Use a Timeline to Develop Your Story

Sunday, February 24, 2013
I've been reworking (okay, heavy editing and restructuring) of a book I've been working on for what seems like 10 years. (It's actually been that long. I'm a perfectionist. Sigh.) While reading, I noticed several elements seemed contradictory, especially when talking about time. A couple details seemed out of place, like the order was jumbled, causing confusion in the storyline.

It reminded me why, when I taught composition and even creative writing to high school students, I would use a timeline handout, like the one in the photo. In order for a story to be consistent, discrepancies in time (or setting or character growth) cannot be present.

Here's how it works:

  • Make a timeline of events from the time period. I'm not talking within the story, I'm talking about a timeline of what was happening in the world during the time period include in your piece. When I wrote a one-act play for my students to perform for competition this year, which was based on 9/11, I wanted to include the number one song in the U.S., and within each vignette, I planned to feature a bit of pop culture. I made a timeline for how the events of that day unfolded and researched pop culture tidbits. It added a great sense of place to the plot.
  • Make a timeline for a character. How does a specific character get from point A to point B? It doesn't matter if you're talking about specific movement, the timeline can show events that cause a change in personality or a moment that leads to character growth.
  • Start plotting. I like to mesh the two timelines together and create a scene. It's a handy tool that shows where pacing needs to increase, action needs a jolt of energy, and characters need a healthy dose of conflict to create a stronger story.
Once I made a timeline for the chapters that are causing trouble, I located the discrepancies and was able to make adjustments that strengthened the storytelling.

Have you used a timeline to help define your storyline?

by LuAnn Schindler. Read more of her work at her website.


Sabrina A. Fish said...

Great idea! I have an outline of events for my story, but having a timeline that includes the events leading up to my story's beginning would be very helpful. *slaps forehead* Not, sure why I didn't think of this myself.

Thanks so much for such a great post.

Sioux Roslawski said...

LuAnn--This was the perfect post at the perfect time. I'm working on a contemporary novel right now, and have inserted a bit of current events here and there, but I love the idea of including music and movies and so on to make the story more well-rounded.

Thanks for the post.

Eugenia Parrish said...

My novel is based in 1965. I thought I could remember the details, but I found it was much easier to write out exactly when certain events happened, when exactly a certain song or movie was released, what was happening with various TV shows. It helped keep me in the era! I like your comment about how "the timeline can show evens that cause a change in personality or a moment that leads to character growth." Next book, I will START with that!

Angela Mackintosh said...

Excellent idea! I'm stealing it for a novel I'm writing that takes place in the 90s that is laden with pop culture. Thank you!

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