Getting the timeline of a novel right can be a real challenge, and I doubt I’m the only one who struggles with it.
At the beginning of a book, I resolve to keep track of the timeline as I’m writing. That works out pretty well for the first three or four chapters, before much time has elapsed and not too many scenes have been written. Before I’m even aware, however, phrases denoting passage of time creep in. Phrases like, “a few days later,” “the following week,” “it rained off and on for several days,” etc., become problematic. Suddenly I’ve lost control.
What is a few days, exactly? Which day of the following week? And what the heck is “several?” Ultimately, of course, as the writer, it’s up to me to decide what these designations mean in my book.
And as soon as I begin revising—which for me happens early in the process—time can get even more off kilter. Adding or deleting scenes changes everything.
Many writers solve the problem by noting the day underneath the chapter number, or right after a time drop. I’ve noticed this more and more lately. I find, though, that when I’m really involved in a book I’m reading, I tend not to notice much about the passage of time. Provided the story is flowing along nicely, I assume the writer is staying on track.
Occasionally I scratch my head and say, “Huh?” All that happened in just one day? Or “Wow! Has a whole week gone by?” In the first instance, I’d say the writer has crammed too much action into one day; in the second, not enough.
If the timeline is really out of control, and making me crazy, I stop writing and begin going through the book page by page to list all my days/dates and make sure they match the action in the book. Here’s a quote from Chris Roerden’s book Don’t Murder Your Mystery:
For your own guidance, always make a calendar of the events taking place in your novel so that all times of day and days of the week make internal sense…When you revise your manuscript, double-check that every entry on your calendar has an actual counterpart in the story, and vice versa. Without such a guide, your use of time can make readers crazy.
Roerden’s book is an excellent guide to revising, no matter what genre you’re writing in. She has a new version of the book called Don’t Sabotage Your Submission, which she states on her web site is for all genres.
Most of the time I wait until I’ve finished a manuscript to make sure the calendar of my book makes sense. Because I’m a revise-as-you-go writer, this works best for me.
What works for you? How do you handle the timeline of a novel?