Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Creating Your Story's Timeline

Ah, a new story! A little idea bud to nurture and feed until it grows--talk about exciting!

Whenever I pursue an idea and develop it into a book, I go through a process of brainstorming until I'm ready to write. One important detail? The story timeline.

Sometimes the timeline will determine the story. For instance, if I wanted to write a Christmas book, I probably wouldn't set much, if any, of the book in the summer--I would focus on autumn and early winter to give it that Christmas feeling throughout.

For most of my books, though, I figure out the characters and their goals before thinking about a timeline. Their goals typically determine when the book will start and how much time will pass.

It's important to consider genre when thinking about timeline.

If you write suspense, there's bound to be a "ticking time bomb" element. As you consider what has to happen from point A (the beginning) to point Z (the end), think carefully about a realistic time frame. If the book unfurls over a course of twenty-four hours, break each hour down and make sure the plot can really fit. If the book spans a month, try not to devote twelve chapters to day one.

Maybe you're writing historical fiction--a sweeping saga. The book could chronicle more than a year. You couldn't possibly write every day of the journey. Think about what details deserve page time and if there are weeks or months you can skip and wrap up in a short summary. Do this before you get to page 265 and realize only one month has passed.

If you're writing a romance novel, please honor your audience. Most romance readers simply will not find it believable if your hero and heroine meet, fall in love, overcome their obstacles, and get their happily-ever-after in a few days time. I won't give you a hard-and-fast rule, but use your judgment and respect your readers.

The book I'm currently plotting features two characters with goals that require a four to six month commitment. The goals are seasonal, which narrows when my book can start and end. By coming up with clear character goals before I start writing, I'm able to plan the ideal setting and timeline.

Questions to help you determine your timeline:

-   What genre are you writing?

-   How sweeping or compact is the story?

-   Do the characters' goals impact the timeline? Example: A woman wants to purchase and renovate an old building. The timeline would need to be anywhere from four months to over a year.

-   Are their seasonal limitations? Does any of the plot hinge on the weather?

-   If you are working with a long timeline, how will you keep the pace tight? What action can happen "off-screen" and summarized?

-   Is this timeline realistic?

Do you have anything to add? I'd love to hear your tips!

What pet peeves do you have about fiction timelines? 

(No surprise here, but mine is the romance where the hero and heroine fall in love and get married after a week's time. Ugh.)

Have a terrific Wednesday!!


  1. Great stuff as always, Jill! I love how you always have such constructive points. And yeah, my pet peeve is the same as yours. I love, love, love romance, and they can definitely realize they like each other in a week and want to date, but no engagements please!

    1. Thanks, Susan! There's nothing so aggravating. Romance takes time! Sheesh!

  2. Romance takes time, eh?

    Well, five hours CAN feel like forever. That's how long it took us to go from first meeting to engaged.

    One tough thing about timelines is hooking the story to historical events. There are times when you need more - or less - time between real occurrences to make the story work,

    Of course, one can always rewrite history for the story's benefit.

    (Sound of me, gagging.)

  3. Yeah, Andrew, as a fan of historical fiction, I don't like to see history rewritten for a book's sake! I prefer the book to work around the details! :) (Five hours, huh? ha!!)


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