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How to Construct a Timeline

If you are planning to write a story that is complex in terms of how time is arranged, such as in the examples of 'The Time Traveller’s Wife', 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button', or 'Irreversible', it is useful to first consider how this works.  If we look at 'The Time Traveller’s Wife', the male protagonist, Henry, meets his eventual wife, Claire, at various points in her life. She moves in a linear way from birth to old age, but he does not. Instead, he comes into her life at various times. For example, he may be an adult when she is a child, or a child when she is an adult.  

If you are writing a linear story with two characters who both live a linear life, but come into each other’s lives at various points over time, you might write a timeline as follows:

Bob and Ellie’s Story

Bob born 1913   Ellie Born 1915

Bob and Ellie meet in 1938 and fall in love

1939 Bob sent to war. 

1941 presumed dead

1942 Ellie marries another man. 

1946 Bob returns home. Suffered  memory loss. Finds Ellie married to another man.  Leaves

1950 Bob marries someone else

1951 Ellie cannot get over Bob and leaves her husband. Goes to find Bob only to find he is married and apparently happy. Ellie leaves to live in Australia

 1953 Bob cannot stop thinking about Ellie and tries to find her. Cannot. Eventually leaves his wife.
1954 Ellie remarries and has children. Is happy. 
1956 Bob hears Ellie is living in Australia and that she has left her husband.  He goes to find Ellie only to realise that she has since remarried. He tries to talk to Ellie, but she is too upset.  Bob returns home to England.

1957 Ellie’s husband dies.  Ellie remains in Australia. 

Various events occur until –

 1959 Ellie writes to Bob and tells him she has always loved him and wants to see him. He writes back and says he is coming to Australia

 He has a tragic car accident before he can leave.  Ellie waits, but never finds out what happens.  She lives alone for the rest of her life.

This is a simple tale (relatively speaking), but if you there are many plot twists and turns:

  • Bob finds Ellie
  • Ellie finds Bob
  • Bob is married
  • Ellie is married, and so on.

This could be quite complex to organise and the timeline for both characters would have to be correct. It may be an over-simplification to have Bob meet up with Ellie but no mention made of Ellie’s children from her second marriage, or that Bob had been previously married.  It can therefore useful to map out timelines to keep a check of what is happening and when.

In a more complex story, such as 'The Time Traveller’s Wife', the timeline must be far more carefully constructed. If you imagine that Bob had been a time traveller, then into he and Ellie's complicated love story you would also have to add his changing ages and the times when he appears. 

Similar intricacies in the timeline may be found in stories which utilise flashbacks. A story which features an old woman as a narrator may describe her life in the here and now, but also look back at her history, what she did and when.  The flashbacks may not be in chronological order either. They may go backwards in time, forwards,  or be random.  Again, this type of timeline needs to be carefully organised. 

As well as planning the timeline of a story, it is also worth considering the time circle – what goes around, comes around.  For example, a basic story is that of a woman who lives in a very poor family. Through her acting talent she becomes wealthy and famous but eventually succumbs to drugs and alcohol and loses her fortune and notoriety. She returns to where she started – in poverty.  In a reversal of fortune, another example is the woman who starts her life in riches, only to lose everything, before fighting her way back to riches again. Another simplistic example is the murderer who kills several people, but gets away with it until finally he receives his  just rewards. When planning a novel, it is helpful to determine if there is any time circle in your story that you wish to convey to your reader. 


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