How to use Plotlines and Timelines: Establishing the Chronology of your Novel
Welcome back, I hope you are ready for today’s entry, as it contains an especially exciting activity. You have finally arrived at the end of the planning phase and are ready to begin our culminating exercise, the last task that you will need to complete before you are ready to start drafting the majority your text.
By now, you have put considerable work into fleshing out your characters and settings and have begun to make critical decisions regarding your story’s tension, central conflict, and pacing. Now it’s time to take a step back and look at the overall progression of your novel from a bird’s eye view. We are going to take everything you have done so far and put it side by side, so that you can begin to develop the chronology of your world and mull over the structure of your plot as a single unit.
The exercises below will delve into the details of orchestrating the overall ordering of your plot, but first I am going to provide you with a general orientation to the tools of plotlines and timelines.
Plotlines and timelines
For the purposes of this discussion, I will use the word timeline when describing the chronology of your fictional universe. The significant events that helped to shape and change your world, set in the order they occurred on the calendar. Other authors might call this the plotline, outline, or even the storyboard of a book. However, this timeline is not the same construct as the order of your plot, which might chop up the timeline via flashbacks, premonitions, and other narrative devices. I will use the word plotline to describe the ordered sequence that the scenes of your novel occur in, the same manner in which a reader experiences your story.
Plotlines differ from timelines in that the timeline of a novel is continuous. Day by day, hour by hour, year by year, the events of your world unfold to the ticking of the clock, just as they do in real life. Your story itself will only include a limited selection of this background information, filtered by the thoughts, conversations, and actions of your PoV character(s).
A plotline will commonly have gaps lying between scenes where time passes, or might even split the narrative to describe multiple events occurring simultaneously. The length and pace of your individual scenes can vary considerably as well. Several thousand words could easily describe mere minutes or the turning of seasons. You will often begin your plotline somewhere in the middle of the timeline of your story. It might not even be completely clear when in the timeline the narrative is taking place.
Your timeline itself should possess no such ambiguity. It is a tool for you, the author, enabling you to take a look at the entirety of the story you have created side by side, from a mile up in the air. The purpose of developing your timeline is for consistency and perspective, so that you know what happened in your world in what order (as well as what is happening simultaneously in split-plotline narratives). It is also helpful to know what major events are coming up next when you are drafting your novel, just to keep an eye on your pacing.
Although you don’t need to go crazy and develop an extensive history for your world that you might never use, your timeline should always be complete enough to show you what happened before the events of your novel began. How the world and the lives of your main characters reached the point where your tale started. You should also have some idea of how the resolution of your novel plays out into the future, even if you don’t choose to share these details with your reader.
Remember that while you want your plotlines and timelines to be as complete as possible before you begin drafting in earnest, they are still works in progress. Tools that you will be referring back to and supplementing many times over in the course of writing a novel. A word of caution is warranted here however, as changing the chronology of major events after you have drafted significant portions of your book can be tricky, as you will need to alter the text to be consistent with the new timeline and if you miss any major places, it can cause immersion-breaking continuity issues in your story.
First things first: Getting started on your master plotline and timeline
Let’s start by creating a rough draft of the master timeline of your novel. Timelines are versatile tools that can be used in a plethora of helpful ways, especially when overlaid with some of the various plotlines I will be discussing below. Regardless of whether you prefer to plan extensively or minimally, a timeline can help you to organize your major events, in order to keep your novel moving along the rails at a steady pace.
Examples of events that might go into a master timeline include: key battles over the course of a war, major moves in a political dispute, the change of religious influences in a region over time, etc. Digital or whiteboard timelines are also powerful tools for experimenting with changes, as you can play with various potential configurations by moving major events around in physical space. Having a visual timeline to ponder gives your world a concrete past, present, and future, and can help to establish the beginning, middle, and conclusion of your tale. It can also help you decide on what to include in a story, give you a map to follow, and make it easier to see the big picture while drafting the middle of a scene.
The master timeline of your book
Potential uses of a master timeline include:
- To create a historical record of the events critical to the development of your world and its culture.
- To create a calendar of important days (rituals, holidays, celestial events) that are unique to your world.
- To track the effects of major political events across large regions (wars, change in leadership, treaties/alliances, etc.)
- To map out family linages over multiple generations.
Exercise: Creating a rough draft of your master timeline
To create an early draft of your master timeline, simply draw a line across a piece of paper. Next draw a circle somewhere on the left side to represent where the events of your story begin (regardless of how you plan to introduce your story to your reader). Next, draw a second circle on the far right side of the line to represent the conclusion of your story. In between these circles, add in any major plot events that you are considering in the relative order they will appear. Finally, fill in any key events that occurred before your story began over on the far left side of your timeline, and then the events that will play out after the conclusion of your novel on the right.
As you continue with the drafting process, you will want to go back and digitize or redraw your timeline on occasion, adding additional detail and clarification as you go. As with so many things in life, the more that you put into your timeline, the more you will get out of it. In my case, drawing my timeline on a series of whiteboards led to the inspiration of several key scenes all by itself, as well as helped me to decide on the length and structure of my various subplots and character arcs.
The master plotline of your story
While a master timeline helps to track the history of your world and the major events of your fictional universe, a master plotline helps to track the overall content and continuity of your scenes themselves, as well as their progression and pacing.
Uses of a master plotline include:
- To view your scenes side by side in order, the same way that a reader experiences them.
- To keep track of the tension arc within your story structure.
- To keep an eye on the subplots of your novel, ensuring that their length and order is proportionately balanced.
Exercise: A first draft of your master plotline
To create an early draft of your master plotline, first assemble a list of all the scenes you have come up with so far, regardless of whether you have drafted any text in them yet. Then label these scenes and place them side by side in chronological order. You might discover the inspiration for several new scenes during this brainstorming process simply by pondering your events and the gaps between them, so feel free to add these in as well whenever your muse strikes.
When you have finished, try grouping your scenes by organizing them into chapters. This structure will likely change a bit as you draft, but will still provide you with a rough idea of the length of each chapter and the pace of your novel. As you go, consider which of these scenes will possess rising action and attempt to intersperse them with scenes of falling action. Continue this draft until your main character achieves his or her goal, overcomes the novel’s central oppositional force, and completes their arc.
Regardless of where in your timeline you begin your story, you should generally tell it in chronological order from that point on (minor flashbacks aside). If you do decide to tell your story out of sequence for any reason, first make sure that it is vital to your story to do so, then attempt to remove as many barriers as possible that might prevent your reader from understanding what is going on. If you haven’t yet decided where to begin your novel, try plotting starting with the inciting incident (which will often be relatively clear in your mind already) and then work backwards to the opening scene.
Other plotline tools
In addition to the master plotline, there are numerous other line-based tools an author can use to assist them in drafting a novel. They are intended to be utilized alongside your master plotline and timeline, helping you to keep track of specific aspects of your narrative. The following tools are technically both timelines (they can be spread out over the master timeline to track progression and continuity) as well as plotlines (they can be placed side by side to see their relative balance, order, length, pacing, etc.), but will be referred to here as plotlines for simplicity’s sake.
Individual character plotlines
These plotlines are unique to your central characters, following their growth as they progress through their various subplots and character arcs. Individual character plotlines are also great when attempting to keep track of split timelines and multiple PoV stories. They can also help you to keep an eye on your characters’ movements as they journey from place to place. As with the master timeline, it is helpful to fill in character plotlines starting from a period before the story begins, including their cornerstone experiences and other pivotal life events.
Reader information/experience plotlines
This type of plotline is used for staying organized regarding what information has been revealed to the reader so far, as well as what they have been led to expect and believe. This is useful in general when considering pacing and patterning, but really comes into its own when setting up plot twists, misdirection, cliffhangers, mysteries, and other surprises.
You should create a separate plotline for each of your major subplots, laying them out against the master timeline. This will help to ensure that each subplot is complete (contains a hook, central conflict, oppositional force, climax, and resolution) as well as when deciding how to chop the subplot up before interspersing it across your various chapters.
Split viewpoint plotlines
Every story that features multiple point of view characters (who are not in close physical proximity) will require a tool to help organize what is happening in several places at once. As the individual scenes comprising each plot-branch can vary considerably in how quickly time is passing, you will need to keep track of each simultaneously occurring scene in the overall scheme of your plot to avoid continuity issues when merging them back together. Your master timeline should contain a separate field for each PoV character in your novel, except for when they are located near another PoV character and the experiences of the group are already being reported to your reader.
When dealing with a narrative where the plotline splits into two or more pieces (such as when two main characters get separated and are on their own for a bit), track each plot on a separate line beneath the main story on the timeline. This way you can stay on top of where in the overall chronology each scene begins and ends.
Reasons to split a plotline
- A PoV character is separated from the main group and has a solo adventure until they make their way back.
- A new central character is introduced, who eventually meets up with the others.
- To show what is happening somewhere vital to the plot where no other central characters are.
In each of these cases, whenever a new point of view is used, you have a decision to make as an author. Namely, whether to keep using this PoV for the remainder of your novel, or to “retire” it once the PoV character joins/rejoins the protagonist, using the protagonist’s PoV to keep the reader updated on these characters going forwards.
Example of a split plotline
Let’s structure a simple split plotline now:
Elsa and Davon are mercenaries. Professional bounty hunters tracking a group of bandits in the Blackwood along with six additional allies. Their first night in the woods, the group is attacked while making camp and Elsa and Davon are separated and forced to flee into the woods alone.
Davon: – – – >
Master plotline: —-< >—–
Elsa: – – >
Elsa has two unique scenes. The first is the resolution from the attack, where she is forced to deal with her injuries and the emotional aftermath, alone in the woods and under the threat of imminent danger. The second is a fight scene, in which Elsa is assaulted and overwhelmed, only to be saved at the last minute by the main band of mercenaries (merging her story back into the main plotline a bit before Davon’s big moment).
Davon gets three scenes. First one where he is also lost in the woods, attempting to track the bandits. In his second scene, Davon almost makes it back to the main group, but realizes that they are being stalked by their assailants and will be in mortal danger unless he manages to help. In Davon’s final solo scene, he initiates an attack on the bandits alone and from behind, placing himself in danger but ruining the ambush and alerting the other mercenaries to their peril. After a desperate battle, an injured Davon manages to rejoin the others, who have eliminated the bandits thanks to his help. This merges the split plotlines as well as resolves a major plot event. If we had allowed this split to continue on for a longer period, we might have added a scene following the main band of mercenaries as well.
Split and parallel timelines
Some stories feature two entirely distinct, progressive, and parallel timelines, such as telling the story of a character as both a child and as an adult (each of which progresses over time). This is a complex narrative technique that I recommend avoiding until you have a few novels under your belt, as it is difficult to balance and can easily become a source of immersion-breaking confusion for your reader.
Parallel timelines: Two distinct points in time —A —B, are blended together across the narrative
A: – – – – – –
B: – – – – – –
The events themselves will never converge over the course of the story (although their implications and consequences certainly should). One common form of parallel timeline is the two (or more) part flashback, in which a character is telling a story or reliving a memory that is interrupted by present events and concluded later on.
Final thoughts on structuring your plot
- It is incredible helpful to use timelines and plotlines in order portion your overall plot into digestible bits of narrative.
- You will usually want to decide on the purpose of each scene before you begin to draft it, as well as determine the events that come before and after.
- Although you will want to choose what information to include carefully, the more work you put into your timelines and plotlines, the more clarity you will possess when drafting your scenes.
That’s all for this series on planning out your plot. I hope you found these exercises helpful. Now, head on over and join me in the next series in this guide and we can get started on drafting of your novel in earnest.