Being a Better Writer: Time(line) Management

I bet a lot of you are going to be surprised by the actual gist of this post. Yes, I am talking about time management, but not in the way you think. Also, I’m fairly certain I’ve done posts on making good use of writing time before, so those still exist.

No, today I’m going to talk about a different kind of time management. And, before I start, I must stress that I don’t share all the credit for the idea of this topic. It actually came to me as I was listening to an old episode of the Writing Excuses podcast (I’m two seasons behind thanks to a massive backlog), and one of the hosts made an off-hand comment pertaining to the shuffling chapters around. With a start, I realized that there was an important bit of writing that I’d never considered writing about on this blog before, and put it on the list that night.

So, what sort of time management isn’t your own management, but something else? Simple: it’s the management of time in your story.

Some of you might be going “Huh?” after a pronouncement like that, and I don’t blame you. This almost feels like the kind of subject where you have to explain it to get everyone on the same page. Once you do, everyone nods and goes “Oooohhhh.” So let me see if I can get us all on that same page.

Every book has a timeline. That plot arc you’re following? It has a beginning, a middle, and an end (hopefully). Along, I would expect, with some nice ups and downs strung along the middle. With me so far?

Of course you are. Now, your goal as a writer is to take the reader along that timeline, along the ups and downs, from the beginning to the middle, then onward to the eventual end. But here’s the thing … are you really going to cover all of what happens in that timeline? Every little moment?

No. No we’re not. Because no one wants to read page after page after page of characters hiking endlessly, or driving across a flat highway, or … well, really, whatever it is that they’re doing that could be boring.

Common sense, right? We’ve been over this before various times. Pacing, etc. Cool, cool, cool. But here’s the catch, which ties in with the off-hand comment that inspired the whole thing: What do you do when you’re following multiple perspectives and the inverse occurs? Where you want to stay detailed rather than skipping over things?

Right, now is about the time I expect those nods of “Oh.” Say you have a timeline with five points on it to get through; points A through E. Combine that with two protagonists. So far so good, right? They meet up at the beginning and take on point A together.

But then they split, and now you have a bit of an issue. They’re both protagonists, so you need to keep following both of them. But now what do you do to keep that timeline intact? Say that protagonist one gets the head start in our story and jumps very quickly through events B and C. Meanwhile, protagonist two takes their time hitting those points … hitting them at different times … or are they hitting them at the same times?

Do you see what I’m getting at here? If you’re juggling a story with multiple viewpoiuts, something that you’re going to have to watch very carefully where each and every character is in your timeline of events … and then make sure that the reader knows this information as well. Because if you’re switching between perspectives, it can be very easy to lose track of what moment it is, especially during a very intense sequence of events, and that can throw the reader off if they’re not clued in as to the timeline.

Let’s take look at two of the more common ways this generally comes up. Let’s assume we’re reading a book with big action scene … oh, let’s call it Ragnarok, since we’ll be assigning letters to the characters. So, action scene Ragnarok, and it involves … a space station coming down while the characters have a battle atop it. Three characters, three chapters; one for each of them.

So, how can we approach this? Well, I can see a few ways. The first, and simplest, is to present each chapter and viewpoint as a chunk of the battle. So character A gets the first third of Ragnarok, character B gets the second third, and character C gets the last bit. In this manner, the timeline stays solid, and the reader just follows along.Fairly simple, right?

Well, not quite. There is something we could do to make it a little easier for the reader. If they jump from on perspective to another, there may still be a little disorientation, but it’ll pass as soon as they get a little bit into the chapter. Plenty of books have just done a straight cut like this and been fine.

But what if that’s not what we need to do? What if we have a situation like the end of—and here’s my plug for the day—Colony, where the main cast have split up, and there’s a lot going on, and so the story jumps in the timeline to cover everything (and judging by the sheer number of five-star reviews, Colony pulled it off without flaw). So we have character A going through story points … random numbers here … 55-76. Then, when the next chapter jumps to character B, their story picks up at event 63 and goes through 82. Then when the next chapter boomerangs back to character A, they start at event 79 …

See how that could be confusing to the reader? Reading an action-packed climax can be tricky enough sometimes without throwing timeline confusion into it … as long as it’s not done right. I’ll add that caveat right there, because done well, there’s no issue. Done poorly, however … well … you can guess.

Now, some of you might be asking “Well, why do the timeline confusion? Why not just go A-B-C etc? Straight on through?”

The answer is that sometimes that doesn’t work. Sometimes we’ve written a story where multiple things need to happen simultaneously, and we need to cover each of them. Once that happens. we then need to convey the timeline jumps accurately to our reader … or they might be left feeling very confused.

Now, I’ve seen several different ways to remedy this. One of them, the first, is … passable. It often doesn’t work the best, but only just enough that no one puts the book down. Usually. The other works fairly well. Then there’s the last, which I prefer in my own writing, and seems to be the best. Of the three, only the first is actually something that can go horribly wrong even when done right.

The first? It’s when the author just charges ahead and jumps around. That’s it. They just jump. Leave it to the reader to figure out what happened.

Is this bad? Yes, I would argue so. Especially if the story hasn’t jumped around up until that point. I’ve seen books that do this, and it always serves to be a bit disorienting when a story that has been linear for its entire run suddenly, without warning, starts kicking around the timeline in the last third. Especially with no explanation or indication that this has happened. It means that at the beginning of each chapter thereafter, I, the reader, have to spend a good page or so figuring out what is going on and when I am in the narrative.

So that doesn’t work great, and I’d recommend avoiding it. Now, what about solution two?

Solution two is a bit more comfortable for some authors, and I’ve seen many take this route: Just don’t skip around the timeline at all. Just don’t.

Surprisingly enough, this does work. As I said, plenty of authors do it. So there are important things happening concurrently? Have a character notice them all, or be on a radio … Sands, I’ve even seen some authors simply tell the reader, in the narrator or character’s voice, that “X event” happened.

I’ll admit, this is easier to do with a non-limited perspective or an omniscient narrator. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done from a limited perspective. And quite often … you’ll see writers taking this approach. These two important events in different places happen at the same time, but our protagonist only sees one of them? That’s what radio is for! Or magic, or later explanations, or …

You get the picture. Essentially, the narrative makes sure to point out that the other important event is happening concurrently with the one the reader is currently following, and this the timeline can stay straight.

So those are two approaches to getting around this issue. Now, what about this third approach? This one requires a bit more work, but it basically revolves around “fixed points” or “set-pieces” designed to catch the reader’s attention and serve as markers on the timeline.

Let’s use an example. Say we have character A going through a bunch of stuff, and then when we flip to character B’s perspective, we need to jump back in the timeline, to about halfway through the events of character A’s chapter. But we don’t want to confuse the reader, instead we want them to be able to pick up on the jump, so that they can reorient as quickly as possible to their new place on the timeline.

So we give them a defining moment, something distinct that the reader will remember, to stand out in their memory. Such as a slamming door. Say we’re writing a drama, and character’s A and B have a massive argument. From character A’s perspective, the argument happens, and then B walks out, slamming the door behind them with a resounding BANG, and then the rest of the chapter follows A stewing on everything. But, we also want to show B’s immediate reaction as well, and A can’t know that. So when we reach the next chapter, what do we do? We start in B’s perspective as that same door slams shut. Even better if there’s a line of shouted dialogue shared between the two bits of the moment.

Bam. Just like that, we’ve created a “marker” in our timeline, something distinct that our reader will recall, so that when we pop back to it later, their mind goes ‘Okay, this happened a half-hour ago in the book’s time, which means we’re a half-hour back …”

These markers can really be anything as long as they’re distinct enough for the reader to fixate on as a clear point in the timeline of the story. Making them significant to the story certainly helps with that. For example, in Colony, at one point a chapter ends with a character dropping off another at a port. From there, there’s a chapter following that character from that point on … and then the story jumps back to the other character just after he’s made the drop-off. The drop-off makes for a good “marker” for readers to follow.

Personally, if you’re going to jump around in time at all, I find that establishing markers like this are vital to keeping a reader firmly on track. These markers serve as guideposts, helping the readers connect their own mental dots for where they reside in the overall momentum of the story. It does take a bit of work—you’ll want your marker to be something that’s both significant to the story in some way as well as memorable—but the ultimate payoff is, I feel, worth the effort, especially when you end up needing to resolve a tangled, complicated course of events.

Again, if this sounds like too much work, then there’s always option two. Or if you want to aim at something quick and dirty, option one is always doable. It’s not the best, but as I mentioned I’ve read plenty of books that just let the reader be flummoxed for a few pages, and those still get published.

The real takeaway from this is that it’s not enough to simply write out a complicated story and expect our reader to follow along. If we’re going into any form of plot that remotely resembles a spiderweb, complete with timeline trickery, we want our reader to know at the start of each chapter where they are and when. And this doesn’t just mean managing the timeline so all the kinks are worked out of it on our end, but on the end of our reader’s as well.

Sound hard? Well, maybe not on its own, but once you throw in proper pacing, show versus tell, character development, chekov’s guns … etc, etc, basically, all the other stuff that needs to be managed, it can all be quite a handful. Once again, writing is a lot of work.

But it’s what we’ve signed up for.

So, manage the presentation of your timeline alongside the timeline itself. Don’t let your reader get lost in whatever sequence of events you present. Keep things straight, or give your readers markers to orient by.

Don’t let your reader get lost.

Good luck. Now get writing.

2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Time(line) Management

  1. Having a solid timeline also helps out in a more linear way just for plotting out a story to make sure everything happens more or less when it should. I worked on a story where I ended up having to look up the mph speed for a particular vehicle to work out the timing of when things would happen and where over the course of the 2-3 days of the story. Also helped me arrange the specific order of events and where scene cuts should go.


  2. There’s another method, though not one I’d personally recommend.

    You can make (all of, for consistency) your chapter titles or headers contain a date and time.


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