Tracking Timelines – Continuity in Fiction


Timelines in novels can be tricky. There can be flashbacks, flashforwards, multiple viewpoints, streams of consciousness and non-linear plots. It’s easy to lose track or make continuity errors when writing stories, particularly in long works of fiction.

Some writer’s like to keep track combat this by keeping meticulous records, diagrams, folders etc with all the events in order of sequence. I tried that once but personally it doesn’t work for me as it diverts me from thinking about the characters and situations involved and the actual story. If you’re finding yourself confused with your sequences of events here’s some tips:

  • Avoid continuity errors at the start.
The Passage of Time

Image by ToniVC via Flickr

If halfway through your story you decide that you want to change part of the plot, the setting, the course of events or even the main characters name go back and make the alterations right away. Using the find and replace feature makes this easy if it’s just a name you need to alter. If you do this early on you will be very glad later on when you don’t suddenly realise that you’re main character has blue eyes in Chapter 1 but brown eyes in Chapter 10 (unless something has happened as part of the plot to change their eye colour). 

  • Think through difficult concepts early on.
Echo Park Time Travel Mart

Image by Laughing Squid via Flickr

While you don’t need to do the whole plot in your head right from the start, if you are writing a scene involving a complex idea, like time-travel or multiple dimensions then work it out in your head and check it works before carrying on too far. This will help you to be sure you are happy with the idea and happy that it works.

  • Recap every now and then

If it’s been a long time since you’ve written anything on your novel you may start forgetting the series of events. Remind yourself just off the top of your head and have a little refresh read just to jog your memory. Then start writing again.

  • Check continuity in revision

Even if you’ve done all of the above, you may still spot an error when you’re revising or re-reading. When you are reading through if you notice any, either note them down or fix them right away. Personally, I would rather fix them right away because I’m more likely to forget or lose the impetus of the moment.

Lastly…

  • Don’t fear getting it wrong
Good Times

Image by Matt Niemi via Flickr

If you really, really want to do a non-standard timeline in a novel or an unusual sequence of narration, don’t let fear of messing it up stop you. While you don’t need to go overboard and push yourself into extreme despair, researching, keeping maps and diaries of events to keep on track, you can always experiment.

Even if it doesn’t work out in the long run, you’ll get good practise at writing flashbacks and flashforwards which can both be difficult to do.

On the same thread, if you want to do a linear, start-to-finish story sequence don’t stop yourself. It’s still your individual creative project whatever format you do it in.

Don’t forget to enjoy the journey as you write!

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5 thoughts on “Tracking Timelines – Continuity in Fiction

    • Thanks. In the earlier days of my novel I made massive errors with the timeline and then realised that `hang on’ if she’ was seventeen then and it’s five years later, she’s twenty-three and not twenty-one. Maths was never my strong suit but I’m always double-check these sorts of things now.

  1. Pingback: Why it took nearly six years to write The Fifth Specter

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