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. Great tips, Raimey! So much to keep track of, especially in fiction books. As a reader, I would be annoyed if the timeline got messed up, so creating ways to avoid it as a writer sure helps. I’m a non-fiction writer, so most of my story is chronologically, with some flashbacks and foreshadowing. Definitely easier to stick to my timeline! Thanks for co-hosting this month!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Raimey. Thank you for co-hosting. I’m on the cusp of starting the outline for a sequel. I suspect that while writing about book I events in book II, I’ll need to be vigilant in accuracy of a lot of details. Developing a technique such as you’ve described is going to be a time saver, maybe even my sanity 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Solid tips Raimey. Shouted it out on Twitter and must apologise for being late with my post. It’s live now, but terribly late!

    Any tips that save time are very much appreciated too. Especially with events that dip in and out of time sequences. Might have to borrow these ideas 😊

    Liked by 1 person

      1. My pleasure Raimey. I really must do it more often. Well, comment that is, as I do get time to read your posts now and then. I need to get a better routine though to make sure I’m more active engaging.

        The apology was a necessary courtesy too. A month and I still end up late! Really ought to apply the logic in my post 😂😂


  4. Great post. The most frustrating occurrence of this for me is in a book that my agent is currently shopping around. Before the agent, this book had gone through many drafts and many submissions. The protagonist and her friend went to high school in the ’80s, and the friend vanished before graduation.

    As an adult, the protagonist returns to her hometown to investigate what happened to her friend. Every time another year rolls by and the book remains unpublished, I have to change the timelines to make them add up. I’ve also had to add smartphones and other technology that wasn’t even a thing when I wrote the first draft.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great tips. Sounds like a lot but as a reader I appreciate it. Along with the character’s name changing halfway in the story, inconsistencies in the timeline can bring me out of the story as well. Then I get a bit obsessive for a bit on what event really occurred when.
    Thanks for sharing and co-hosting this month!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is great! I usually keep notes in a notebook about the time/place/date each chapter is taking place in — it really helps with those small gremlins that pop up from time-to-time.

    Liked by 1 person

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