Managing the Timeline

One of the features of a mystery that can be hard to pin down is the timeline. Right now I’m reading stories submitted for the first title of the new Best New England Crime Stories series to be published by Crime Spell Books, and one of the stories has a major problem in the timeline. I read through the story enjoying the characters, caught up in the setting, and satisfied with the end—until it dawned on me that the main clue happened after the important incident. The writer had muddled the sequence of events.

Most of us have heard the saying “Time is fluid,” and many of us have experienced the truth of that statement. Add to that the unreliability of memory, and you can see the problem. (This morning I thought it was Sunday and was shocked at how thin the Sunday paper was—a truly tragic shrinking of the Boston Globe.) A good story idea—strong characters, quick pace, good twists—can fall apart if the time line is not carefully worked out. It’s important to track the time.

The best advice may also be the most basic, so basic in fact that we sometimes forget to mention it. Let the reader know at the opening of every chapter and every scene exactly where she is. Does the opening signal a new day? Make it simple but precise: “The following morning, even though it was Saturday, Emily went to work as usual.” Is it a change in time of day? “After four hours at her desk staring at a screen, her eyes tearing up, Emily felt she was entitled to a lunch break—a long one.” Has a week passed? “The following Saturday things were no better, and Emily was still dragging herself into the office to keep up with the piles of busy-work her boss kept dropping on her desk—on his way out for a shortened work day. Emily was beginning to hate even the word golf.” 

Some writers can finesse this level of detail but when I reread their fiction I find they are clear in their own minds where they are and thus it is clear in the reader’s mind how things are progressing. It shows in the story development. You as writer have to know where the characters are or the reader won’t know.

When I’m working on a story long or short I keep track of important details on lined paper (you can use note cards or a spreadsheet or Scrivener—it doesn’t matter) of each chapter and scene. In the left-hand margin I note the time for each chapter or scene; then I note the activity of that scene. I need to know who said what to whom but just as importantly when. Introducing the back story has come to mean for me a new scene or chapter, but the change in time or setting has to be just as clear. “Emily hadn’t expected this level of drudgery when Hank hired her. She remembered that smile, and from the interview she expected a higher-level position. Had it only been three months?”

I may muddle these all together in a draft but as I revise I tease out each time change and make it explicit. When I can see the progression in time and place in my notes I have a better sense of how the story is developing. Do I need to add a twist? “Emily was warned by a co-worker not to complain—the last woman who did so had a terrible car accident and hasn’t worked since.” Have I spent too long on building up the conflict? “Emily remembered the first time Hank asked her to pick up his dry cleaning and the snide glances of the women who worked in the shop.” If the time moves forward in the backstory that needs to be marked also. “But the kicker, the proverbial straw, for Emily was when Hank asked her three weeks ago to pick up a gift at a women’s shop and rewrap it for him. She assumed it was for his wife. But in the box she was startled to find a negligee not in his wife’s size. That did it for Emily. It was time to take action.”

When I’m finished with the first draft I have a clear sense of pacing and direction. I can see easily if I’ve spent too long on moving forward instead of arriving at my destination. Crafting a clear timeline helps with character development (have I spent too much time or not enough on introducing someone?) and pacing (did I put Emily in enough danger, threatening her job security and her own safety before she chooses to act?), as well as keeping me clear on where I’ve been and when. 

A good, clear timeline will ensure I will end up where I want to be. And now, it’s all up to Emily.