Timelining Your Novel

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Bury Your Flame by La Dispute)

Hello everyone,

As you know if you’ve been reading along, I’ve been working hard on the second draft of my manuscript – rewriting chapters, cutting entire chunks out, and overall doing that macroscopic editing that, when finished, makes your book feel like a Frankenstein’s monster of thrown-together chapters and scenes.

A few days ago, I was trying to total all chapters from a given character’s perspective, and my stupid Google Doc was loading too slowly (probably because it was over 80 pages, lol).

All of a sudden, inspiration struck me.

Yeah, you know the punchline if you read the title, and you’re probably rolling your eyes like “Seriously? How did you not think of this before?”

All I can say in answer is… I’m stupid, y’all. You should know this by now.

But anyway, I grabbed a few pieces of paper and taped them to the back wall of my apartment (thereby confusing my roommates, who have long known not to ask when I do something weird like this).

I first considered what exactly I wanted to know, and I developed a few key questions in mind:

  1. How many chapters are from each of the three main character’s perspectives?
  2. How many moments of tangible character development (through revelation of backstory or dramatic choice in-the-moment) are there for each character?
  3. What is the spacing between those moments of character development?
  4. How many chapters of the total work advance the plot forward in some way?
  5. What is the spacing between those chapters of plot advancement?

Based on these questions, I drew up four horizontal “timelines” running the course of the book – one for each of the three major characters, and one for the story or plot. Vertically, I divided the paper into the sixteen chapters of the book, plus the prologue and the epilogue as start and end points.

Under “plot” for each chapter, I wrote out a short synopsis of the plot of that chapter, and then I marked with stars the chapters that moved the main storyline forward. It turns out that, in sixteen chapters, only eight of them moved the main story forward – and that was a great place for me to consider whether I was comfortable with that relative level of inaction, or whether I wanted almost every chapter to push the story forward.

(In case you’re wondering, I ended up siding with a slower-moving plot – I’ve already condensed the novel from 120,000 words down to 50,000 and I think any more cutting of worldbuilding or subplot scenes will make the whole thing seem confusing and rushed.)

After I finished the “plot” section, I moved to each of the main characters. If they didn’t get any development in a chapter, I drew a straight line through that chapter. If they got a little bit of development, but not enough to be considered a major character moment, I wrote that. But if they did get a moment, I wrote a short synopsis of what happened and put a star.

When I looked at the whole thing, I was able to see which character got the most stars, indicating the most development (which was interesting, because it was the last one I expected), as well as how frequently characters received major developments in their arcs, letting me know when a character was having a “dry period”.

I also circled, for each chapter, whose viewpoint the chapter was from, so I could see who received the most power over narration. (Again, it was the last character I expected.)

Finally, on a whim, I put arrows on the “plot” line indicating chapters that flowed directly into other chapters (as in the scene at the end of Chapter A is directly preceding the first scene of Chapter B), to determine if there were a lot of time-skips in the book, or if most things flowed well together.

When I looked back at everything, I was pleased – the moments of character development were well-spaced out and relatively equal between the three major characters, and the plotline followed a relatively snappy pace, with a lot of chapters ending on cliffhangers that flowed directly into the next chapter (giving the work that “can’t be put down” quality).

I was able to notice dry spells and analyze whether I wanted to add in new events, but the real benefit was in being able to visualize the whole novel as this series of timelines, some moving forward at some points, and others moving forward at others.

The best part of the whole thing? I could see that my attempts to make each chapter of the second draft contain multiple important moments was working. When I looked at each chapter’s column, I saw at least two stars for every single chapter – meaning in every chapter at least two characters are having major moments of development, or the plot is developing as a character makes a major decision. Tighter writing: accomplished.

If you’re having difficulty seeing where you might make improvements on your draft 2 of your project, I would suggest timelining it (I’m unsure if this is the same thing as storyboarding, but I don’t think it is, so I apologize if I’m wrong). You’ll be able to see all parts of your novel and develop your own criteria for what you want to see – and then you’ll be able to point out chapters and scenes that don’t contribute to what’s important to you.

Until next time, I’m your anchor, Reed R. Buck, saying good night – and may your muse puke creativity onto your page.

Yours, wishing the world a hug,

-R.R. Buck

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