Story Timelines: A Guide

Choosing the most effective story timeline for your novel is an important decision. Read this post for an overview of the different timeline structures.

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Story timelines are defined as the order in which important events (or story beats) are presented. The timeline helps your reader to follow and understand the story. It also acts as a map for you the writer.

Usually, finalising the timeline happens in the revising stage, after aspects such as plot points, story arcs and narrative perspectives have been thrashed out. When revising, you may decide to change events around in your story because you are giving too much away too quickly, or not quickly enough. Choosing your timeline at this point will make the revision feel more manageable.

The timeline you choose will be the one that balances your vision for your story with what creates the best emotional experience for your reading audience.

If you are a new author, I’d especially recommend reading a variety of narratives with different timeline structures. Doing this will give you an insight into how they can be approached and the effect they have on the reading experience.

I’ve given some examples below each of the timeline descriptions, but you are of course you are free to choose your own.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Chronological/Linear Story Timelines

This is the most commonly used timeline. The action in each chapter follows and builds on the previous one until the story reaches its climax.

Stories told this way present a clear experience for the reader. The action is easy to follow and has a logical progression.

However, stories presented chronologically can sometimes be criticised for being dull. Interest can be added by using multiple POVs or by including the occasional flashback. The majority of the narrative should still be in linear order.

Example Books The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and possibly the majority of novels sitting on your bookshelf!

Reverse Chronological Story Timelines

As you might expect, in a reverse chronological timeline, the end of the story is presented first and the narrative works backwards until the story’s beginning is reached. This then forms the ending.

Beginner novelists may find this a step too far when they’re already wrestling with and getting to know the many other aspects of novel writing. But if you are a more confident writer, and enjoy a challenge, why not have a go at plotting a reverse chronology.

If you would like to know more, have a read of this which goes into more detail about the process.

Example Books The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Framed Timelines

This could also be termed a story-within-a story timeline. One story introduces the other (this latter one is sometimes called a nested story) and gives important background information or explanation about the second story. The second story is presented as one long flashback.

Framing is a literary device popular in the Gothic novels of the nineteenth century although its history dates back much further.

Choosing to frame a story is a good way of casting doubt about the narrator’s reliability by creating distance between him or her and the writer.

Example Books Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Graphic Novels, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

Non-linear/Fractured Timelines

Here, the story events are presented out of order, moving back and forth in time using flashbacks and flashforwards. Dream sequences and foreshadowing are techniques also used in non-linear novels.

A non-linear timeline is great if you want to deliberately create a disjointed feel to your narrative. It can also be useful if you want to present several different character arcs or raise questions in your reader’s mind.

Example Books The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

Which of the story timelines are you drawn to in your novel writing? Which ones have you already used in your work?

Feel free to share in the comments below.

Tracey Chick is a developmental and line and copyeditor specialising in historical fiction and narrative nonfiction.

She is a member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading.

Visit her business website at Tracey Chick , connect on Twitter at @WriterTjcLinkedIn and Facebook

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