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Writers Tip #43: Is Your Timeline Accurate?

When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.

Today’s Tip: Make sure your timeline is correct.

Does time track correctly in your story? This is one of the most annoying features of a story–when characters jump around the timeline. Even if the author announces it with a chapter title–I don’t always read chapter titles, so it’s easy to miss that the main character moved from present to past, from six years ago to three months ago to the here and now. I’m reading Brad Meltzer’s latest novel, Fifth Assassin. He writes great thrillers. That’s why I picked him from my Vine list. In this latest novel, he does this time jumping constantly. I’ll get into a chapter, integrating the new information into what I know about the plot and characters. I’ll be pages into the chapter when I finally figure out this is about the child, not the adult. The chapters are titled with variously 1) a chapter number, 2) a location, or 3) a location and time frame. Some are ten years in the past, some four days. I almost feel tricked when I eventually realize what I’m reading is a flashback. If Meltzer weren’t such a good writer, I’d throw the book across the yard, maybe dig a big hole and bury it.

If you aren’t as good a writer as Brad Meltzer, don’t do that! It makes readers angry. Flashbacks are fine, but make them obvious. I’ve seen two timelines work, where the story leaps between the protagonist and antagonist and their timelines aren’t synced. I can’t remember a plot relaying events from multiple timelines with no apparent order–well, I suppose the ‘order’ is to serve the as-yet undisclosed plot.

These flitty flashbacks are one side of my plot progression point. The other is a focus on when you as the author make mistakes in the timeline. This includes things like:

  • the character does a thirty-minute drive in five minutes
  • the character shows up in different clothing than what she left in
  • the setting is ambivalent of seasons–fall in one scene and summer in another
  • the plot visits multiple nations without attention to their varied time zones

An easy solution is to make a table showing when sections take place. You’ll immediately determine if there isn’t enough time–or if the timing is wrong–between events.

What do you think of a plot that flits frivolously through time? Does it bother you? How do you make sure you don’t do this?

Questions you want answered? Leave a comment here and I’ll answer it within the next thirty days.

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersCisco guest blog,Technology in Education featured blogger, IMS tech expert, and a bi-monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is  editor of a K-8 technology curriculumK-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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5 thoughts on “Writers Tip #43: Is Your Timeline Accurate?

  1. I picked up a novel about 12 months ago (I can’t even remember it’s name now) and got through the first chapter to find the second was flicked back in time (but I didn’t realise until the third chapter) so I chucked it ;) For some reason flashbacks really irritate me and this is because I want to know what’s happening NOW. I think this is an impatience thing on my part. I don’t mind a little history about the character coming into play, but not as a story on its own. Every writer needs to read this post, Jacqui! :D

  2. Timeline is very important, even on a subliminal level. Things like sunlight through a window – or not. The one that gets me is the mention of hours before something and the next paragraph they’re doing the something.

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