Monday, June 30, 2014

Creating a Timeline

And Keeping It

I'm probably not the first one to say: timelines are tricky. There's a large scale, where you have to consider how much time should plausibly go by in your book between events in order to make your pacing make sense. Then there's a smaller scale, where you have to simply remember that you can't shove 48 hours worth of events into one day.

When you write, you really have to keep track of how many days and hours go by between events. Plots and events are time-sensitive, so charting out a timeline is a great way to keep yourself on track. It enables you to control the pacing of your novel, as well, since if you can see, visually, what happens when, you can better plan for if you need to move scenes around to create a better flow.

Basically, timelines matter.

Personally, I ignore time in my first drafts. I love simply writing without the constraint of days and weeks, and keeping track on how much time is passing between events. When it comes to a second draft, however, it's a pretty good time to start looking at when things happen.

I'm a huge fan of excel sheets. It's an easy chart to fill in and personalize in any way you need (check out my post on using Excel to chart out details on your characters: It's All in the Details).

Before I explain, here's an example of what a spreadsheet typically looks like when I'm done:

What to notice first:
-Each row consists of seven blocks, one for every day of the week (note: this does not mean that the first block is on a Sunday)
-The numbers in the top, left hand corner signify how many days have passed within the plot (these are not the days of a month)

The Broad View:

In square A1, I put the inciting incident. This is the very first thing to happen in the book, typically the initial blast in the chain reaction. Labeling it with "1" lets me see how many days have passed between the start of the book, and any other scene. Putting seven blocks within each row enables me to see the timeline in "weeks," which gives me a broader view of how much time passes between events, as well.

The Details:

Inside each block, there's a small description of what happens. Notice that it's not too detailed, simply because this is not supposed to be an outline (for me, at least). Instead, I give myself enough information so I can orient myself with what's happening at any point in time. With each description, I put it into a category of "day" or "night," to further organize the scenes throughout the course of the day.

The gray squares symbolize that nothing happens. Instead, these are time lapses in which there's no event that's directly tied into the plot. Never underestimate the power of having nothing happen; it's these time lapses that allow you to slow your pacing a bit and allow your reader to have a break between high-intensity moments.

Like I said, this method is my own way of keeping track of events that happen within the novel, so I can space them out and see how each scene fits with the others within the course of the book. I don't try to bog myself down with exact months, and what day of the week things happen on; typically this is because I don't use exact dates like that within my novel. Instead, I might reference a month or a season, so it saves me a headache.

It's totally customizeable, too, so you can include any information that you feel is pertinent for you to work with.

Good luck!

Tweet It:

Does your novel cover a lot of time? Blogger @Rae_Slater shares how she creates an easy-to-read timeline using Excel (Click to Tweet)


  1. This helps a lot :) I still need to finish my first draft but this will come in handy once I finish and start on the second. Thank you!

  2. Rae! I love this. Like, where has this system been all my life. I've literally tried time-lining projects with every method BUT this one, and I feel like I've wasted so much time--because I have. This is wonderful, Rae! Thanks for sharing. :)