Vicki's Book News and Articles

Craft: Using a Time Line

Written by Vicki Hinze

On December 28, 2010

Vicki Hinze © 2003-2011

Several years ago I wrote a fictional biography which had to be chronological, not starting the beginning of each year, but certainly the start of many and other dates. Now I am turning this into a novel, and as I get into it I find I am also making it more chronological than I have done in my other books. Of course the other books moved through time, but not with a definite chronological feeling.
I understand what you’re saying. In LADY LIBERTY, the entire story takes place within a 72-hour time span, there’s a major ticking bomb, and so the date and time become essential to the story.
That’s the key. The timeline needs to be essential to the story.
Now, you don’t have to have a time bomb. That being “essential” can come in the form of clarity. (Whatever your point for each scene, it has to be clear to the reader or it’s useless.) So if following the timeline is critical to clarity, that justifies it.
There is no challenge in starting a book at a specific point and time and following events straight through time until the end. This is often the case in a lot of NYT best-selling authors’ books.
Logically, to the reader, A must happen before B. Or the reader must grasp the significance of A before s/he can fully feel the impact of B. That makes a chronological order essential.
Unless you’re writing a book where everything is happening simultaneously, you will have a natural order of subsequence in events, character-building, conflicts. So I wouldn’t worry overly about the timeline being obvious.
If it is essential, but not for a reason that will make it obvious to the reader, don’t make the common mistake of deleting the references to it. Instead, strengthen your conflicts by complicating them, making that essential reason an integral part of the plot. Do that, and by extension, you’ve added additional complexity to your characters and deepened their internal conflicts also. So it becomes a win/win situation.
Too often writers tend to delete the less-than-obvious. It’s usually a mistake. Strengthen it instead and let the subtly stand early on in the book. It will provide pleasant “Ah ha!” moments for your reader.
I hope I’ve addressed your challenge sufficiently, but I wasn’t totally clear on whether your concern was the evidence of the timeline or the timeline itself. If I haven’t, and I missed your meaning, please let me know, and we’ll address the matter again.*


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