solidifying your timeline is if you are repeating information.
For example, character relationships. I edited a book once where every single time that character appeared in the story, she was also introduced…over and over and over again. Here’s a simple example of what I mean:
Alice, her mother. Or, Her mother, Alice. Or, Alice was her mother. Etc.
As the author, you need to trust that you’ve introduced this character well enough the first time we see her that whenever she appears after that, we know who she is without repeating information. If you don’t trust that a reader will remember who a specific character is, it’s a sign that there’s some editing to be done.
Repeated information can also be seen when you tell a story once, then later on you jump either back or forward in time to tell that story again. When you do this, readers get an unpleasant deja vu feeling.
>Another way to know if your timeline has issues is if you don’t give enough information. This is entirely the opposite problem of repeating. In this case, you jumped too far ahead, thus readers don’t have the information they need to understand what’s happening.
This usually occurs around large life events such as a marriage, a birth, a death, etc. I have seen cases where a character is pregnant, and as the reader I have no idea when this happened or who the father is or anything about what is going on because the author skipped too far ahead and hopped over important details that he or she assumed we knew.
I could go on, but the point is, you need to get your timeline right to make sure your readers start the story with you and end the story with you–without getting lost in the middle.
So what should you do to make sure this is fixed?
Here’s my all-time favorite editing suggestion for timeline issues: map out your book.
This is not an easy task, but it is worth it and is useful for fiction and nonfiction.
>Take a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Then, go through the book chapter by chapter (or page by page if you need to) and write down the important scenes. I say important, because you don’t need to list every scene change from one room to the next. But you do need to list the bigger scenes. Write down what the date is if you know it, who are the characters in the scene and what their ages are, and finally a one-sentence synopsis of the scene or event.
Do this throughout the entire book.
Then, go back and look at your list. Are you moving chronologically? Are there any jumps either backward or forward? Is there too little time and/or a gap between large life events (like a character being married and pregnant without mention of a wedding or courtship) or even in some cases too much time, like pages and pages of boring plot where your characters do nothing?
For nonfiction, this would be where you consider if you’re spending too much time talking about one particular topic versus too little time on another.
Mapping out your book is a useful exercise for looking at your story in a new light. Instead of viewing the plot arc as a wave that rises and falls, you’re making a list of scenes, dates, ages, etc., and this can show you places to add or remove scenes and correct timeline issues that you might not have noticed otherwise.
Learning how to set up a proper chronological timeline is extremely important for the success of any current or future writings. There are many successful novels that include a timeline that moves back and forth in time, but the importance of learning how to create a clear chronological timeline cannot be understated.