Worldbuilding in Fiction: How to Construct a Robust Timeline
You’ve always wanted to write a book. The next epic fiction book that will propel you into the ranks of legendary authors! You have your brilliant idea, the encouragement from friends and family, your artful ideas for a cover, and the belief in your ability to rock the literary world! You sit down at your computer, fingertips hovering over the keys as you think about your knock-their-socks-off first line . . . and then it hits you — you don’t know where to start, and need to do some actual, practical planning!
Why You Should Start Planning
I know the feeling. Whether you are a “pantser” or a “planner,” creating works of fiction requires doing some homework! There are books about how to outline plots like a pro (I have a whole shelf dedicated to these) and there are more books about character development, and even more dedicated to expert world building.
Now, I love world building (and nobody was more surprised by that than me) and I hope you do too, but the painful truth I came to discover is this: without having a good understanding of the world and times your story takes place in, you are going to end up with a disjointed, less-than-epic tale with plot points that fail to connect with others in your story. Sadly, this is the reason many readers start to lose interest, and (gasp!) stop reading.
Creating a Timeline
Having a story that consistently holds together is something that most writers innately understand should happen, but the practical application to making that happen aren’t always so clear. One way that you can anchor your story is through the creation of timelines. This creates consistency through your story as your characters refer to previous points in time such as wars, famines, acts of Deity, or the crowning of a king.
Start by developing an “in-story” timeline from the start of your book, right through to the end, or even throughout a longer series that may span years. The biggest question to start with is easy: What is the duration of your story? Weeks? Years? Decades? Starting off with an outline of both major and minor plot points, as well as the span of time between each of them, is how we start developing the timeline. As you develop the history of your fictional world, plot those points on your timeline as well.
One of the best examples I know of for the necessity of a well constructed timeline is Stuart Turton’s book The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. He was asked how he managed to keep all the timelines, puzzle pieces, and character perspectives straight, and he said, “A wall of Post-it notes, Excel spreadsheets, and a lot of muttering!” He went on to say that every time he changed one little thing, it felt like the whole story fell apart because his plot was so interconnected, yet, thanks to his carefully developed timelines and notes, he created this brilliant story.
Know Thy World
I could ramble on for hours (and much to the chagrin of my kids, I have) about developing a fantasy world, but we’re going to assume for the purposes of this timeline discussion that you have already done some work in creating a world to place your characters, or have selected a region or time period of planet Earth (or the planet of your choice!) to use as the backdrop for your story. Ask yourself these questions:
- What kind of world are your characters in? Medieval? Pre-civilization? Post-apocalypse? Futuristic?
- Does the region/world have seasons? How many? What length is each season?
- Are there notable festivals or holidays in each kingdom? How does your world/country celebrate? Do some regions celebrate the same holidays? Do they have different ones? How are their festivals different?
- How does the history of this area affect the current day? How have their holidays and festivals developed because of this history?
While these answers may not directly impact the events of your book, they could add flavor and color to your setting, or even provide a source of conflict for your characters, for example, a snowstorm during their travels which traps characters together, getting lost in a festival while running for their life, or foreign visitors making a social faux pas because they don’t understand the rituals and history of their current setting.
This also helps you keep track of what season your story takes place in, so you can avoid the embarrassing “new writer error” of putting your characters in a sweltering summer day in the middle of December in the snowy north. Oops!
Pacing, Tension, & Cause and Effect
There are other things to consider when developing your Master Timeline such as pacing and tension. Do you have an action scene that you want to amp up to nail-biting tension? Do you want to blindside your readers with an event out of the blue? Varying the intensity and speed of events and pacing your story to introduce conflicts, suspense, twists, and tension at the right moments will help keep readers engaged.
Another concept that sometimes gets left in the dust is “cause and effect.” What events in your history occurred to forever change the world? Did a war wipe out a nation years ago? Did your characters take an action that will have long-lasting effects? Ensuring that each event in your timeline has a clear cause-and-effect relationship with preceding and subsequent events and the world around them helps you develop a logical and cohesive flow of events and build realism throughout your story.
One last thing to also consider are your character arcs. What are the individual timelines of your main characters? Villains? What are your characters doing when they are “off-screen>” Taking the time to identify key moments and personal character developments for each of your characters to weave them into the overall timeline fleshes out your characters and story, and can even stimulate creativity when you see times where characters might intersect in an unexpected way.
How to Keep Track of the Passage of Time
When developing the history of the world you have created, or at least in tracking Earth’s history that is relevant to your story, there are many ways to make notes.
Excel or Google Sheets
I like to use an Excel or Google spreadsheet when I plot out character specific histories and plan their character arcs. Here’s how: Column 1 is for the year, Column 2 is for the global events that occur (i.e. famine, war, natural disasters), and then I assign a column for each character so I can keep track of where they were and what they were doing in that year, or specific dates. This can help flesh out a character’s backstory, as well as note points where characters may have crossed paths. This isn’t always necessary if your book is a short span of time, or their personal history doesn’t factor greatly into your story, but for locations with deep history, immortal characters, or complicated story lines, this can be helpful. This gives each character more of a sense of purpose, rather than waving your hands to say, “They were around somewhere doing something.”
For more in-depth exploration of your world’s history, you can build your timeline with more extensive writing. You can include character specific events (I like to color-coded text for each character). This can provide a larger, more detailed picture of that time. Google Docs also allows the inclusion of images, which you can use as a reference. This is also accessible on multiple devices, so when you have that brilliant idea at 3 a.m. or when you are in the middle of a boring meeting, you can plug it into the document right away!
While writing my novel, my own personal trick to keep track of the in-story timeline is to use a day planner from my local office supply store. I can write each event in the proper day as it occurs, and since my series spans several years, I can keep track of how many years pass, as well as anniversaries of events. This can help you mark the changing of seasons, the hosting of certain festivals and holiday traditions, and reflect these in your story’s setting. This helps give your reader the sense of moving forward in the story while moving forward through time, and can provide unique settings in which your characters can grow.
I won’t lie, there was a year of my writing life where my entire bedroom wall was covered in sticky notes. I was stuck on the plot points and needed a new way of looking at things, so I wrote down every plot point I could think of on the little yellow sticky notes and started arranging them on my wall. I quickly began to see that many of my plot points just couldn’t fit into the overall timeline, and I had to rethink my direction and my timeline. While my kids just shook their heads at the yellow note-covered wall, it was a tool that worked! I was surprised to discover alternative plot points to get my characters from one place to another once I could see the Big Picture.
As you write your story and develop your Master Timeline, take the time to revise and refine it as you go along, as events and plot points can change. Revisit your timeline helps to ensure consistency, eliminate plot holes, and make adjustments as needed, as a great timeline evolves alongside your story.
Consistency is key while making sure your story fits together, and helps to bring the world to life, not just your characters. Referring to historical events, being aware of what season (spring, summer, etc.) your story is in, and including appropriate holidays and festivals in your setting can breathe life and vitality into your story in an organic way.
There is a vast world outside of your characters that affects and molds them, and using the passage of time is a great way to create depth and variety while affecting your character and events. A well constructed timeline might seem like doing extra work when you would rather be writing, but its a remarkable tool that you will be glad to have when you need it.
Rachel Mensch is a writing coach and developmental editor with Manuscripts LLC and author of the dramatic fantasy fiction series including A Single Spark and The Twisting Flame, with the third instalment of the series, The Crimson Blaze, to be released in 2023 under the pen name Tayvia Pierce. As a single mom of two teens, and between her editing and corporate writing work, she proves that even the busiest of people can still write a book (even if it takes a little longer!). You can check out her website at www.tayviapierce.com for more information about her and her books.