There’s a lot to keep track of when writing a story…characters, settings, description, pacing, tension, dialogue, and more. It can kinda make your head spin sometimes. (And is probably why writers are a little crazy).
But there’s another really important aspect you should be keeping track of in your novel: the passage of time.
Do you know how much time has passed in your novel? It can be tricky to grasp unless you’ve been keeping track. I know I have no idea how much time has passed in my current WIP. A few days? A week? A few weeks? (Something that will be addressed in the editing stages).
When you’re writing a story, especially one that’s novel-size, you lose your sense of time. It can take anywhere from months to years to finish your novel. To you, it may feel like a lot of time has passed in your story because you’ve spent a lot of time writing it. But that may not be the case!
“But why does it matter?” you ask. “Why should I do the extra work?”
Well. You can run into all sorts of fun little problems if you’re not paying attention. And if your readers find these issues after your book is published? Yeah, that might be a little embarrassing. (And don’t rely on editors to catch these things for you either!)
So what kinds of issues are we talking here?
Well, the first one is continuity (consistency over a period of time). Let’s say you have a bunch of characters and you’re telling the story in multiple POV, switching back and forth between them all (like Game of Thrones). It can be really easy to get the timelines of your characters tangled up if you’re not careful!
For example, let’s say you have two characters, Sam and Mary, who are supposed to meet at location X in 3 days on Wednesday (it is currently Sunday). You show Sam’s POV, and 2 days pass. On the third day, he goes to meet Mary. Then you show Mary’s POV and 3 days pass, and the next day she goes to meet Sam.
See the problem? Mary’s going to be late for that meeting–an extra day was accidentally added to her timeline! This is just one way your timelines can get messed up when dealing with multi-POV, and an example that actually happened in one of my first stories.
Another inconsistency that can happen is travel time. You need to know how long it takes to get to every setting that will be used in your story–from point A to point B, point C to point A, etc. etc. For fantasy or historical fiction writers you have the added fun of figuring out how long it takes to travel by foot versus by horse.
If you don’t figure out travel times you may have one character get from A to B in a week and another get from A to B by the same method of transportation in a few days. Thought, planning, and research must be done or you may develop unrealistic travel times as well as inconsistent ones. Which brings me to my next point…
A sloppy timeline in your story can lead to mistakes that kill its believability. Let’s say your story is set in the summer…and months pass…and it’s still summer. Either you’re writing a fantasy world with extended seasons, or you lost track of time in your story.
Other issues that can arise involve character development and romance. Does your character go from being a coward to a soldier in a week? Does your hero ask his girl to marry him after a few days? (As Elsa would say, you can’t marry a man you just met!). Make sure you’re allowing enough time for changes in character or relationships to develop realistically. People don’t just change overnight!
It may feel like you’ve given your characters a lot of time to develop because you’ve spent weeks or months writing these scenes, but actually go in and figure out how much time has passed within the story. You may have written five chapters, but those five chapters may all take place over a couple days!
Keep Your Timeline Organized!
So how can you avoid these issues?
Well lucky for you I’ve created some epic story organizers to help you keep track of your plot’s timeline! You can download the free PDF by clicking here!
One of the organizers you will find is a plot calendar (for those of you like me who need something more visual!). I highly recommend assigning “dates” for your story even if you don’t mention them in the story itself—it just makes for easy reference and keeping things straight.
On the calendar, write in the chapters on the days they occur. If you’re writing a multi-POV, you should probably keep a calendar for each character, or if you decide to use the same one include the characters’ names next to the chapters. On the previous plot tracking organizer, you will also find a column to enter the “dates” of each chapter.
I’ve also created an organizer that will help you keep track of travel times in your story (though not time travel…that’s a whole other headache!). Fill it out and you’ll have the information handy for quick reference instead of scratching your head wondering, “Now how long did it take to get there again?”
I do almost all of my timeline tracking during the editing stages, and that’s what I would recommend. There’s just too much going on when you’re writing the first draft, so I wouldn’t worry about getting your timeline perfect then. But definitely make sure it’s consistent and realistic when you’re editing!
Do you keep track of the timeline in your story? Have you ever had any timeline issues? Comment below, I would love to hear from you!