by Gayle Bartos-Pool
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 and 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 worked as a newspaper reporter a long time ago and those points were necessary in any article I wrote.
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. 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. I put an alphabet at the bottom of the character 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 I’m 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 “time-lined” plot; you can easily tell someone what the story is about.
I have put most of my writing course into books: The Anatomy of a Short Story Workbook and its companion book: So You Want to be a Writer. They cover many of the things I have posted on our blog, but as an added bonus, they give you diagrams and pictures of the worksheets I employ. I use them in all my writing. I never create a story without them. Maybe they can help you. Write on!
12 thoughts on “Mapping Your Mayhem”
Gayle, as ever the perfect way to wake up – with another one of your succinct, comprehensive posts. Such good ideas. I think most writers use a timeline but few think to keep characters’ profiles current with the story. Many thanks.
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Thanks, Jill. I have used these timelines, character profiles, and calendars to keep my stories on track. They really help, especially when I write a series. Enjoy the autumn back east.
I definitely agree that a timeline is important–in many ways. Thanks for your insight in how and why to use one!
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And the timeline lets you whittle down your elevator pitch to a few choice points and it helps with the blurb for your book’s back cover.
Gayle – your attention to detail is always so impressive. As you say, a Timeline is essential for the story-line – especially when writing about the past. One hundred years ago it would take much longer to get somewhere than it does today, and plot points would be affected by various historical happenings. Our crooks couldn’t be racing away on high-speed motorbikes along roads that weren’t in existence a hundred years ago, for instance. I always learn so much from your writing and look forward to more of your literary wisdom. Thanks!
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Thanks, Rosemary. I have learned a lot about my own writing and writing in particular while doing these blogs. And when I saw the way I write, I turned out two books on writing. And you can bet the timeline was mentioned as a useful tool.
The way you tell us how you write your books and stories, makes us feel like WE could do it too. You really are a writer’s encourager. Your clear explanations of the two timelines you use make perfect sense. Wow. And besides helping you with the story, you get the benefits of a synopsis. blurb, and elevator pitch. Thank you for this really informative post!
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Thanks, Jaxon. I have learned a lot from every blog posted on The Writers-in-Residence site. It’s great that we can learn from each other. I hope our fellow writers can get a few tips along the way as well.
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Oh goodness, Gayle, you’re always so right on the mark for essentials of great story telling. (you and Aristotle(smile)) In reviewing my latest for the umpteenth(sp) time, and even though I do lay out a timeline, realized I had my characters live one horrendously LONG day. A day that no one else could possibly survive. Sigh. As always, excellent post–and I always have takeaways.
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Thanks, Mad. I have had to rewrite a few sections of various stories when too much was crammed into very few hours. The timeline works.
A very helpful post. Thanks, Gayle.