Writing Tip: Use a Timeline While Novel Writing

A timeline is an invaluable tool for the novelist. Using a timeline as you write your novel allows you to keep all your events in a logical and coherent sequence, and it prevents you from making silly mistakes. Some of those mistakes include having the main character in two places on the same date in different scenes, having time move backward from Friday to an earlier day in the week, or even the blunder of using the wrong year.

Before I begin writing, I map out a story arc that has the dates, times, and years marked on it. When I do this, I sometimes find that my story timeline doesn’t cover a wide enough span of time, or it drags out too long. I can change that with a stroke of the pen, before I ever set a word on paper.

As I’m writing a novel, I keep my timeline story arc next to me. I mark the date and time on each scene as I outline it. While writing, if I feel that I want to make one scene take longer, it’s simple to move the date in the next scenes.

Doing this helped me find buried errors. For instance, in my latest novel, with my timeline, I realized that I had gaps in my time that were unrealistic. The story takes place over a period of about two weeks, yet as I wrote, time began stretching out. I had to revise and tighten the writing to keep the story real.

There are writing programs that will create a timeline for you. You can use graphics in an Excel  spreadsheet,  Word document, or other program. You can simply draw it on a piece of paper. The low tech way seems to work best for me. Finding a timeline you’re comfortable with will help keep your story progressing smoothly.

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12 responses to “Writing Tip: Use a Timeline While Novel Writing

  1. You should also check out web-based timeline tools like http://www.xtimeline.com. Easy to use, and free.

  2. What a great site! I’m going to try this for my next story. Thanks!

  3. Thanks for the help. I’m writing an original novel and have been looking for help, piecing together the story.

    I find just typing the events out next to each other helps.

  4. HI thanks for the tip on the time line. I am writing a fictional novel set in the 15th century and it starts out on one date for the C1(male) then for C2, the woman, Her story starts out 6 years earlier to bring her up to the same time as C1. Is this a good idea?

  5. sorry let me clarify
    starts out in 1479 then when I introduce C2 her story starts in 1473. Good or bad?

    • I’ve seen novelists do this before. One person’s story is in a slightly different timeline than another’s. It works if you feel confident writing a story in the two points of view, and it can give a wonderful perspective on the motivation of the other character if their lives cross. I think it will be tricky to pull off successfully, but if you can do it, it will be amazing. Good luck!

  6. Hello, I am a artist looking to create some of my stories into a novel. One of them is incredibly big and i need to design a timeline for it. My problem is that everything about the story is completely set in a whole new world of it’s own but it’s a mix of both sci-fi and fantasy. How would i best create dates and years to where it doesn’t seem to ridiculous. Thank you.

  7. It sounds to me as if you could benefit from looking at a world building book or website for ideas about naming dates and creating timekeeping systems.

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