Monday, January 10, 2011

Timeline definition within novels: is it necessary?

If a time-leap is mere matter of days, weeks, a month even then it’s relatively easy to pass off by way of character interaction, momentary character thought, or within brief descriptive passage relating to time and date etc., though not in the manner of a train timetable. Bearing in mind we have unpubbed authors following as well as pubbed writers, I thought I'd put forth examples of what we're talking about!

Last sentence: example.

. . . She watched his flight take off, heart in stomach for she hadn’t told him, and wouldn’t until his return.

Next chapter:

Melinda had passed this way a dozen times over the past two weeks, always in a rush, head down against bitter east wind, snow underfoot, and not a flower in sight. Yet today, the wind had swung southerly. It was a glorious sunny morning. Ice crystals sparkled like diamonds and joy of joys snowdrops had emerged and gently ringing in the first week of February. Gosh, how time flew. Guy had been gone a month, and tomorrow his flight would touch down at Heathrow, and what then? 

Simple: if we’d read the previous chapter we’d know why Melinda is always in a hurry, we’d know it’s wintertime, but it would have been just after Christmas when Guy left. Now it’s February, and Guy (whomever) is due back after a month’s absence.  There’s even a hint of possible conflict brewing.  BTW: the above snippet is straight off the cuff.

When a timeline amounts to a year or more, and a novel spans almost six years, I go for a “sub-heading” to define year and place: as in my latest historical. These timelines are always at the beginning of a new chapter.

Axebury Hall Estate: 1644  - Axebury Hall Estate: 1646  - Glastonbury: 1647. Axebury Hall Estate: 1649. Huge leaps like these, I think, require a definite timeline.

The one thing that really annoys me when reading a novel is to find a quarter-way into a new chapter that a timeline has occurred and the story has moved on several months or a year and not a mention of such having happened.

…Harry hadn’t attended the funeral. Why?
…“Oh for pity’s sake, Amy. Why didn't you leave Xander with the nanny?”
…Mark zapped the window button. The stench of city smog and garbage filled the limo. He didn’t know which was worse. The smell permeating from Xander's backside or rank smell of stale fish.
…Why him, why did they have to be in this forsaken sector of the city?

Reading this I started thinking when did Amy give birth?  I went back over the previous chapter thinking I’d missed a page but no, not a mention of Amy and a baby! Where are they?  Grrr...

OK, so Amy was eight months pregnant in the previous chapter, yet there’s no explanation as to how old Xander is, yet Amy is a lead character. Then, five pages later it comes to light it’s Xander’s birthday. (How old?) No clue until page eight. Guess what, he’s two!  By Chapter three I discover they’re in Hong Kong. 

So what does every one else do when a timeline occurs?  Hope a reader grasps a descriptive prompt, afford vague reference, or leave them to puzzle it out?


  1. A little timeline is definitely helpful! I keep notes at the bottom of my Word document to help me keep track of things or have a separate Word document that I open and refer to it as I go. Right now I am writing a fairly complex time sequence where things are happening in the same time sequence from different points of view-- I don't want them to match exactly but I want there to be some similarities too so it's important to refer to the other work.

  2. Your last scenario (about Amy, Xander etc) is an example of the kind of thing that really annoys me too. Quantum leaps through time always make me wonder what has actually happened in the meantime!

  3. I hate random shifts where you have to go back a chapter and reread. The dreaded "telling" is required, at least a little, when there is a leap or you might end up like above, wondering when Amy went from being pregnant to having a baby of unknown age.

  4. Great examples, Francine. (I also love your pictures!)
    Isn't this where a beta reader becomes valuable, someone to identify what was missed or inadvertently edited out during intense writing?

  5. If someone left me to puzzle it out, I'd probably go stir crazy. I would prefer not to have much of time gaps for the story (a week to a month is fine), unless it is very crucial for me to follow a story over a period of years.. (Harry potter being the obvious exception).

    If something happened in the past that colours the present, I would prefer it be trickled in as a backstory rather than a time jump within the story. But that's just me.

    My stories have a POV shift or a chapter change for the time jumps, if any :)

  6. Ha! I loved your last example of how not to write a timeline -or rather, why you should write a timeline. Very tricky indeed.

    Your first example was perfectly executed btw. loved it too.

    I'm revising now and I need to make tweaks in the timeline so this is a very timely post! I wonder if I can your first example and extend it for a 3 or even 6 month gap? Would that work or is it too long to wander about the garden. Something I need to ponder. Thanks so much for sharing with us! x

  7. I feel as long as the reader is able to follow the skips in time, six months is not too long. It's all in the clarity of the writing, isn't it?

  8. If there's a reason why the main characters don't meet during a period of time, then I think it's quite feasible to have a long gap. But if they're still 'in contact', then I would wonder what happened between them in that gap.

  9. Great examples. I've read books like the one you describe where I go, "Wait a minute. When did THAT happen? Did I miss something?" A little hint is always nice.

  10. Thank you for this, I agree that is so annoying when the reader has to work hard on fathoming timing. I think one of the gifts of a good writer is when timing flows seelessly and the reader is simply carried along.
    There is a blog award for you over at mine,

  11. Hi Danette, JEFritz, Ju, Talei & Margo,

    Good to see you here and taking part in discussions.