I once read a book written by a well-known author and published in the traditional manner, where the author killed off a character in one chapter, only to have her reappear in the next!

Unfortunately, issues with plot line timing are common. This is another case for hiring a professional proofreader, as they are trained to go beyond typos to find more complex errors. Regardless of whether you decide to go the professional route, here are some tips to help you avoid timeline errors.

Timeline errors come about in two ways:

  • The author changes his or her mind about the chain of events.

  • The editor suggests deleting or moving chunks of text, and adds new material.

Basically, you need to make it easier to track what is happening to your characters at any given time. To do this, take a blank notebook. Write GENERAL TIMELINE at the top of page one. Skip to the next right-hand page, leaving two blank pages for the general timeline. Write the name of the first character. Skip a page and at the top of the next right-hand page, write the name of the next character, and so on, until you have two pages for each character (designate less for each minor character).

As your plot unfolds, note each important date for each character, and the corresponding event. You could do this as you plan your plot; I think it’s helpful to take notes as you write, in case you change your mind as you go.  You could do your timeline as a graphic: an actual timeline with years, months, and callout boxes to note events.

On one page, note the dates of major world events (real or fictional) that happened during your story. Note locations or things to which you refer (e.g., restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions, companies, sports teams, etc.), making sure they existed during your timeline. If your characters use technology and your book does not occur in the future, note major technological advancements that transpired. If a character uses a particular brand of cell phone, make sure it existed!

Essentially you are creating a resource to check against as your story progresses. If you change your plot, you can refer to your timeline and see how it is impacted. Your notebook could include the style guide referred to in last month’s post (click here to read the blog post about avoiding typos). Happy plotting!