Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, timelines are essential. Whether your story spans a day, a week, a year, or a hundred years, a timeline will help you:

                • keep track of what your characters are doing,
                • help you include only events that are relevant to the plot,
                • remind you of key events you want to include,
                • identify where to include backstory or flashbacks,
                • show you if you have the right balance and/or proportion of subplots to the main story,
                • tell you the age of your characters at any particular time,
                • show you the balance of interactions between two or more characters, and many more vital bits of information.

A timeline is the ‘when’ of a story, but it can be so much more as well.

If you are writing a murder mystery or a detective story, you need a timeline to see when critical clues are to be introduced. A family saga? You need it to show the rise and fall and rise again of each member of the family. A war story? To keep track of when various battles occurred. A historical novel? To make sure you include events that occurred at particular times of history that will affect your characters.

There are many timeline software programs available, and I have tried a few, but none worked as successfully for my needs as plain old Excel. I’ve used it to create timelines for each of my novels, and find it simple to use and invaluable. Here is a very small sample of how I did it for The Yellow Papers:

  • Across the horizontal axis, I wrote down each main character’s name and, because my novel covered eighty odd years and a number of worldwide events would influence my characters, I added two extra columns labelled ‘World’ and ‘Other’.
  • On the vertical axis, I wrote in the first cell the year my novel stated [1887], then 1888 in the next cell, and 1889 in the one after. The beauty of Excel is that I was then able to highlight those three cells, and pull down the little cross so that it then automatically filled in all the years until my novel finished [1967]
  • Then in each of the characters’ column, I put in their age [using the same automatic fill function as above]
  • Using my plot, I then filled in events that related to each character, in their own column in the year it occurred.
  • In the ‘World’ column, I put in world event such as wars etc, that would have some impact on my characters.
  • The ‘Other’ column I used for ideas I came up with, bits of information I discovered whilst researching such as the change in fashions, major weather events such as floods or droughts and so on, quotes that inspired an idea, pages of books that had information I needed and so on.


The beauty of using Excel in this way is that I was able to see at a glance when nothing interesting happened [which helped me decide when to use a new chapter to indicate that years had passed], when there was an important incident I wanted to use that was surrounded with years of nothingness [which helped me decide which incidents were better as flashback or just having the character talk about it], how old a character was when a major event happened [eg: I had thought of having Edward join up in WWI, but the timeline showed me he’d be too young. Similarly, I realised that by the 1950s Chen Mu would be in his eighties, and that I had to have him die at some point around there.] In another word, it not only provided me with a wealth of information, but it also helped me structure my story.

So try creating a timeline for your story – if it spans only a day, have the twenty four hours down your vertical axis. If a month, days of the week for four weeks and so on. Then, using your plot and timeline, you’ll be able to structure your story effectively.  #writingtip  #novel  #timeline

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