Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Timelines and Plotting Your Novel

by Cindy K. Sproles @CindyDevoted

Timelines can be tough. I struggle with dates myself. Every writer has a weakness, and the key to becoming a truly proficient writer is to address the weaknesses and learn methods to help strengthen you. For me, it’s dates in a timeline. 

When publishers ask me for a timeline, I do my best to provide and then as editors begin to work through the novel, they’ll call my hand on a spot where the line isn’t clear. Thank goodness, I’ve never had them say, “This doesn’t work.” The hitch in my giddy-up is usually how many days have passed.

As I spent some time on my newest work, charting my timeline, I realized I never learned this at a conference. I can’t remember anyone ever addressing what this was or its value to my novel, so today, we’re going to touch on my weakness, nemesis—the timeline in a two-part post.

You know that life is not a straight line. Point A doesn’t always lead to Point B. It may jump to Point C. Things happen, and the cause and effect of those things brings about more events—rabbit trails. In the writer’s head, these things happen progressively, and we get it. But sometimes, this causes us to forget the reader. We may write an event, then in the next scene, forget to show the effect or timeframe of the event, and leave our reader asking, “But what about…” When we see cause and effect, suddenly, we see how important it is to tie things together. And this is what a timeline does. It helps us to see twists, story progression, and even character patterns.

So, how does that mumbo jumbo help you with a timeline? 

Think of it like this: A timeline suggests the past, present, and future in our story. Plotting along our timeline helps us see our beginning, middle, and our desired end. The timeframe helps us maintain that every day that passes matches the times we said they would. If little Johnny is ten when his mother dies, we must use our timeline to maintain that throughout the story. We don’t have him on a family trip enjoying Mom if she is supposed to be in the hospital dying.

Here are a few things to help you create a good timeline for your novel. 

I suggest you keep a notebook next to your computer and jot down the primary points your story needs to develop a good timeline. As you add these things to your story, write them down. You should be able to follow time, incidents, and resolutions by the time you reach the end of your story. Everything should tie together because you’ve listed them, answered any questions, and closed any gaps your reader may have.

Age: Readers need to know how old our characters are when the story steps off and where our characters are at the end. Did our protagonist begin her journey as a teen and complete it in her thirties, or was it only months from beginning to end? Readers need to see exactly where our characters are age-wise. This helps with the believability of the story. 

Inciting moment: I once sat in a class by master novelist and plotter James Scott Bell where I first heard the words, inciting moment or incident. His best explanation still hangs on my computer. It was a question. Why does this story start? Not where or how, but why? What is the one incident that tips our protagonist over the edge and forces them to begin their journey or adventure? Write it down. 

The WHERE: This is hard for us because we assume our readers magically know where our characters stand in the story as it begins, but they don’t. They need a hint. The where is not necessarily location, like a house or a city (though we need this too), but it’s the moment in their life when this story begins. Not backstory. We don’t need a full historical account of how our character got to this point. We only need where they are emotionally. That explosive internal emotion which gives them the courage to change their circumstances. The rest will follow. This is why our first chapter, first paragraph, and first page are vital. If we can draw our readers in with minimal telling but show the emotional state of our character, then they are hooked. They should ask the question: What on earth is going on here?

My eyes focused as best they could. “Stately!” I shouted. “Stately!” In our fifty-some years together, I hardly ever caught the man sittin’ still. Something was wrong. My breath hung.

This first line shows fear and a hint of the character’s age. This shows us our character is—fearful and scared, and it begins to tell us that something is about to force a change in this character's life. Our readers now see the beginning of our timeline and where this story begins in the life of our character.

Story goals: What are your goals for your protagonist? Will they make a life-changing decision and work through a maze of trials to find the answer to their why? What are the goals for your character in this story, and what would you have them successfully complete by the end? Questions are the key here. Ask them. Write them down and answer them. You need them to move your story correctly through time.

Secondary Characters: Who are those secondary characters who play a major role in the life of your protagonist, and what are their motives? Are their motives to be a support, or do they have ulterior motives that cause issues? Be sure and write these down and track them through your writing. Are these characters meeting the expectations you placed on them? Are they accomplishing your goal for their motives? As you write your protagonist’s road, these side stories, or secondary plotlines, must continue to follow the timeline our character is in. In other words, Sally (our protagonist) must find her sister by the end of the story, and Joe, her friend, doesn’t want Sally to find the sister because… As Sally works through the events to find her sister, are Joe’s attempts to stop her following in the same day, week, or month? Every incident has to fall within the period of time we have set for our story from beginning to end. If it is a childhood event, have you made sure the ages and times fit? If something falls out of line, a hole forms in the story, and it could be a black hole, meaning rewrite.

Age: yet again! How old are our characters at the end of the story? Are they following the timeframe you set in the beginning? In the snippet you saw above, the characters are obviously elderly since they’d been together fifty-some years. They can’t live another fifty years, so we must be sure their ages follow their age in the beginning. As you read the story above, you’ll learn it takes place over one year, and the protagonist is 94. Her physical timeline battles the timeline of the story, and the question arises: will she survive the inciting incident that set her on this path? You’ll have to read This is Where It Ends to find out, but the point is, this story, from beginning to end, fights against time, so every incident from the past, present, and what is to come must fall perfectly in a one-year period.

The end: You’ve typed those amazing two words, and you feel good right now. BUT, does everything fall into place? Did your characters meet your expectations? Are their ages correct by the end? Do all the twists, turns, and incidents line up in time and in the time frame you’ve set for your story? Have you answered all the questions and made sure that the rabbit trails (secondary plots) are falling in the correct time sequence? And who said writing a novel was easy?

Take time to write this list of items down to help you begin to create a solid timeline. You’ll need this for your publisher when your story is contracted. Next month, in part two, we’ll address the beginning and ending of your story. The clock is ticking. Where’s your timeline?


Cindy K. Sproles is an author, speaker, and conference teacher. Having served for a number of years as a managing editor for Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas and Ironstream Media, Cindy now works as a mentor, coach, and freelance editor. She is the co-founder of Writing Right Author Mentoring Services with Lori Marett and she is the director of the Asheville Christian Writers Conference. Cindy is also the co-founder of Christian Devotions Ministries and WWW.CHRISTIANDEVOTIONS.US, as well as WWW.INSPIREAFIRE.COM. Her devotions are in newspapers and magazines nationwide, and her novels have become award-winning best-selling works. She is a popular speaker at conferences and a natural encourager. Cindy is a mountain girl, born and raised in the Appalachian mountains, where she and her husband still reside. She has raised four sons and now resorts to raising chickens where the pecking order is easier to manage. You can visit Cindy at WWW.CINDYSPROLES.COM or www.wramsforwriters.com.


  1. I write in Scrivener, and I put the timeline in my chapter headings (to be pulled out once I'm done). That way, I can spot them readily when I write. I started doing that, because like you, they can mess with me.

    1. Great idea. I will add a note in the margin when a new day belongs or time jumps.

  2. It's great that you're taking the initiative to tackle this weakness head-on and learn more about timelines and their importance in writing. Seeking guidance and learning from others' experiences can be invaluable in improving your skills as a writer.

    I'm sure your dedication to mastering timelines will pay off in your future works, and I look forward to reading about your progress in your two-part post.

    Check out my new post!

  3. I've learned and contine to learn. This subject needed to be addresses.