Has Your Story Time Line Jumped the Tracks?

Train engine has crashed through a building. Keeping your time line on the tracks.

Have you ever been reading a story and suddenly found yourself saying, “Wait a minute, in that last chapter spring was just beginning and now suddenly it’s wintertime?”

I know I have. And it’s like a train crashing through the middle of the story.

Sometimes it’s not as stark as that. I notice when things are out of sync even by mere hours. Yes, that can be drawback in my pleasure reading, but in editing, this ability to track the story’s time line is an asset.

Not all stories are this linear, but most are. And whether you are aware of it, you track the story time line as you read. Even movies give us clues as to the passing of time—usually through a night scene that transitions to a day time scene.

Every story begins and ends somewhere in time.

Thus it’s important your scenes track correctly. You want to build clues into your story that will help your reader follow the passing of time.

Remember a scene happens in the now. It is minute-by-minute action. Not all your story is going to happen in scenes. You’ll have sequels as well, and sequels are not constrained to now. They serve like a bridge between scenes.

Tracking the time line as you write becomes essential the more your story is dependent on time. If your entire story occurs in 12 hours, you want to know what hour/minute each scene happens.

Again, if you are writing a story that jumps back and forth in time, be certain that when you jump from past to present that you jump to the correct time and day.

Keeping track of your story time isn’t hard. It might mean an extra step as you write, but better an extra step than to discover on your fifth revision that the action in chapter 5 happened after the events in chapter 6.

Here are some choices.

If you work in MS Word, you can label each scene with a simple parenthetical note at the beginning of the scene (scene 1, May 24, 1941, morning). You could make note of this on a separate document, but having it in your story keeps you aware of it as you revise. Maybe highlight it so you can find it quickly once you’ve completed your story.

If you work in Scrivener, put this info in either the document notes or on the index card.

Scrivener Inspector, tracking the time line

If you plot with hard copy index cards or sticky notes, simply note the time/date on those cards.

No matter how you choose to do it, track your story time to ensure it all flows correctly. Then you won’t have an editor (or a reader) telling you that in chapter 2 you were celebrating July 4, and now in chapter 5 you’re celebrating Memorial Day.

How do you keep track of your story time line? Put your comments below.

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  1. I cannot say that I’m systematic about it although I am extremely sensitive to this issue as my angelic narrative tracks along in parallel to real universe, solar system and geophysical history. I have two story threads, one of which is tied to physical time in the universe; the other thread I take pains to advance in parallel.

    • Chris, that sounds complicated. I write in scenes and not necessarily from the beginning of the story to the end. So tracking the time for scenes becomes very important as they get moved around a lot! As long as you have a system that works for you, that’s what counts. Especially since you’ve got parallel worlds going on.

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