Creating a Novel Timeline

The outlines I’ve already created for my WIP (main character, main plot, supporting leads, and subplots), focus very heavily on the what, but don’t offer any clarity as to when things will happen. We need a novel timeline.

What’s a novel timeline? Well, dear friends, it is one of the most useful drafting tools I’ve ever created. It is the document that details when each major and minor event will occur. This isn’t just useful for ensuring all of those events make it into the book, it’s useful in ensuring that there is progress/development, in some shape or form, in every chapter.

Think about some of your favourite books. Why are they your favourite? For a book to truly stand out to me, there needs to be both plot and character development in every chapter; each chapter needs to feel like its own mini-story.

That’s what the novel timeline does: it ensures that every chapter provides something valuable to the overall story, and therefore must be in the book.

The Goal of a Novel Timeline

Establishing goals is always a good idea. What do you want your novel timeline to do? I want it to clearly define not only how the plot and subplots will unfold, but how my character arcs will progress. I want a clear path on which to progress for all major aspects of my novel.

Setting Up Your Novel Timeline

This is where you can let your creativity take hold! There are a few ways you might set up a novel timeline. Will it be easier for you to make sure everything follows the timeline if it’s arranged in a table? Maybe a checklist is your thing. Maybe you want to see the whole damn thing in a visual chart. Whatever is going to ensure you keep everything on track, that’s the model you should use! Personally, I like to have my timeline in three different formats that I follow simultaneously: a visual chart, a list with bullet points, and a calendar. I’ll be including downloadable versions of these kinds of timelines at the bottom of this post.

A Visual Timeline

If you’re anything like me, sometimes a list doesn’t cut it. Sometimes (okay, all the time), I need to have a visual timeline I can reference in conjunction with my bullet list and calendar. The visual timeline is tangible; it’s clear-cut and concise. There is no confusion about the order of events.

To get even more detailed with a visual timeline, you can colour-coordinate plots/subplots along the timeline so it’s easy to see the progression. A visual timeline might look something like this:

A Bullet List Timeline

What does the visual timeline lack that we might make up for with a bullet list timeline? Details. The visual timeline includes the basic bare bones of a novel’s progress. It isn’t meant to get bogged down with writing and descriptions, but timelines can definitely benefit from details!

My bullet list timelines look something like this:

Chapter One:

  • Plot Development:
    • Main plot description.
    • Subplot description.
    • Subplot description.
  • Character Development:
    • Main character development description.
    • Supporting lead development description.
    • Supporting lead development description.

A Calendar Timeline

A calendar outline gives you an at-a-glance view of any given month and the literal timeline that the events follow. A calendar timeline is particularly useful in being able to keep dates straight in a novel. The previous outlines detail the progress of the main plot, sub plots, and character arcs, but they don’t necessarily depict when in the year those events take place. A calendar timeline is an excellent resource for this:

Why Three Novel Timelines?

Why do I feel these three timelines are all worth creating and maintaining? Three timelines is a lot, I know, but I do have specific reasons for using all three.

Timeline TypeStrengthsWeaknesses
VisualA tangible, visual timeline of events.

Allows for a clearer connection between plot scenes across the timeline.
Fairly bare-bones glance at scenes; not many details included.
Bullet ListDetailed description of events and character development.

Clear trajectory for contents of book.
Long, text-heavy depiction of a book’s events.
CalendarDepicts the literal timeline of events, which other outlines don’t clearly do.Very bare bones description of events.

No clear depiction of which scenes across the book connect.

Downloadable Resources

All PDF-fillable outlines can be imported into Scrivener.

Printable Visual Novel Timeline >>

Printable Calendar Timeline >>

Header image by Cathryn Lavery.

Bree Crowder is a writer of dark and strange tales, and a freelance editor. She holds a B.A. in English, a graduate certificate in Creative Writing, and an M.A. in Creative & Critical Writing. Writing, reading, photography, and travel are a few of her favourite things.

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