The Writer’s Toolbox – All the Time

Sarah was born in 1975 and had an unusual childhood, as her father’s job required the family to move at least once a year. He made good money, and Sarah had all the opportunities that come with the chance to travel and see new places. But she wasn’t happy with the lack of stability. She began acting out and causing trouble. When Sarah turned 17, she ran away from home to do drugs with an underground organization that originated in the late 1990s. After six months, she returned home, got clean, and started getting her life back together. She met Jeff in rehab, and the two moved in together in the fall, around Sarah’s birthday, and she got pregnant right away. She gave birth to a daughter, Danielle, but when Danielle was eight months old, Sarah started using drugs again after Jeff left her. The law caught up with her and she was eventually arrested for heroin possession when she was 19. Three-year-old Danielle was temporarily placed with Sarah’s parents.

Sad story about someone with problems? Or a logic problem on a standardized test? Maybe both?but there’s a problem all right. And a simple editing trick will ferret it out.

They say you can’t see the forest for the trees, and nowhere does this apply more clearly then when timelines intersect with an engaging story. The problem is that once the reader steps back from the story a moment and realizes the dates and times don’t make sense, the errors become so distracting that they overwhelm the story the author’s trying to tell.

Fortunately, a timeline can help you sort it all out before you put your work into your readers? hands.

In the story above, we know some facts?when, approximately, Sarah’s birthday is (fall 1975)?and we know a few actual dates and can figure out a few more based on ages. Putting them all together side by side with a few notes makes the timeline errors jump out (and in case they don’t, I’ve italicized them).

Fall 1975: Sarah is born.

Fall 1992: Sarah turns 17 and runs away to join an organization that originated in the late 1990s. (Wait?It’s not the late 1990s yet!)

Early 1993: Sarah gets clean and meets Jeff.

Fall 1993: Sarah and Jeff move in together. At some point she gets pregnant and they have a daughter, Danielle.

Year? Danielle is born (Sarah is at least 17.5, which has to be in at least 1993, so the earliest Danielle could be born would be late 1993 or later).

Year + 8 months: Sarah starts using drugs again (has to be sometime in 1994 or later).

1994/95 or later: Sarah’s arrested for heroin possession. She is 19. Danielle is three and is placed with Sarah’s parents. (Sarah had to be at least 18 when Danielle was born, so Danielle couldn’t be three yet even if Sarah is almost 20. Also, Danielle was born 1993 or later, and Sarah is arrested in 1994 or 1995, so Danielle wouldn’t be three on that calendar either.)

As you can see, creating a timeline showing actual dates and relative dates (and doing a little math, where required) is a good way to see where the problems are. In fact, timelines are an essential part of the self-editing process, and they can be as informal (as above) or as complex as your particular project demands. A great, simple timeline tracker can be found here:

While it might not cover some very complex projects, with multiple interconnected histories and backstories, it works well for many novels and even nonfiction projects. Just start filling in the blanks and use both exact terms (“He’s 23 in this chapter”) as well as relative information (“Chapter 3 takes place three years after Chapter 2”); as you begin working through it, you’ll start noticing time relationships and will be able to pick out where they don’t match up. You’ll also be able to see at a glance how resolving those questions might lead to further timeline issues.

If you have a very detailed project, like a fantasy epic?or if you like a more hands-on approach?it can be very valuable to hand-draw a network or flow chart or timeline tree (using as many sheets of paper as your world and characters require) to get everything sorted out in terms of time and time relationships. I’ve often recommended the paper-on-the-floor method to clients who are incorporating a detailed backstory into present narration or who have a lot of characters and need to ensure there are no inconsistencies anywhere.

don’t forget about the little dates, too. If chapter 2 describes how your main character meets an alien in Week 1 and a robot in Week 2, then make sure chapter 46 doesn’t say the character met the robot before the alien. This is another reason why timelines are a good idea; when a lot of text separates date references, It’s very easy to forget what happened over 40 chapters before.

A lot of work? Maybe, but It’s worth it when you catch that one small flub that throws your whole timeline into question. And there’s no need to create a timeline as you work, either. In fact, many advise against it?in the interests of letting your creativity flow free. However, once you’ve revised the draft and started cleaning it up, creating a timeline can help you corral that creativity and get all the time-related elements of your book on track.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.