They say that timing is everything. While it may vary in prominence and importance for a story, it’s always a good idea for a writer to know how long it takes for things to happen. Having the ages of characters and timeline of events written down and referenced periodically during the rewriting process will help you maintain both continuity and pacing.
Note that I said, “during the rewriting process.” Timelines and continuity checks are part of the many cycles of editing. Unless you are one of those ultra-detailed planners who lays all of the groundwork before picking up a pen, a timeline isn’t something you should be using until after at least the first draft is complete.
For example, when I write, I usually have a month or so of planning where I pull together a basic plot line, character descriptions, and overall tone of the work. In the character descriptions, I put at least an estimate of how old they are supposed to be. This can fluctuate later, but usually only within a few years of the initial age-setting. As I write my first draft, I have a rough idea of how much time passes between events. It’s a day or two from their initial meeting to their first fight, a week until their marriage, a few hours until that important breakfast, and they spend two or three months in this locale. These aren’t set in stone, nor do they have to be 100% accurate at this stage. In Draft 1, it doesn’t matter so much if I say it only took a week to travel 200 miles on foot or something like that. All I need are estimates, if that, to give a basic temporal framework.
Once the first and even second draft are complete, then it’s time to go back and not only nail down exact ages and times, but also to make sure that the periods we’re talking about are reasonable. How long would it take to walk 200 miles? How long if they had horses? Or flew? How long does it take to become a proficient swordsman, or weave a cloak, or recover from a wound? What about weather and terrain? Would that delay or speed their travel plans? And, are my characters being age-appropriate? In other words, are people acting and reacting in a way that makes sense for their age? I remember in an early draft of Ravens and Roses, I had a three-year-old speaking and behaving in a fashion that was not congruent with their age, and something like that breaks the illusion of believability we writers must create. While some variance can occur based on the experiences of the characters, there’s a limit to how far you can push it before readers say, “This isn’t realistic. This person doesn’t know what they are talking about. Why am I reading this?” Whenever you push that envelop, you need to be sure you have a decent explanation handy. Even when your story is wrapped in the trappings of fantasy or the metal skin of science fiction, these stories are ultimately about human beings. People gotta act and react like people, or the whole thing falls apart.
So, to help you get started on crafting your own timeline, here are some of the questions you’ll need to ask yourself:
- What age do I need my characters to be and are they acting appropriate to that age? If not, why not?
- How far away are necessary plot locations and what unit of measurement are you using?
- What is the geography or terrain of the setting?
- What is the level of transportation capability in this setting and what are your characters using?
- How long does it take to walk, ride, or fly x-number of miles?
- What is the weather like?
- What time of year is it? What time of day?
- How long does it take to learn, do, or make the thing or ability I need my characters to possess?
- What is your character’s daily life like and how does that affect how long it takes things to get done?
- What is your character’s physical condition? (A wounded or ill person will take longer to perform a task than a healthy one.)
Whenever you can, find real-world examples that are similar to what you are trying to accomplish in your novel and find out how long it took each thing to happen. That will help you decide what a reasonable span of time would be in that situation. Keep a separate document with a timeline with all of the relevant events in chronological order. Even (or especially) if your story is told out of chronological order, as the writer you need to know exactly what happens when so the plot doesn’t unravel. You might not need to be as detailed as Tolkien (and most of us don’t need to be), and your readers might not need every detail either. But we are creatures bound to Time, and your characters are no exception. Even if a T.A.R.D.I.S. gets involved.