Three Easy Ways You've Never Thought of to Keep Track of Time in Your Novel

Three Easy Ways You’ve Never Thought of to Keep Track of Time in Your Novel

Do you know, without looking, how much time your novel covers?

If the question has just pushed you into the predicament of either scrunching up your face or staring at the ceiling in an effort to tally up your various scenes and arrive a reasonable figure of days, then the answer is probably an unqualified, “Err… no.”

Surprisingly enough, the timeline is a facet of storytelling that is often overlooked. I overlooked it myself for years, until I happened to read an anecdote in a magazine article, in which the author mentioned he had once written a story with an eight-day week.

Whoops.

Whenever I’m caught up in the grand whirl of plotting tragedies and travesties galore, I find it much too easy to get carried away and stop keeping track of time (in more ways than one). When writing A Man Called Outlaw, which features a dual timeline, I remember leaning back in my chair on numerous occasions and counting on my fingers, trying to remember on which day of the week a certain event was supposed to have taken place. It could get frustrating to say the least.

Dreamlander NIEA FinalistMy portal fantasy Dreamlander, features a timeline with its own particular challenges: namely, my hero’s existence in two parallel worlds, ergo his having to live each day twice—once in each world. In the early stages of the outlining process, it became clear to me that I would need to take steps to organize my timeline, lest I lose all control and find my characters struggling through their own spate of eight-day weeks—or worse. Following three easy ways to keep track of time in your novel.

Step #1: Control Your Story’s Timeline

Generally speaking, the less time a novel covers, the more suspense and intensity the events therein will project. For instance, let’s say you need your hero to save the world. If you fail to put a time limit on that saving, then despite the grandiose scale of the hero’s task, the lack of a time crunch is going to translate to a lack of suspense. On the other hand, if you give him only thirty minutes to accomplish the impossible, his every action takes on new meaning.

Shortening the timeline also has the added benefit of cutting unnecessary scenes. If the hero is rushing all over the world, trying to save the day, he’s probably not go have time to stop by Aunt Mary’s for a cup of tea and a chat about the neighbor’s new pit bull. But that’s a good thing, ’cause chances are, the reader isn’t going to be too interested in either Aunt Mary’s tea or the neighbor’s pit bull.

Step #2: Record Your Story’s Timeline

Using an old calendar (banks and other businesses often provide free calendars upon request), choose an appropriate month for your novel’s events and start blocking out days.

Unless your story covers several months and therefore provides the risk of your mixing up, not only the days, but the months also, it really isn’t important to match up the month in which in your story takes place with the correct page in the calendar. In most fiction, the actual dates won’t matter; however, if you’re writing historical fiction that does require adherence to certain dates—and therefore agreement between dates and days of the week—it’s wise to choose a calendar page that accommodates this. For example, when I was outlining a story that took place during the Battle of Britain in September 1940, I took care to pick a calendar page in which the first day of the month fell upon a Sunday.

In each appropriate calendar block, scribble a brief phrase pertaining to the main event of that day. Your notes might be only a word: Blitz; Church; Escape; Party, etc. The notes need not be extensive, since you can refer to your outline for more details whenever necessary.

Step #3: Calculate the Hours and Minutes in Your Story’s Timeline

For the most part, I’ve found the calendar trick entirely sufficient, but depending on your story and how quickly events transpire, you may need to plot your timeline even more extensively. In Dreamlander, the first few days in the story involve only one or two major events a day and didn’t require me to map out every hour and minute. However, as my characters and I delved further into the story and the events began spiraling faster and faster, I ran the risk of trying to make my characters accomplish more than was humanly possible in a single day.

This is where I discovered the value of using yWriter to calculate the hours and minutes in my story. At first glance, this sounds a bit obsessive, not to mention time-intensive. But, in a story that demands the author to know what his characters are doing at practically every moment of the day, yWriter’s helpful “Time” feature comes in handy.

yWriter Screenshot of Dreamlander by K.M. Weiland Showing Time Feature

As you can see, the program allows you record the exact time at which a scene takes place, as well as how long the scene is supposed to cover. This has been particularly useful in regard to various journeys my characters have been forced to undertake. yWriter’s Time feature forced me to maintain consistency, instead of running the risk of having the character ride from one city to another in two hours on one day and then ride back in just one hour the next day.

All three of these steps are easy, not to mention fun, and they go a long way toward organizing the sometimes unruly timeline of a fictional story.

Tell me your opinion: How do you keep track of time in your novel?

Three Easy Ways You've Never Thought of to Keep Track of Time in Your Novel

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Two weeks. That’s the time span in Ride. Two weeks . . . I think. Gotta lean back in my chair and count on my fingers.

    Hey, Dreamers Come sounds like a doozy! Can’t wait to read it, but I think I’ve told you that. And what’s The Rain Still Falls???? You’re holding out on me, girl.

    Good post, great tips!

  2. Thanks, Linda – as always.

    The Rain Still Falls is the project I hope to start work on next. Set against the backdrop of the Battle of Britain, it’s a story of mistaken identity, second chances, and choosing to dance even when the rain begins to fall.

  3. I am really confused by the fact that in my current project my character will have a 2 year training by a personal master and then 3 years in an academy.
    How to put that in a novel so it don’t feel like a drag and also doesn’t loose their significance.

  4. Managing and keeping track of time can be challenging; I once had a character go through a ten month pregnancy. Whoops indeed!

    I like your suggestions a lot. One MS takes place over a two week Christmas break (I will use the calendar method for this!) but when it comes to figuring time for my sci fi once the plot goes offworld, I admit to being a little sketchy on the details. Thanks for sharing!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Maintaining consistent timekeeping even in speculative fiction can go a long way toward helping us create a realistic-feeling world. Figuring out the calendar system of my fantasy worlds is always one of my first world-building steps (although I rarely stray far from real-world conventions).

  5. I create a calendar on an Excel spreadsheet and enter the various scenes, actions/reactions, internal thoughts, etc. in separate cells for each day. This allows me to structure the plot around dependent sequences as needed and avoid timeline errors that might go unnoticed. More importantly, the spreadsheet doubles as a generic outline, more like a timeline, where I can develop structure, set up future scenes, back-story, foreshadowing, etc. If a scene needs to be switched to fit the story, I can cut and paste. Gives me a fluid, interactive outline to follow.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s the great thing about a timeline: it really *is* an outline in disguise. If we go into enough depth with the timeline, we’ll end up with an outline without even trying.

    • Ray,
      Great tip- using an excel spreadsheet to track time and, bonus, a basic outline as well.
      Thanks much,
      A

  6. My story involves a cross country road trip so I’m keeping track of time and distance. It was overwhelming at first but I ultimately ended up using Google Maps to plot their route and their various stops. The estimated drive time feature helps me keep the timeline consistent so I can maintain a chronology that is realistic. It’s definitely been a challenge though.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Google Maps is a life saver. I use it all the time, even for historical fiction.

  7. I just use the “Notes” panel in Scrivener, where I make a tab for “Timeline.” It’s not fancy, just the day and what chapters it covers. If I ever write something that covers months or years, I might use Microsoft Project, which is just a Gannt Chart. Yes, I’m an engineer by day and love nerdy tools.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s what I’ve been doing too, now that I’ve switched over to Scrivener. The Time feature is the one thing I really miss from yWriter, but it’s not hard to just add the necessary info in one of Scrivener’s many notekeeping boxes.

  8. My first novella, Ravencroft Springs, covers about one month. There are 11 days covered in the story, and I wrote each as a separate chapter, each in one sitting. The last two chapters are before and after midnight, though that’s not explicitly stated.

    The method worked really well for me, allowing me to see the end of the project from the very beginning.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Most of my stories will technically cover a month or two, with the main bulk of the action only comprising a couple weeks. There’s usually some breathing space in between the climax and the resolution.

  9. thomas h cullen says

    Katie, you really are adept at communication: I say so because it’s harder than many would perhaps presume. It’s one thing, speaking one’s mind understandably – another entirely to write it.

    Unfortunately, for me, the answer to that question is void; as exceedingly magnificent a story situation it is (one, so self-fulfilling, I’m content never to write anymore fiction), The Representative doesn’t in this regard in fact stand up to reasonable scrutiny:

    In its own internal reality, the issue of time has to be overlooked – otherwise, as I’m sure you’d comprehend, the whole proceeding of the narrative itself becomes defunct.

    When writing TR, it had to be my own experience to just ‘regrettably’ ignore the issue of time – which the story did massively deserve however.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Most stories don’t bear up well under a lack of timeline, but there are always exceptions.

  10. Brigitta M says

    Six days for my novel “Visions of Ashes.” Technically, it starts on a Tuesday and ends on a Sunday and while only I know that (it’s not really important for the novel), originally I had started it on a Wednesday but there were certain things that needed to happen at home when the MMC was at work and I needed an extra day for it. The day the novel ends isn’t as important because the MMC ends up at the hospital but thinking in terms of workweek helped as well in this case because it helped keep track of external influences and what would be open in a small town during certain days.

    That’s another, minorly obsessive thing I do. I’ll write the days and hours a local shop is open, because, well that’s how small towns work and, it’s fun having a character who is new to the town decide she needs to go somewhere on, say, a Wednesday, only to discover that it’s closed. Alternatively, being pleased that it’s opened.

    As far as keeping track of time, that’s pretty much “finger counting” as it relates to breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as other activities my characters have done. So far, it’s a pretty loosey-goosey system as far as that goes, but if I need a tighter timeline (which I may find out in later drafts of VofA) I’ll probably resort to taking a page out of a planner or filofax for that purpose.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Even though days of the week may not matter on the surface of a novel, I always like to pay attention. Adding in the different activities of a weekend helps plump up the verisimilitude of the story world.

  11. I was keeping track in my head, but now I’m making notes in Scrivener. My book covers several months, and my short story a few weeks. When I started bouncing back and forth between the two projects, I had to make notes!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      One story can be confusing enough! It gets really complicated when we’re trying to juggle two or more. :p

  12. There are places online where you can get the month/year calendar of the exact year you want for free. I did this for my historical novel, so I could know what day of the week things fell on, as well as how long the timeline was.

  13. Michelle says

    Hi. Wow, I never really considered the importance of writing a timeline, I’ve done very vague ones for backstory, but nothing that involved the actual events in the story. I will definitely be keeping this in mind as I write. Also, I just recently got yWriter, and though I’ve only worked with it a little, I look forward to figuring out more of the ins and outs of it. Thanks for the tips, I greatly appreciate them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      yWriter is a hugely useful tool. I’ve recently switched over to Scrivener (which isn’t free) in its place, but I used yWriter for years and absolutely loved it.

  14. This is an excellent piece of advice, and it’s a concept I’ve never considered until now. But you’re right, time IS important in a story, and the idea of using time as an outlining device is infinitely helpful! I’ve just downloaded yWriter and I love it already! I’ve tried various writing programs in the past and none have included chronology in their arsenal of tools. I think keeping time is just what I needed to help me develop my plot. Thank you so much!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I recently switched from yWriter to Scrivener, and the time function is the one major thing I miss.

    • thomas h cullen says

      In relation to the main plot, time in The Representative doesn’t hold up in fact……which is what definitively identifies it a fantasy.

  15. As I do all my writing from my Mac, I use Aeon Timeline (not free) to keep track of my story-times, no pun. Though it can also be used for Windows, I’ve kept it to my Mac since it’s where all my imagination seems to come alive, it works wonders.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve heard really great things about Aeon. I’m going to have to check it out one of these days!

  16. Thank you for the helpful posting and also to everyone who commented with their suggestions as well. I’m writing a middle grade mystery that takes place over seven days. I finally wrapped my brain around the timeline, I’m having difficulty with how to indicate different scenes taking place the same day. Now I know where the phrase “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…” comes from!
    ; )

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah, “meanwhile back at the ranch” is always an appropriate scene changer. 😉

  17. The characters I write about are teachers so the story tracks through a school year. Super helpful.

  18. I’m writing a Time Travel novel, so it starts in 2006 moves backwards and forwards between 21st century and 19th century (1839 to 1845) up to 2015, then shoots up to 2425 then back to 2015
    For historic calendars I use: http://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/?year=1860&country=9
    During the drafts I write actual dates at paragraph and chapter breaks in BOLD RED text highlighted in YELLOW to help me keep track. These are to be taken out for final version

  19. I’m not a writer myself, but I help my writer-husband with this sort of admin to help him concentrate on the creative stuff. In addition to the good suggestions already made, I’ve used Timeline (http://thetimelineproj.sourceforge.net/). You can set things at a specific date (and time if you want), a date range, mark them “fuzzy” when it’s approximate, create categories (different colors for different characters, for example), and add notes and links, just as a few options. You can zoom in for details, or zoom out for longer periods. And, it’s free :-). The interface takes a little getting used to, but once I got the hang of it I’ve found it useful for other things besides tracking the stories he’s writing (like tricky sections of genealogy research).

    I have no connection to the people who made it, it’s just something I’ve found useful.

  20. My next novel “political secret” takes place over a fortnight. Timing? I relied on my 72 yr old memory. Woops. That got me in trouble. After the second draft I went through and made a summary record of what was in each scene, as written. I could then see how I had to re-organise scenes to fit the timeline.

  21. CaSaundra says

    You are most certainly right about keeping track of time. While working in a story I realized that a dead woman was coordinating a wedding event which is totally impossible.

  22. Thanks for this article! I came across it on pinterest. I have to keep very close track of time in one of my novels because a) I created an entirely different time system because it’s a different solar system and b) my character counts time down to the second. I’ll try to use some of these tips. I really wish yWrite would work for me because it seems very handy, especially with quick thinking and fast acting characters like mine. I’m going to print a calender for my world and use it like you suggested. Thanks again!

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  1. […] we write, we have to juggle myriad elements. K .M. Weiland lists 3 tips for tracking time in your novel, James Scott Bell gives us 7 tools of dialogue, and Joe Bunting tells us why our writing sounds […]

  2. […] aucune erreur ne passera aperçue ! Vous gagnerez également du temps dans votre travail. (Source : Helping Writers Become Authors ; Crédit photo : Globe […]

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