How to Make Time Make Sense in Fiction

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Keeping track of time is as obvious as “once upon a time” is to begin a story. But it’s not a cliché; it’s obviously essential to helping your readers understand the story. The hard part is that someone reading your story will probably know how well you give an impression of time better than you know. Here’s a couple simple tips to keep your story’s timeline intact:

Create a consistent timeline.

In the midst of revisions (or just the amount of time it takes to write a full-length novel), it’s really easy to forget who knows what and what hasn’t happened yet. As you organize and reorganize your story, facts can get lost or put out of place. Maybe in your first draft Demi found out that she was adopted in Chapter 8, but in your second draft you moved that discovery to Chapter 4. If you don’t happen to remember that Demi is confused about how little she looks like her mom in Chapter 6, suddenly she has a serious case of unintended amnesia.

The most basic way to keep your events in order is to create a plot timeline. It’s unlikely that your novel is in perfect chronological order. You probably have flashbacks to things that happened before the story starts or dialogue that reveals the past. There might even be dreams or prophecies about the future. That can make it really confusing to keep track of what has already happened and what hasn’t in each scene. A plot timeline might look something like this:

Two years ago

Event

Chapter 8

 

Day 1

Event

Chapter 1

If you keep your timeline handy on your next read-through, you might be surprised what inconsistencies you find.

If you’re really organized, you might even make individual timelines for each of the significant characters. You might even find that a timeline for an object is helpful if it’s central to your story. I’d encourage you to play around with it and see what works for you. If you are making major revisions to your story, it’s so important to keep at least a basic timeline of events handy.

Orient your readers to the passage of time.

Okay, this one is really easy. It’s actually so easy that writers tend to forget it. Each scene should have at least one phrase that shows when it is happening in relation to other scenes. That phrase does not have to be a date. It could be:

  • A statement about how much time has passed, like “an hour ago,” “two days later,” or “last year.”
  • A phrase relating it to another event in the story, such as “while I was in the hospital” or “after Matthew died.” This is good for flashbacks or switching between POVs.
  • Referring to something that happened at the end of the last chapter to show that the scene is continuing, like “I couldn’t believe this news.” or “I couldn’t let him talk to me that way.” This is also good for switching POVs.
  • Mentioning an event that we understand the approximate amount of time passing. For instance, if your characters got married and you’re covering a big leap of time, you mention that the second child has been born. That’s obviously a lot of time between scenes. Or if the last scene happened in the morning, you could mention that this scene happens after the character gets off work.

Whatever method you choose, give some indication of time at the beginning of every scene. Not doing so will leave your readers disoriented and confused. If they don’t know when the scene is taking place, it will undermine the meaning to that scene and every scene that follows. Flashbacks in particular — it’s a bit surprising how many authors jump right into a flashback without showing that it’s a flashback.

After all of the tough topics that I’ve covered on the blog recently, this one seems easy, right? Take this as a friendly reminder to make sure your timeline is consistent before you send your manuscript to a publisher. It’s a quick fix that can make or break your novel.

So what have you done to help you keep track of time in your novel?

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