Story Time Lines: 7 Steps to Checking For Issues

Getting the time line of your story correct requires attention to detail. (Click to Tweet)

A few years ago, I hired an editor to review my manuscript for plot issues. Most of her feedback resonated quickly and I knew exactly what to do, but one comment surprised me:

"I'm not sure how much time has passed here."  

The story has multiple subplots, and a few times when it jumped to a different plot point, she couldn't determine how much time had passed in that sub-plot in relation to others.

How Did I Fix It?

At first, I thought, No way, my story is chronological.  But I paid good money for her feedback, and I had experienced this same problem when reading published stories.  In fact, I've heard fans complain when an author messes up the timeline.

I'm a software trainer, so I popped up one of my favorite apps, Microsoft Excel, and adapted a spread sheet I use to track my chapters, characters, world-building, etc.  I read through the whole manuscript, stopping at each scene to determine how much time had passed since the last scene.

What Did I Discover?

I had some problems.  Certain events took longer than other events, yet I had them occurring at the same time. Other events occurred in the evening with the next chapter in the morning, but it was unclear to the reader whether it was the next morning or later. I didn't have to shift chapters, but I did have to focus on:

 A comes before B comes before C, etc.

And, I needed to make sure that when two plot lines converged, the time passage for both felt right.

How Can You Check For Time Line Issues?

An outline is a great place to start. Even if you created an outline before you wrote the manuscript, you might want to revisit it to ensure everything flows smoothly through time.

  1. Reread your manuscript
  2. Write Day 1 in your outline with a brief one-two sentence summary about what's happening
  3. Ask yourself what points coincide and what time of day the events occur
  4. Write Day 2 and continue the summary of your story
  5. Create shorter time frames when events shift quickly over one day (you don't want to have one section set in the evening and the next in the morning before that evening)
  6. Proceed through the entire book ensuring that the story provides some indication of the passage of time to the reader
  7. Correct any issues that arise
Time Line Chart Example

When we write a first draft, we create a mess. (Click to Tweet) We know it must be cleaned up during revisions, but our revision process can create confusion if we're not careful.  We might hone in on one point, not the whole story, so we lose the big picture.

No matter whether you have one point of view or multiple ones, outlining your time line will help you write a clean manuscript and give an agent or editor one less reason to write that rejection letter.

Focus on your story's time line and your readers will thank you!


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