Time is such an enigmatic concept in a story.
A lifetime could last only a paragraph, and a week an entire book!
A timeline is every writer’s mind map.
How we use a timeline helps us make sense of both time (in the story) and the story itself.
In this article, we’ll define the term story timeline, and provide our best tips to help you create timelines that serve your story well.
What Is A Story Timeline?
A story timeline is essentially the arrangement of important events that occur in a story.
Every story has a beginning, middle, and end, but they don’t necessarily need to be told in that order.
We can choose the sequence of significant events that best grips the reader.
The arrangement of a timeline essentially occurs in three steps. Beats, stories, and plots.
A beat is a single event, as yet unconnected to the other events in the book.
A story is a collection of multiple beats presented in order.
A plot is the context that conveys why the beats belong together in the story, sequentially, if not chronologically.
How To Structure Your Story Timeline
Structuring your story timeline essentially gives you a sequential framework. There are four types of story timeline – linear, fractured, framed and real-time.
Linear Story Timeline
When story events are presented in the order they occur in, they create a linear story timeline. The story can contain a few flashbacks to provide some backstory, but the primary narrative is chronological.
The Harry Potter series by J K Rowling works with such a linear story timeline, with a few flashbacks that act as supporting information to the main story.
Fractured Story Timeline
When a non-linear timeline story is told with frequent back and forth between the past, present and/or future, it’s called a fractured timeline story. The beats of the story are not in the sequence they occur in.
Think the movie Memento. The ending of the movie is presented in colour at the beginning of the film, and the beginning of the movie is presented in black and white towards the ending of the film, with the complete story merging in the middle to make sense. This fractured story timeline helps the audience experience the protagonist, Leonard’s, memory loss.
Framed Story Timeline
When a story has one major flashback, with the narrator walking others through it, it’s called a framed story timeline. It’s a story within a story.
Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a classic example of such a narrative with the he-said-she-said nature of it adding to the gothic quality of the story arc.
Real-Time Story Timeline
A linear story with no breaks in terms of flashbacks or flashforwards can still be compelling. In fact, a real-time story is exciting because time in the story moves exactly as it does for the reader.
Take Scottish author Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series, for instance. The characters in his novel age with the publication dates. Inspector Rebus, who is said to have been born in 1947, retires at 60 years of age in the 2007 novel Exit Music.
How To Create Your Story Timeline
Creating a story timeline can help keep your story free of plot holes and give you a sense of direction whilst writing.
Here’s how you can create your story timeline:
- Age matters: Decide on the age of your characters and how old they’ll be when the story begins and ends. Knowing what portion of your character’s life you want to include is key whether you’re writing one novel, the first story in a series with separate timelines, or a multiple timeline narrative.
- Set it up: Zero in on a primary location for the beginning, middle and ending acts, unless, of course, it remains the same throughout. The setting of your story will induce the mood for both you and your readers.
- Inciting event: Knowing at which point in the three-act structure you want the inciting event to take place will help determine the overarching narrative flow.
- Character’s goals: What is the goal of your main character(s) and why? This not only dictates each character arc, but also the plot’s narrative arcs.
- Resolution: What is the event that your main characters are headed towards? The primary goal/obstacle is the whole point of your book, so deciding when and how to bring the resolution about is imperative.
How To Write A Multiple Timeline Story
When a story has two or more periods of time coming together, it’s called a multiple timeline story.
Kate Morton’s The Clockmaker’s Daughter is a good example of a narrative with more than one timeline.
If you’d like to attempt a story with two timelines or more, here’s how you can do it:
- Decide on your primary timeline. It should ideally take precedence over the additional timelines you’ve planned for. An 80/20, or at least a 70/30 split is a good idea. This will keep your reader focused on what’s important.
- Be clear about the story for each timeline. Your reader shouldn’t greatly prefer one timeline over the other. This is even more important if you’re writing a 50/50 split multiple timeline story.
- Map out the beats of the different timelines separately and sequentially. This way, you won’t mess up or mix up plots, and you can then connect the dots between, and/or converge, your beats.
- When and how do you want the multiple timelines to converge? Knowing your transition point is crucial when crafting the story arcs for multiple timelines. Look for the beats and characters that have the maximum impact in your story; those are the ones that lend well to the transition point.
Top Tips For Creating A Story Timeline
Here are some top tips for creating your own story timeline:
- Knowing which type of story timeline is the right one for you is crucial. The type of plot/overall narrative arc you’re aiming for will help you decide this.
- Make sure you have your three-act plot structure ready. This will help you flesh out your story.
- If you have multiple point-of-view narration, create a timeline for each character and ensure they fit in neatly for your transition point.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Do You Write A Timeline Story?
To write a timeline story you need a clear three-act structure which includes details about your protagonist’s age, your setting(s), and your key plot points.
What Are Time Markers In A Story?
A timeline is constructed based on the time markers of the story. Some of the time markers are the character’s age, the setting (e.g. season, time of day), duration of the story, and the three-act structure which dictates the story’s shape.
Creating Story Timelines
The past, present, and future don’t always come in chronological order when you’re weaving a tale. But they don’t have to get muddled up in our minds; they can be structured sequentially, if not chronologically.
Many writers find that creating a story timeline helps keep their plots clear, their character arcs solid, and their narrative structures strong.
No matter what writing stage you’re in, having clarity on your story timeline will help you stay on top of the game.
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