The Timeline: A Plot’s Unspoken Character

As readers, we come across a different timeline in each book we pick up. Some stories span just a day or two, others a weeks, and many longer. Because they’re well-crafted and edited by the time we get to see them, we take the element for granted and allow the author to take us however far he or she wishes to.

Coming from the world of a reader to that of a writer, I had a pretty lax view of my stories’ timelines. With my first few manuscripts, I didn’t plan out how long a span I wanted a plot to elapse, that I’d figure it out once I neared the end. Between scenes and chapters, I randomly chose how much time had passed since the last, and often, it was pretty fluid. I carried that through my next two, as it seemed to turn out perfectly fine.

I learned after finishing my second—which took place over a four year period—that my personal style wasn’t suited for a long-term storyline. Some authors pull it off very well, but the lack of structure made me lose my focus, and the end product showed it.

My biggest wake-up call, though, came when I worked with an editor on Husband in Hiding. The mystery followed tampering that was going on in the NBA, and in the first draft, the foul play began long before the playoffs began and lasted through the finals in June. Since the perpetrator’s motive appeared to be knocking the Orlando Magic out of contention, my editor thought it best to center the story around the playoffs, which go on for a long time as it is.

This led to my most difficult challenge to date, given I had to chop off more than a month of my plot; I once deleted 4,000 words with a single stroke. It hurt to watch my hard work vanish like that, but afterwards, I appreciated the value in it. Before, it dragged and was unrealistic, even if I didn’t realize it. Now, the stakes were high and it would keep the reader engaged, as opposed to wondering, “Why haven’t they caught this slow-poke yet?”

Looking back, I suppose I thought the longer it went on, the better. I felt like it somehow reflected my talent as a storyteller. I came to realize, however, that what makes a good storyteller isn’t how long he/she talks but it’s how he/she makes the tale interesting. No one’s entertained by hearing phrases like, “And then,” “The next day,” and “A week later,” time and again. Sure, every book—novels, especially—needs its fair share of transitions, but we never want our readers to see a book’s last page as long-overdue. It we’re tired of writing more filler, they’re probably tired of reading it.

Another factor that needs to be considered is your genre. Some call for a shorter timeline than others. For instance, I recently learned cozy mysteries showcase a week or less of a character’s life. Looking at it realistically, that makes sense. After all, one would expect a crime to be solved faster than a couple to fall in love.

All this said, it’s hard to plan out the exact timeline of a story from the beginning. You have to get a feel for the plot and characters first and go from there. Readers depend on authors to take them on a journey, whether it be a pleasant drive through the country or a wild safari. Wherever you choose to take yours, make it full of unforgettable scenery and figure out where’s the best place to conclude the adventure.


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