When I was asked to teach a writing course for Sisters-in-Crime/Los Angeles, I decided I better evaluate how I wrote a story first. I write novels as well as short stories and figured there were similar fundamentals all writers use in both endeavors. Then I remembered the Aristotle course I had taken in college. I still had the textbook, The Poetics, so I dusted it off and read the part on the 5 Basic Elements in any story: Plot, Character, Dialogue, Setting, and The Meaning of the story.
I have covered most of these points in previous blogs, but there is one crucial thing a writer needs to make sure all these elements fit and that is a Timeline. I looked back over the files I had on all the books and stories I had written and lo and behold, I actually made a timeline for just about all of the stories.
What does a Timeline do? It keeps track of Who does What Where and When and sometimes Why.
I actually use several methods to achieve these goals. If the story doesn’t cover very much time or utilizes few locals, I write a simple timeline noting the date and time certain things happen and where the action takes place and who does what each time. If there is a lot of time covered, I use a calendar.
I generally have a basic idea what my story is about before I start putting words on paper. I write the opening (usually about 20 times) until I know where I’m going and the tone I want in the story. Then I jot down the relative time of day each event happens as the story progresses. I break them into no less than 15 minute intervals. Usually it is thirty minutes or by the hour. You can’t have more than 24 hours in any given day, so it keeps you honest and organized.
If my characters are driving around the city, take for instance Los Angeles, I use Google Maps to see how long it takes to get from point A to point B. I’ve seen TV shows where people in L.A. can get someplace in thirty seconds… Only if they use a teleporter. (“Beam me up, Scotty.”) I discipline myself and make my fiction a tad more real.
When I have finished the story, I’ll go back over the Timeline to see if I have crammed too much or too little into that given time frame. And I do something else. I’ll see if the plot holds together. Sometimes a destination doesn’t make sense or maybe some other character should be involved or eliminated. And sometimes I need to add a high point or low point just to give the story movement. I know movies today are all action and explosions and no plot, but I prefer plot and character.
There is another type of timeline I make: A List of Characters. I include their date of birth in case they age throughout the story. You want to make sure you don’t have a character born in 1920 be only fifty in 1990. And you don’t want a character to remember seeing news of the Hindenburg when she was born in 1947. Keep track.
Fellow Writer-in-Residence blogger, Bonnie Schroeder, has a new book (Write My Name on the Sky) coming out in July that starts out in the late Sixties. She had to make sure the items mentioned were around then. She did it meticulously. She might have lived through that time, but she still had to make sure she didn’t drop a 21st Century gadget into the story or mention a tune that wasn’t around then.
I start out with a piece of paper that I print off just for this task. I pencil in the character’s name as I write them. I give a brief description of their role and age. Many times I change the name. If you will note, there is an alphabet at the bottom of that page. I circle the first letter of the character’s name in that alphabet. I want each name to fit each particular character, but they can’t all begin the same letter unless you’re having fun.
When I’m finished with the story, I copy all those names and descriptions into the computer and add even more description and start evaluating those characters. Do some need more personality? Does one need to be meaner? Or smarter? Or should a particular character add something to the story that is needed? Or should the character be eliminated? One time I wrote a book knowing who the bad guy (or in this case gal) was going to be, but when I was finished I had another thought. I bumped off the initial suspect and then my private detective had to go back over the case to see what she missed… or was it time to hang up her .38s and retire? It was by reviewing that list of characters that allowed me to see a “What if?” scenario. And I am glad I did. It made for a much better and far more exciting conclusion to the novel.
And here is another benefit in having that Timeline. It gives you an Outline for your story in case an editor or publisher wants a synopsis of your book. And even better, that quick rundown of the plot lets you see what your story is about so you can more easily write the all important blurb for the back of your book. You only need the first third to tell any reader what is in store. Think of the timeline as the dry run for that “elevator pitch” you have heard about. The fact that you have consolidated your story into a few pages of a “timelined” plot; you can easily tell someone what the story is about.
I have put most of my writing course into a book: The Anatomy of a Short Story Workbook. It covers many of the things I have posted on our blog, but as an added bonus, it gives you diagrams and pictures of these worksheets. I use them in all my writing. I never create a story without them. Maybe they can help you.
A former private detective and a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool has several books in print: The Johnny Casino Casebook 1- Past Imperfect, The Johnny Casino Casebook 2 – Looking for Johnny Nobody, and The Johnny Casino Casebook 3 – Just Shoot Me; Media Justice, Hedge Bet, and Damning Evidence in the Gin Caulfield P.I. Series; From Light To DARK, a collection of short stories; Eddie Buick’s Last Case, Second Chance, The Santa Claus Singer, Bearnard’s Christmas and The Santa Claus Machine. She is the former Speakers Bureau Director for Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles and also a member of Mystery Writers of America and The Woman’s Club of Hollywood. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story,” “How to Write Convincing Dialogue” and “Writing a Killer Opening Line” in sunny Southern California. Website: www.gbpool.com.