Tuesday, November 24, 2015


A popular post from April 2012 

By Josi. S Kilpack

Last week I posted about time cues and Kurt Kammeyer brought up the point of chronology the comments. He made an excellent point and while my post focused on the more minute details of time, his point was big picture. We all know how important the big picture of things are so I thought I'd give a little time to that part of storytelling--the how and when things happen on a big picture level.

Kurt's comment reminded me of  a situation I found myself in several years ago. I was at the galley stage of my second book (galleys are the typeset pages of your book sent to the author by the publisher just before the book goes to press. It's the authors last chance to proofread the story before it becomes an actual book.) and was reading along with red pen in hand when I realized that my character had an appointment on Tuesday. No big deal except that it had been Tuesday a few pages ago. I went back and re-read; sure enough I had two Tuesdays in a row. I fixed this, but it required me to smoosh two days worth of events into one day, which mixed up some other days. The galleys were bleeding with arrows and margin notes that eventually made sense of my brain cramp. Once that was resolved I continued forward only to realize I had two Thursday's later on in the same week.

Fixing the Thursday-neurosis was trickier and required more arrows and margin notes, but also a handwritten page to slide into the galleys themselves. (There is a lesson here on having good editors that catch these things for you, but it was my book so it's ultimately my responsibility to have gotten it right). The final book was okay--my week was sufficiently fixed--but each time I reflect on this I'm surprised I didn't figure it out in my own revising. I should have, it's not as though it was hiding, but I didn't. However, I did learn from it and nowadays I'm much more careful about tracking my chronology as I write.

I'm sure there are multiple ways to do this, but here are a few ideas:

*Use an online calendar to map out events as they happen. Gmail calendars allow you to color code events, which you could do to specify characters, and the events are then easy to change should they need to be shifted around. I'm sure other online calendars would be equally easy to use. I'm not sure how this would work with multiple books, but I'm sure someone clever out there could figure it out.

*Spreadsheet calendar. I'm not so good with spreadsheets, but some people are whizzes and can do all kinds of cool coding and auto-fill options that seem as though they could give you similar flexibility and ease of use as the online calendar option. If you're not a whiz, look to make whizzy friends--maybe they can help you.

*Make notes at the top of each chapter as you write, showing the date and time (if it's important) so that as you go through your book you can see your chronology laid out before you. This method keeps it all in one place, so you can see your date and times as you write/revise. The drawback of this method is that it can require a lot of scrolling if you get lost in regard to your timeline.

*Use an old calendar or printable calendar to fill in events by hand. This is my preferred method. It helps me to have a physical calendar I can write on. I always use pencil (different colored pencils for different storylines/characters) so I can change things around but I like being able to line up the months and look as them as I'm typing my story.

*Make index cards for your chapters or your scenes, putting the date and time (if important) in a location on the card that's consistent. Again, use pencil so things can be re-arranged, but this can be another visual way to lay things out and see how they are happening. This is an especially useful method if a lot happens in a short period of time. You can have a card for each event, rather than trying to squish a dozen events into one tiny square on a calendar.

If you're dealing with multiple storylines or characters, keep in mind that their chronology needs to still work in one timeline. It's very distracting to your reader if they read about what Bob did on Wednesday, then what Sandra was doing on Monday. This can get very tricky to write, especially when events are happening simultaneously, but the closer you can stick to the actual order of events, the more clear things stay to  your reader--confusing your reader is BAD (Say that six times). It's sometimes more advantageous to skip a scene or chapter than to go back and forth chronologically.

As you revise your work, double check your timing on things. Calculate distances traveled and how long it will take, double check the time of day in certain scenes, for instance if they have a fight at dinner and eight hours later she's knocking on the door to talk to him, it's two o'clock in the morning. Afford reasonable amounts of time for your characters to do what they need to do, and make sure you have enough time and chronology cues to keep the reader subconsciously aware of the timeline--something they don't have to think about, but is woven through the story in such a way that it feels automatic from them and leads them along as smoothly as possible.

Happy Writing!


Donna K. Weaver said...

Great suggestions here. I had a problem with this as I'm working on my current WIP and I had to break down what was happening per POV.

tonyl said...

Very good, as was the one on time cues. For a lot of my calendars, I find a spreadsheet the only way to handle events within a day, hour by hour, since some of my scenes traverse not only space but time zones. Then throw in different universes (fantasy, obviously) and I think it critical to have that all laid out. Before I thought to try a spreadsheet, the largest one took four sheets of paper taped together, all done in pencil.

Keeping it on a computer does afford you the luxury of not having to scrabble through a pile of papers to find it three months later when you're editing...

But your message is excellent: no matter how you do it, keep track of the time things happen in your story. Also, any of the airline booking sites will give you a clue about flight times in RL.

Botanist said...

This topic is dear to my heart. I like your suggestions for sorting things out. I usually use a spreadsheet for timelines, with time going down the page. I can then use columns to track what different groups of characters are up to. It's hard enough keeping track of the passage of time for one character, but gets seriously twisted when you have several threads of activity to interleave.

tonyl said...

Update to my comment from long ago: Try Aeon Timeline. I’m not a shill for them, but I like it, It works very well with Scrivener (if you use Scrivener), and it has even more options than most people will ever need.