One of the most overlooked yet crucial elements of a well-written novel is a fluid and easy to follow timeline. Without it, readers can become confused, disoriented, and frustrated, and they’ll wind up setting the book aside – something we want to avoid at all costs. So, why is it that no one hardly talks about timelines nearly as much as they talk about characters and setting and plot?
I think it’s because we take timelines for granted and/or assume that however the story unfolds for us is how it should be told.
Not at all true.
As with any other aspect of our story, we absolutely must put careful thought and consideration into our timeline. It cannot be taken for granted that the reader will naturally follow along with the way we tell a story just because it makes sense to us or feels like the way it should be told.
Then, how can we handle timelines in a way that keeps the reader engaged and allows them to follow along closely to the story as it unfolds?
Decide on the right type of timeline.
As you know, I’m a converted pantser who now wholeheartedly believes I the power of at least some level of basic planning, preparing, and outlining prior to the writing process. As it is with the plot, characters, and setting, we must also first decide the basic timeframe in which we want to tell our story. Does it make more sense for our story to stretch over a longer period of time from months to even years? Or is a more compressed timeline better, where everything from beginning to end happens in the span of a few weeks, a few days, or even 24 hours?
There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to making this decision. But you do want to consider your genre and your storyline when choosing. For example, thriller writers know that a drawn-out time period would not work for their books because the whole theory behind a well-written thriller is that there’s a “ticking clock” (physical or theoretical) the protagonist is working against to save the day/beat the bad guy/rescue the damsel. So, it wouldn’t make much sense to try to make a fast-paced thriller span the course of several months or a year.
On the other end of the spectrum, it would be almost impossible to imagine a sweeping historical or even romance novel set in the 1700’s to take place in a matter of a week or less. Is it possible? Sure. Everything is possible in fiction. But it’s not plausible and it certainly would be a strange sort of book. Instead, most historical fiction and/or romance novels, especially those set well back in history, tend to take place over the course of years, if not decades.
Next, you’ll need to consider your storyline. I tell my clients to always set up your 3 Acts first and determine (in general) what will happen at the beginning, middle, and end of your story. If you’ve done this, it will be easier to visualize the timeline. Ask yourself how long it would logically take for a story like yours to unfold, and what type of timeline (extended or compressed) works best with the story you want to tell. In most cases, knowing where your story begins and where it will end up, as well as the general path you want your protagonist to take to get there, will help you determine your timeline.
Now that we’ve determined how long of a period our story will span, the next thing to consider is how many points of view we’re showcasing. This is a step that should have already been taken as part of those 3 Important Questions you’ve heard me talk about. But if you have somehow missed it, it’s definitely time to make that decision now. Basically, you just need to decide how many points of view you want to include, as well as WHOSE perspectives will receive their own chapters.
Okay, but how can we tell the same story through the eyes of two or more characters and keep the timeline moving forward without confusing the reader?
The answer here is two-fold. First, when writing the story, make sure to always move the timeline forward chronologically in the order things happen, and don’t go back and rehash what happened in one character’s scene through the eyes of the second character all over again. While, yes, you’re seeing it from a new perspective, the reader does not want or need to see the same scene play out multiple times. Instead, each character’s scene should pick up where the last left off, only where things pick up from THEIR point of view. This will avoid confusion for the reader and propel the story forward, which we always want to do.
And the second, most crucial part actually comes before the writing stage. If you are writing a story with dueling timelines told from more than one character’s perspective, it would save you so much time and confusion for the reader if you would take just a bit of time and create a simple chapter outline. I do this on a super-secret spreadsheet I created for me and my clients, but I’ll tell you this much. You just need 3 columns…one for the chapter number, one for the assigned POV, and one for a brief sentence that summarizes that chapter. Of course, my clients-only method (I ridiculously refer to as the Book Boss Method) is my secret sauce, and there’s more to it than that. But even creating the most basic chapter outline on a spreadsheet (either in Excel or Google Sheets) is essential to keeping dueling POVs and timelines straight.
PRO TIP: If you have not heard me SHOUT about my favorite online writing tool during the past nearly two years, you’ve been living under a rock, apparently. But this is the perfect place for me to once again remind you that I have some amazing colleagues in Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (co-authors of the Emotions Thesaurus – a must-have for authors), and they run this A-MAZ-ING online resources called OneStopForWriters. And among SO MANY other jaw dropping features, they also have a timeline tool. I started using this bad baby 3 or 4 books back and let me tell you…it will blow your mind. And now, if you head over to their website (click button below – after you read this, of course) and select their already affordable monthly or annual subscription, you can get an additional 25% OFF! Just be sure to use the code WRITEYOURBEST25 when prompted. You’re welcome!
What about Flashbacks?
Oh, the dreaded F-Word! If you follow my Tik Tok account, you might have seen my post from a couple days ago where I led with, “Flashbacks are the spawn of Satan…” I was only half kidding when I said that. Let me explain.
Yes, it’s true that I despise flashbacks when I’m reading a novel. But it’s not the flashback in and of itself that’s “evil.” The problem lies in the fact that a large majority of authors (especially first-time authors) don’t take time to learn the proper way to write a flashback, so they wind up doing them completely wrong, or they try something super “unique” with their timeline and flashbacks, and in 99.99% of the cases, it’s flops entirely.
Because flashbacks, if not done properly, can confuse the reader, make them lose track of the who, what, when, where, and why of the storyline, and lead them to such frustration that they DNF the book and toss it in the yard sale bin. This is something that, as authors, we should always strive to avoid. In fact, our goal should be to write novels that are so engaging, readers cannot help but keep turning the page, long past midnight, despite having to wake up at 5 am!
I know you’ve read a book before that had long, drawn-out flashbacks, too many flashbacks, or flashbacks that were not clearly indicated, which you must admit, frustrated the hell out of you. I know I’m not the only one.
And it’s not just brand-new authors, either.
About 10 years ago, an established author named Kate Atchison wrote and published a book called Life After Life, and it was talked up so much all over social media and even other media outlets (I think Oprah may have even mentioned it in her O Magazine…not sure), I just had to read it myself. Besides the cover was lovely, and it sounded like something I’d really enjoy reading. All I knew going in was that it was something about a woman who either dies then lives again or is reincarnated or something like that.
But Oh. My. Gawd. Let me tell you. I don’t think I made it past chapter 2 or 3 before I DNF’d that sucker. I wanted so badly to love it, but the approach the author took in trying to handle two different timelines (for her two different lives) was ridiculously hard to follow, to the point I actually got angry at the author for wasting my time. (NOTE: If you loved this book, great. Just my opinion.)
Anyway, if flashbacks themselves are not the problem, and it all lies in how the reader lays out the timeline, then how can you PROPERLY write a flashback? Here are the key steps to remember IF you decide that you are just dead set on flashbacks:
Again, I must emphasize my firm belief that there is NEVER any situation where you have NO CHOICE but to write a flashback. I’m to saying you’re not allowed or that I’ll even judge you for writing them. I’m simply saying, there is always more than one way to skin a cat (or so my Granny said).
Okay…so how, then?
When it comes to revealing backstory (or anything else you’re revealing), you can do so through dialogue between characters, internal dialogue of the perspective POV, and most effectively, by SPRINKLING hints and clues about the character’s backstory throughout the scene/chapter, or even the entire book (if the backstory is integral to a later plot point, reveal, or the ending).
Please excuse me while I step down from my soap box now. But in all seriousness, this issue is important to me, so pardon my enthusiasm when it comes to flashbacks and timelines. So many issues that cause bad reviews and low sales for indie authors stem from lack of educating themselves and taking the time to learn the best ways to write their story and how to pull off certain writing tools and methods. And it’s my mission to reach and teach as many new authors (and even veterans) how to save themselves the time, money, energy, and heartache that comes with lack of proper preparation before writing.
If you’d like to hear me debate this issue (more) with this week’s podcast guest host, Sonali Dev, please tune into Write Your Best Book, the podcast, episode 67 on Friday, April 23, where we end our week’s topic of discussion on timelines and prepare for next week’s topic (TBA).