Plotting A Course Isn’t Just For Pirates

I said I was thinking about writing a post on creating story time-lines to help with the writing process and here it is. I cannot stress enough how much having a plan is going to help you write. When I was at school and my teachers told me to plan for my essay before writing it I could just about get away with ignoring them and handing in a substandard essay. But when I want to sit down and write a novel, I will plan. If I didn’t it would be pretty obvious that I was just making it up as I went along. It would read like even I didn’t know what was about to happen next. What’s worse is if I don’t know what’s coming how can I employ literary techniques like foreshadowing?

At no time has planning been more important for my writing than with 25,000 Light-Years: Closer To The Core. It’s the first of five novels I intend to write. It plays around with time. It (like most novels) is set in a living breathing universe that must continue with or without the gazing eyes of the narrator. There are a lot of places I could easily slip up and make those horrible plot holes or inconsistency issues that can really irritate you as a reader. The one thing that may sound directly linked to science fiction is the living breathing universe, but that universe could just as easily be the single house that a thriller is set in. If you want your story to really feel alive then you have to create a fictional world that feels real. It can be very easy to get distracted following your character around and not keep things happening elsewhere. In real life no matter what is happening, somewhere else in the world life is continuing as usual. The rest of your world needs to keep moving and be active even while your protagonist is contemplating the meaning of life. Your other characters can’t just freeze in place because we aren’t reading about them. What better way to make sure you have an active world than to to visualise it on a time-line? Gaps means naps (in activity that is…).

Now as I see it there are two ways to start your own time-line. Number one you do it all digitally, if you already have your character sheets typed up it probably makes more sense to go this route. Keep everything together in a nice neat folder. You don’t need any fancy software to make a time-line, you can literally do it on Paint. Route number two is the slightly less neat and tidy way of doing things. You’ll need a fair amount of hand written notes, some red string, a blank wall, maybe throw in some newspaper clippings and try to remember not to invite anyone to your house for the next few years…

wall-of-crazy

Of course I am mostly kidding but doing it the conventional route is going to require some free space in your home to keep your time-line set up. So with this in mind I chose the digital route. I already had my character sheets ready, and as you may recall from Developing Some Character I have already got important moments in the characters lives set up. At this point you maybe thinking ‘well, woah now, hold on a minute. You are planning on making a pretty big time-line if you aren’t just mapping out the events of the novel.’ And yep, you are right. On the whole I’d say setting up your time-line with prior events is up to you and your story. If you intend to talk about your characters past it may help you to lay it out on the time-line (even more so if your characters lives have intersected in the past). As the name would suggest it is designed to help you keep track of how much time has passed. If you aren’t confused then your writing won’t be confused so that’s got to be a good thing right?

For me it was necessary because of the little flashbacks I have written in. I wanted to make sure I knew how old characters were, what the other characters were doing at the same time and having that visual really helped.

So once you have got your basic characters set up on the time-line it’s time to get plotting those points. I’m obviously not going to tell you what exactly you should be putting on your time-line, for one I am not a expert and for the other I don’t know how detailed your plan is. If you have taken the time to create a really detailed plan you are really only going to need to put those big plot points in place and to be honest if your plan is that good this time-line may not be completely useful to you unless you are writing a series of books. If your plan is a bit wishy washy and you have a bunch of ideas you want to put in, you just haven’t figured out where, this is where the time-line is going to make itself useful. Whether you’re doing this digitally or not you can move plot points around your time-line until you are happy that everything is in a good order. Then pat yourself on the back for being so proactive about your creative writing.

Remember this is your book so it’s also your time-line. You can make it as messy or colourful as you like. Whatever is going to make your life easier when you need to quickly check you have your story straight. If you have multiple protagonists you could have multiple time-lines though I’d recommend having them consolidated into one somewhere. You can make this time-line how you want it and no one is even going to care if you have typos because it’s not going to be seen by anyone but you.

Mine actually does have a typo, it bugs me though. I just have a black line with links to colour filled text boxes. I assigned a different colour to each character so that if I need to track down an event I just have to look through one set of events rather than all of them. If it’s something that involves more than one of your characters I made it multicoloured to match them both/all. Each characters first appearance on the time-line also has a little thumbnail picture of someone that looks like them in my mind. I don’t know why I decided to do that as I know what they look like but I like how it looks.

I’d love to share my time-line with you to give an example of what I’m waffling on about but it would give away some monumental spoilers. However, to recap, make sure you plan your work, set up a time-line to avoid getting confused and confusing your readers, but remember it’s your story so it’s your time-line. Have fun with it, or don’t, it’s yours to do with as you wish.

This post ended up being a bit longer than I had originally planned, I’m hoping I haven’t blabbered on too much. If I have I’m going to blame a lack of sleep, apologise and bid you good day.

S. Hansen.

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