How A Timeline Helps You Plot A Novel

How A Timeline Helps You Plot A Novel

In this post, we write about how a timeline helps you plot a novel.

Making Sense Of The World

History is neither simple nor linear, but when we show events in a timeline they seem to make sense. We see the results of cause and effect when we show sequences that exist in relationship to each other. We see patterns, turning points, and progressions.

How A Timeline Helps You Plot A Novel

One of the main reasons we read is to make sense of the world. A timeline suggests a past, present, and future.

Using one for plotting allows us to see a beginning, middle, and ending. Linking units of time to events allows writers to plot a book in a graphic way. We are able to see the book from the reader’s perspective. Is there a pattern? Does it make sense?

A timeline helps us choose what to include in our story. It also gives us a map to follow. It is the big picture of a novel – a place where we get the chance to see the overarching storylines and how they intersect.

Seven questions that will help create a timeline:

  1. How old are your characters when the story begins?
  2. Where are the characters in the story?
  3. Why does the story start? What is the inciting moment?
  4. What are your main characters’ story goals?
  5. Who are their co-stars?
  6. How old are your characters when the story ends?
  7. Where will it end?

Remember that a time-span has nothing to do with the length of a book. We can cover a lifetime in one paragraph. A week, a month, or a year could span an entire book.

A timeline helps us to include only events that are relevant to the plot in our novels.

Beginnings And Endings

  1. We should never start our novel on the day our characters take their first breaths – unless that moment is important to the story. We are not writing our characters’ biographies. Try not to bore the reader with a factual re-telling of their first years.
  2. A timeline can help us remove unnecessary backstory. We get to see how much information we tend to dump in the beginning of a book. It can be used as a tool to help us work through where we should start our stories. We can use this part of our timeline to help fill in a character questionnaire.
  3. Start at a point of crisis or change. The reader will immediately want to know what happened before and after that point. Start when the reason for writing the story begins. [Read The Importance of Inciting Moments]
  4. Carry on by inserting the events needed to get us through the middle of the story to the end. We tell a story in (action) scenes and (reaction) sequels. We usually have 60-80 of these in a novel. You can use these to create the events on your timeline. [Read Why Writers Should Always Make a Scene]
  5. Stop when the main character reaches his or her story goal. [Read The Sense Of An Ending]
One of the most useful things that emerges from this exercise is that we begin to see unnecessarily repetitive scenes and superfluous characters.


  1. Create a timeline for your story.
  2. Create separate timelines for your four main characters.
  3. Make sure they all work together.

There are also online timeline tools you could try, including Timetoast, and Preceden.

Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.

Amanda Patterson by Amanda Patterson

If you enjoyed this article, read:

  1. 10 Ways To Create Dangerously Nuanced Antagonists
  2. 127 Prompts To Finish Before You Write About Yourself
  3. 9 Free Online Grammar Resources You Can’t Ignore
  4. P.S. It’s Time To Remove Those Adverbial Dialogue Tags

Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.

Posted on: 12th December 2016

4 thoughts on “How A Timeline Helps You Plot A Novel”

  1. Thanks, Amanda!

    I use to generate calendars for novels based in the past. Their website even has a moon phases area where you can enter a city and year in order to see the lunar events–great resource for timelines.

  2. Love this concept for my sequel. Far fewer rewrites and oops in the story line development. Key character histories intersected one another without conflict. A little preplanning and forethought helped me create a calendar for the story. I determined the exact day the story would start and I knew when it would end. The timeline guided the pace of the story far better than my previous “pantsed” story in the original book. Developing a roadmap keeps the story and the characters from straying too far from the story you intended. It’s like planning a vacation: You determine how many days you have to travel, your budget, and your ultimate vacation destination, but allow sufficient time and resources for unexpected side trips, as long as you the intended vacation destination remains in focus. Thanks! Love your insight.

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