Nothing pulls a reader out of a story faster than a timeline gone awry. Whether it’s something small like a character stepping outside after a lunch date into the dark night, or something huge like a flashback to the first birthday party of our 20-year-old protagonist that takes place 30 years ago, if the hours, days, or years don’t add up, your reader will instantly be reminded that they are reading the events, not living them. Suddenly, you are no longer the invisible author silently pulling the strings of all your characters; you’re the guy behind the curtain, clumsily spinning the knobs.
But keeping track of who is doing what and when they are doing it is difficult, especially if you are writing a complex story or a series that has to follow numerous characters through several books. So, how do you keep it straight? There are numerous methods, some high-tech, some decidedly low-tech, that can help you get a handle on an unwieldy timeline.
1) Timeline software: There is software available that is specifically designed to track timelines. Some of these were developed for authors, others are for more general use, but either way, they will give you a visual of the events in your story and allow you to move events around as necessary. Some programs that authors have used successfully for timeline management are Aeon Timeline, Storybook, Preceden, StoryMill, Timeline Studio, Dipity, and Timeglider. Some of these are specific to Windows or Mac machines, so make sure you get a program that will work on your system. You will have to pay for some of these programs, but some of them are free.
2) Excel: If you like the idea of using a computerized method, but don’t want to learn (or buy) new software, you can use an Excel spreadsheet to track your timeline. Make a column for the year, the month, the day, the time, and the event and fill in the columns chronologically. Moving events around won’t be as easy here as it is in the timeline software, but this is still a manageable way to keep things straight.
3) Calendar Template: Use a blank calendar template, either on the computer or printed out, and write in the appropriate dates and key events. This method works better if all of the action in your book takes place in a fairly short time period; otherwise, you’ll have lots of calendar pages. Move events around as needed using cut and paste or an old-fashioned pencil and eraser.
4) Whiteboard timeline: If you like the visual nature of a timeline, but you’re kind of old school, consider buying a whiteboard and sketching your timeline on that. If you use a product like the WallPops peel-and-stick whiteboard, you can easily remove the whiteboard when you are done writing with no damage to your wall. The disadvantage to this method is that you have no permanent record of your timeline. If you write a sequel and need to integrate timelines, you will need to start from scratch.
5) Note cards: This is as old school as it gets. Write your key events on note cards with the dates that they happened and arrange them chronologically in a stack. You can lay your cards out on a table or on the floor to create a timeline, which more visual authors will find helpful. It is easy to move cards from one place to the next if you need to shuffle events around and see how the new timeline flows.
Old school or new school, high-tech or low-tech—however you want to handle it, just make sure you are keeping tabs on what is happening when in your novel. Your readers will appreciate it when they get lost in your story…time after time after time.