Your Timeline

timelines ImageOne of the biggest issues I have come across in writing Fantasy is the timing within the storyline; and in the case of a novel with multiple storylines, how these different storylines relate to each other within the timeline of the overall novel. These problems are not as magnified if you are writing a single storyline from a single Point of View or a very linear storyline, but they still exist nonetheless.

In my first novel, Fire of the Covenant, I didn’t worry about this until after I completed the First Draft. Actually I didn’t think about it at all as I was writing the draft. I went with the philosophy that you just sit and write until you are finished and then go back and fix the crappy draft. The fact that I actually published Fire proves this strategy works. However, I spent a lot of effort fixing timeline problems during Revision that I could have avoided with just a little forethought and minimal effort.

When I was going through Revision on Fire I struggled when I tried to match up the storylines. Now, you have to understand I thought I had created the storylines so they would just fall in line with each other. So you can imagine my surprise, and detoursubsequent depression, when I found that I had a major disaster on my hands. The storylines didn’t line up at all and even the scene sequences within most of the storylines didn’t make sense. The biggest surprise I discovered was that the scene sequence in one storyline could impact the sequence in a different storyline. The end result was that after a lot of fiddling with chapters and timelines, I ended up throwing out ten chapters and created twelve new ones to replace them. I also had to rewrite a number of other chapters once I realigned everything so that the timelines made sense for all the storylines. This little process took me weeks to sort everything out before I could even start writing the new chapters and to revise the mis-aligned ones.

You might be saying to yourself “I only have one storyline so this isn’t a problem”. If you answer yourself then there may be more issues here than I can resolve. I would disagree with you, both the you asking questions and the one answering. Getting the timeline correct early on is just important in the single storyline manuscript as it is in a multiple storyline book. If you are like me you have read a novel where some character does something in one scene then the next thing you read is that the character rode their horse to another location, overnight, and a hundred-and-fifty miles away. Unless it is a magical horse, this would be pretty much absurd. You can pick your own unbelievable location/incident vs time availability, but it happens in all forms of fiction and in every sized book.

The other benefit of having a good understanding of your storyline/timeline relationship is that it helps you grasp where you are in the manuscript and what you still need to write. I know some people like to outline their entire novel before they start writing their first words, what are known as Plotterswriter_panster_plotter1what we call “Pantsers” – you write by the “seat of your pants”, or if you are like me, are somewhere in between. I have one pant leg on when I start writing my First Draft. When I began Fire, I knew some of the main scenes that the manuscript must contain, but many of the intervening scenes were just a wisp of random thoughts floating somewhere in the back of my mind and didn’t come out until I was far into the book.

I had started the draft for Betrayal with the intention of writing it like I had Fire. I just kept writing, going from one scene to the next. Which I admit is a little difficult with multiple storylines, but thought I could untangle any issues during Revision. This worked fine until I had written a big chunk of the draft, then I was having a little trouble figuring out some of the remaining scenes. What exactly did they need to cover and where did they go in the sequencing? I also wondered exactly how much more I needed to finish the draft.

blank flowchart or timeline on blackboardI started going through the scenes and quickly realized that not all the storylines aligned (this created a terrifying flashback to what I encountered during Revision of Fire). I also noticed that there were some holes in the storylines that I had not expected. Looking at my scene list in Scrivener, and trying to juggle the sequencing in my mind, only bewildered and frustrated me. I decided I needed a way to identify the individual scenes in each storyline and align them along the same overall time line. But how?

Writing is such a creative process, as they say “right brained”, but my problem required a “left brain” solution. Luckily I had my past experience to fall back on. Much of my career had been spent in the business world with my forte being in organizing data. So I drew upon this experience to tackle my problem.

I tried to think what could help solve this problem and let my mind drift back to my time as a project manager. I remembered how I tracked the different tasks and the sequencing of the tasks. What I did to manage the tasks was create a Pert Chart. Pert stands for Program (project) Evaluation and Review Technique. These Pert Charts are a standard tool for analyzing a projects progress and also to plan and schedule complex tasks. It relies upon CPM, Critical Path Method, which list of all activities required to complete a project, time duration for each activity and the dependencies between the activities.

Okay, enough business talk. What this all means is that thinking of my scenes as activities, something similar to a Pert Chart would allow me to figure out what scenes I had already written, how they fit within the novels overall time line, and how the scenes interacted with each other.

I used a software program, not one designed for project management, but something I could bastardize to give me what I needed. However, it would be a lot easier, for this post, if I describe what I did as a manual process.

I started by creating 3×5 cards for every chapter/scene I had 3x5 cardalready written and the ones I thought I still needed to write. Each card contained the tentative chapter name and number, the character(s) whose Point of View is used in the chapter, the storyline it belonged with, and a short description of the scenes in the chapter. Then I laid them out on the floor by storyline so I could check the sequence of each storyline. Next I aligned the 3×5 cards for the different storylines with each other (I have five storylines in this book). The other issue I had to deal with was how did these sequenced 3×5 cards align to the overall timeline for the entire manuscript?

I know some authors who put the timeline day on the top of the 3×5 card and then just put them in order by this date. This provides some degree of alignment, but for me it doesn’t provide the overall big picture of the manuscript and doesn’t provide the necessary relationship between storylines.

The easiest way to resolve the timeline and storyline relationship issue was to lay out big sheets of paper, possibly blank newspaper sheets or poster board. If you have a lot of chapters like me, you might even need to put a couple next to each other to make it big enough. Then I wrote the days for the timeline across the top, then laid out the 3×5 cards, by storyline, under the timeline written at the top. As you would expect, they didn’t quite align and the other big thing I discovered was that there were entire scenes missing. In fact, rather than needing twelve more chapters to finish my book, as I originally thought, I needed twenty-three. So after creating 3×5 cards for the “new” chapters; which I colored in blue to distinguish them from existing chapters, I drew lines between the cards for each storyline and also lines where the storylines interacted. The below image is a digital representation of what this might look like, though I changed some of the information so I don’t give away the story 🙂

timelineThis helped me to see where the relationships were and also I was able to adjust some of the chapters to better fit with the timeline.

In contrast to the weeks I spent during Revision with Fire, I did the above in a day-and-a-half. Not only did I complete the process quickly, but having this all mapped out has allowed me to write quickly and with a lot more passion. I knew where I was going and how to get there.

Not that this is a perfect process. I have found that as I continue to write the missing chapters, I am still moving the cards around a little and have added at least one more new chapter… so far.

I could never be an “Plotter”, as I really have no idea exactly how the manuscript will flow when I start it. As I mentioned, I have a few scenes in mind and know where I want the book to end up, but most of the scenes come to me as I write them. Using the above process I was able to use my “Pantser” mentality until I got to a point where I could use my bastardized version of a Pert Chart to figure out how the rest of the manuscript would turn out.

The manual approach I used above was how I figured out the timeline alignment for Fire of the Covenant during Revision. Again, it took a couple of weeks. Not because it was a manual process, but because it was after-the-fact and rather than planning how I was going to finish the First Draft, I had to tear apart work that was already written. I am a digital type of person, so for the current book, Betrayal of the Covenant, I am using a software program to perform this timeline/storyline process. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a software program that did exactly what I wanted, so I used a “freeform” program, Scapple, that I made work. Below is a major portion of the timeline I created (manipulated via Scapple).

The outgrowth of being a “Pantser/Plotter” is that I discovered the shortfalls quicker than I did in my last book, and I will be able to cut my Revision time by more than half – remember the ten chapters I wrote that I had to trash and all the rewriting to make a number of other chapters align between the storylines? I already know what chapters I need and as I write them, I will know how they align to the overall timeline.

I am always open to new ideas, so I would be interested in how you deal with timelines and their relationship to the storylines.

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Posted on August 31, 2015, in Authors - Peter Cruikshank, or browse all books. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Hey Peter, great to see you back and to hear about your work! I am dazed with deja-vu on this one: I had a very similar experience with the first novel of my two-part series, “Judgement’s Tale” as you did. And of course in epic/heroic fantasy you are often hopping about between PoVs in a large cast of characters, so the timeline, like the dragon, must be faced at some point.
    I dealt with the problem in my first novel as you did- wrote all the scenes, then found myself shuffling the end-chapters like cards several times until the order suited me. It wasn’t that I needed to add/drop much: but towards the end of JT everyone is having adventures during the same 36-hour period, so chronology was no help in achieving the rhythm I needed.
    Now with the sequel “The Eye of Kog” I knew I needed a better approach (exploring the existing characters more deeply, and bringing in new ones). So I used Excel to achieve what you have there on paper.
    – Left column empty at first, a character per column out to the right
    – Each major event/chapter on the rows below their characters (color-coded with a shade per character, for later)
    – Put “before” higher and “later” lower, tie-break events happening close together to different characters by inserting rows in Excel
    – Once I had each event on a separate row scattered across all the character columns, I drew them all to the left. Bingo, chronology. And the color-codes helped me keep the characters straight.
    It’s worked well so far: and I get excited looking it over and reminding myself “oh yeah, that one’s still ahead of me, cool”.
    Best of luck!

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