How to strategically edit for timeline inconsistencies (#IWSG blog hop)

How to strategically edit for timeline inconsistencies

I write crime fiction, so there are often references to when the crime occurred in relation to when in the story the discussion about the crime is taking place. “The girl with the blue hair, I saw her four days ago in the alley behind the curling club,” for example. In one traditionally published book I DNR’d, the story, which was being told chronologically, accidentally moved from Sunday night to Sunday morning, so you can see why it’s important to catch timeline inconsistencies.

For my last two books, I’ve taken a strategic approach to editing for timeline inconsistencies, and in doing so, have each time found passages where I, for instance, miscalculated someone’s age in a given year, or, when referring to an event that happened earlier in the story, wrote the wrong day.

If you plot every time-related detail before typing a word, or if your story is completely linear with rare references to past events, then you probably don’t need to do this or something like this, but for those authors whose timelines are making their heads spin, here’s my two-step, no-software-required process.

Step 1: During one of my full revisions, I choose a digital highlight color and consistently highlight all passages that relate to time (age, day of week or other time markers, passage of time, etc.) It can be a waste of time to do this if you anticipate major structural changes ahead, so you may want to wait until you’re a couple of drafts in. It becomes second-nature after a bit, the highlighting; easy-peasy.

How to strategically edit for timeline inconsistenciesStep 2: I get myself an oversized piece of paper, and I mean big. You could use the back of a desk-calendar tear-off or splurge on a large piece of bristol/poster board or take six regular-size sheets of office paper and seam them together with tape on one side only. You’ll be writing in pencil, so have a good eraser handy as well. Draw as many lines across the length of the paper as you have timelines. I draw two, one for the present-day timeline and one for events that happened before the story started. Now start at the beginning of your story, and add every highlight to your paper timeline along with the scene in which the mention occurs. As you go through this process, look for and iron out all the timeline inconsistencies. Keep your timeline FOREVER, because you’ll need to refer to it at all stages of editing.

At which stage of your revision process do you take a close look at your timeline? Do you use software for this or a pen-and-paper solution similar to mine? Chat with me in the comments!

I wrote this post for the monthly Insecure Writers Support Group blog hop. To continue hopping or to join the hop, click here. (There are more than 200 of us, and it’s fun!)

129 thoughts on “How to strategically edit for timeline inconsistencies (#IWSG blog hop)

  1. Scrivener. Hands down. Scene by scene index cards if you want to look at a bulletin board, in order chapter/scene down the side if you want, full screen no distraction if you want, split screen, global search, search replace, highlight/find/note flyout. I am not a shill, nor do they give me swag, software, or coffee cups. But if you write anything longer than a book report, Scrivener. not very steep learning curve, output to any format you might need to test (locked or unlocked formatting). Front matter, TOC (linkable), headers, footers, even silly chapter art if you want. You might still knock out a scratch thought in Word on your phone or by hand but when it comes to visualizing your work it’s the DAW of writing. Drag and drop, shift things around, running word count and word count by scene. I found out the accent mark I used on someone’s name was going the wrong way for the pronunciation – Three clicks later and it was done. Don’ t like a character’s name? Bam. Oh, name generator? Covered. Dictionary? Yes and import. I got Scrivener several years ago and now I only print to find the clams I’ll miss onscreen.

    What? Around $30? And they run a sale on the ramp up to NANO? If you aren’t using it it’s your own time. But still…Like I said, I get nothing from them but an excellent product for productivity at a fair price. And these days, like editors, that’s a rare find.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Like with a DAW, in creative mode I’m in the scene I’m in. In construction mode I back out to song view and I see how they all relate. (or don’t!) But then I used to use fountain pens because I thought it made me more cognizant and all it really did was turn the heel of my hand black!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The wall, yes! I do this too! Fine tuning the timeline is very nearly the final edit. (The craziest timeline I worked on was a time travel story. I vowed never to write another.) Thanks for another great post, Raimey!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, Raimey! I’m on the 15th (and final) book of a series and had to go back through ALL of them to get that timeline together – something I should have been doing the second I realized a series was in the making. What a difference a day makes to eagle-eyed readers. Thanks for the highlighting suggestion which I WILL employee . . . and for being co-host this month!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I also write about murder and crime, so the time line is super important. I use paper and pen to plot out each day of the book. Oversized calendars work well too! Thanks for co-hosting!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is great advice! I noticed a comment above about using Scrivener. Although I enjoy Scrivener – especially the corkboard! – I still like paper-in-hand kind of tracking. Plus, I never can seem to export correctly in Scrivener. Highlighting timelines and then spreading them out in order is a perfect way to find any mistakes.

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  6. Oh, I love this. It could also work for other genres too, like to point out characters that meet and fall into powerful everlasting love in the dspace of three days! Or in a historical novel to account for slow travel times for news, etc. Thanks for the tip!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great idea Raimey. When I wrote a fantasy series that not only had multiple pov characters doing different things in different parts of the world I actually printed off four years’ worth of calendars to keep track of the whole mess. Travel times by sea and land had to be figured in. AND I was keeping track of moon phases. It was insane, but it worked. 🙂

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  8. I’ve enjoyed reading this discussion, including the Scrivener comment. Would it be possible to post an photo of showing a timeline entry? “…add every highlight to your paper timeline along with the scene in which the mention… ” I’m struggling to visualize all the entries on the timeline. Thanks Raimey for this post and being this month’s IWSG co-host.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Lynn! I’m a little wary of posting my own timelines, because they’re for novels I haven’t published yet, so maybe I’ll just try to describe it a little better if that’s okay? Let’s say your past timeline for your novel is set over one week. In that case, you would draw a line on a large piece of paper and put the dates or days of the week, and every time there is a mention of something having happened in the past, you would make a note on the correct day of the week and in parentheses, indicate the scene the reference was made in. It might be something you have to sit down and try, because every novel is going to have different requirements for what type of timeline needs to be drawn, how many timelines, etc.

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  9. Great tips. Especially when you’re writing a series, it’s sometimes hard to keep track of details. There are times I’m editing and discover something that COMPLETELY contradicts something from one of the other books. Aggravating!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m a pantser so timeline issues there are likely to be. In the piece I’m currently co-writing, we started out with the paper solution, but it became unweildy and couldn’t be shared across our separate households, so we’ve now gone with Scrivener – as Phil Huston recommended above. Of course, it has other benefits – not least of which is allowing us to share the manuscript. Hoping it does the job as well as the old paper and pencil solution!

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  11. Given that I write about time travel, I should probably do something like this. I mean, at some point I’ll have to deal not only with timelines in different eras, but also timelines that got erased because of people meddling with history. But for now, I’m just handling this one story at a time. I don’t really know enough about all these timelines to really plan them out in detail yet.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. To keep an accurate track of time in my stories, I create timelines that include both real-life historical milestones, as well as major happenings for the characters in my novel. I also keep a chart that shows the age of various characters at different points in the plot. The whole process is pretty low-tech, but it works for me.

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  13. Thanks for co-hosting this month. As a bookworm, I never gave much thought to how authors keep track of their times and characters. I know my friend Toi writes outlines and timelines all the time. It’s cool to learn about a different process. Nice post.

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  14. Most of the stuff I write takes place over a very short period of time (like a few days) so thus far this hasn’t been an issue. I’m also generally vague about character ages and dates so I don’t need to worry about it. But I know one of these days this is going to come back to bite me

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  15. Because I quite often change the order of events I’m quite good at messing up timelines and ending up with three Wednesdays in a week and the like. Once noticed such errors seem obvious, but they can be very tricky to spot.

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  16. Excellent idea! I’m very visual and need to see the big picture on a BIG piece of paper. Same way with maps. The computer screen just isn’t big enough for me. I’m already having issues with my time line (something on page 154 doesn’t jive with something on page 29) but instead of trying to fix anything in the first draft, I’m just bolding the reference or line for later editing.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I had to do major timeline revisions, but that was due to events not working across multiple POVs. Man was that a pain in the rear! But I finally got it all worked out.

    I read on another blog’s comment log that you’re ill. I hope you get better soon!!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I do the same thing but in a Word doc. I either keep a timeline of events with dates and notes in list form, or I turn the text sideways and make notes along an actual timeline. I also keep a character document with names, ages, parentage, birth dates, etc., that I can refer back to if needed. That became particularly important when I wrote characters with slowed aging – I had to keep up with both their physical age AND their chronological age.

    In my current series, I’m doing companion novels that don’t overlap much, usually only one scene, if that. It’s much easier than writing true sequels.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Great idea! I had one story where I made a major plot change and I completely messed up the timelines! Ended up with a rewrite instead of a revision because it changed everything!!!

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  20. I write down a timeline for all my novels and I’ve found many mistakes when I edit the first draft of everything. Usually, my novels span months or weeks but not years. Sometimes I draw a timeline and mark it up as I go.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. I more or less work linear, but do what you do and highlight references to time for later checking. With books going days at a time, I’ll do a day by day timeline in spreadsheet, with each character being where on which day. If I do that as I go I sometimes serendipitously have them all arriving at the same place on the same day, which can make for wonderful crossing-over scenes!
    It’s also important if you have a werewolf in your plot to have 28 day full moons!
    But where large passages of time are involved, I’ll do them in hope and check them later. Possibly too much later, as I found in my scifi books. But then I can always alter the speed the spaceships are travelling at lol

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  22. I’ve always tried to be very careful maintaining consistency in my stories. But I tend to keep up with things as I go. Your method seems very meticulous with good potential results.

    Thanks for co-hosting.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Doreen! Try as I might, I can’t find your blog listed on the IWSG site. If you get this comment, I recommend linking your Gravatar (that little icon of you that shows up in my comments) to your website so I can find you. 🙂

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