Time and tide wait for no man—Geoffrey Chaucer
Kari Donald, A4A Member
Time again for more Continuing Education. (It’s about time!) One universal constant in any story is the passage of time, even when the narrative involves time travel or multiple dimensions. Timeline issues are among the most glaring problems and present some serious challenges to fix. Timeline is crucial and regularly impacts other areas of continuity. So let’s look at some typical timeline errors and ways to avoid or correct them.
There is more than one way for the timeline to impact my story?
Absolutely. Timeline involves more than just the amount of time that passes from the beginning to the end of your book. Time is a common phenomenon. Even if your world has its own way to account for time, it will still be in flux and changing as your story progresses. Also, it is the one thing you can guarantee readers will identify with. Time may seem to pass differently depending on your perspective, but it’s still passing at some measurable rate. Readers expect timelines to be realistic and consistent. Anything less is confusing and distracting.
No matter what setting you choose for your book, characters engage in actions and activities readers relate to. Any person has a good idea how long it takes to complete basic tasks. How would your reader perceive a character who showers, washes and dries their hair, brushes their teeth, and dresses in formal attire (including accessories and makeup) in less than ten minutes? Unless your character is The Flash, this freakishly amazing efficiency can easily distract a reader.
While my example may seem obvious, there are plenty of other routines you’re not familiar with but your readers are. One situation might be an author who isn’t a parent writing a scene where the character learns they must leave and gathers up their two toddlers, gets out of the house, and drives off in less than five minutes. This scenario makes for great comedy, but not a realistic rendition of life. Bottom line: either keep the time vague enough so you don’t put your characters in impossible situations, ask an expert, or use that wonderful tool known as Google to look it up.
Most certainly. Many books have more than one point of view or minor plots that are concurrent or overlapping. Such isolated incidents often create the biggest timeline issues. It is very easy to get wrapped up with creating the narrative and quite literally lose track of time.“The next day” can add up to weeks or months, which alone is not a bad thing. However, during these individual storylines within your book, you want the same amount of time to pass amongst all your characters. It doesn't work if only seven “the next days” pass for one character while ten “the next days” pass for another character before they are reunited. Juggling multiple timelines is not an easy task, so props to anyone that can do it while maintaining the overarching one.
You might be tempted to use time warps and breaches in the space-time continuum to explain or fix your timeline, but those might not be credible. I mean, how well would it go over if after being gone for a month, your significant other can only account for two weeks of their absence? Most people would have a serious issue with this and find it difficult to believe some trite excuse like an alien abduction or getting stuck in a time loop with a groundhog. The same thing goes for your book. Attention to detail is the key. Don’t cheat on your readers.
I plot my books, so there won’t be any timeline problems.
Do not disparage my pantser friends. It does not matter what writing style you use. I see the same issues from both plotters and pantsers. Editing can destroy even the best timelines. Rearranging and cutting events in order to help with pacing and gaps in the narrative make your initial timeline obsolete. The fallout from such developmental edits is one reason I recommend doing an edit looking just at continuity.
There are a couple of basic approaches that help avoid timeline problems. A good starting point is documenting the timeline of your book. While there are lots of programs for plotting a novel and tracking timelines, I prefer a simple spreadsheet. You can easily customize and tailor it to track the passage of days, major events, time cues, time relative to events, or anything else that may be important to preserving the integrity of your timeline. Besides spreadsheets, just about any software useful for plotting your book can also be used to track your timeline. I’ve used Plottr, but software such as Scrivener or Evernote can work for tracking a timeline too. Most offer free trials so you can check them out before committing.
Most definitely. Be creative in developing tools for tracking your timeline. You might even set up an actual calendar for your book. Add different colors or lettering to represent different characters and events and your calendar will provide a great snapshot of your timeline. You could even set up a system using post-it notes! Just make sure they are locked away from the prankster in your life (obviously).
When organizing your tools, also think about how you want to calculate the passage of time. Counting the number of days from the beginning of the book can be tedious, especially if your book covers a long period of time. You might want to consider chunking your timeline by using major events as milestones and relate the passage of time to these specific happenings. For example, track the number of days since the Red Wedding or the days since the Council of Elrond. Relating the passage of time to events simplifies the process by creating smaller, more manageable timelines. This type of relational time tracking is also very important for any speculative fiction novel following actual events in history. It helps ensure there are no discrepancies between your book timeline and the time period it’s modeled after. In this case, historical events would serve as the milestones or major events your timeline relates to.
Another way to avoid timeline issues is to take time and pay attention during the editing process. Track your revisions (or your editor or beta reader’s revisions) in Track Changes or Suggest mode. As you review the changes, identify and adjust the manuscript as needed when the edits affect your timeline. While this may seem time-consuming, it saves you from an editing pass dedicated solely to analyzing your timeline.
So glad we had this time together! Check back next for “Call it a Day.” Until then, happy times!