The Blog of John Hewitt

Creating a chronology for your novel

Some people might have written their novel in chronological order, from start to finish in a straight line. If you were lucky (or good) enough to do this, then you might be able to skip this step. However, even a novel written in chronological order should at least be examined for opportunities. In your original draft, you may have meant for your protagonist to discover a sack of money shortly after he had a major argument with his girlfriend, but in revision you might want to consider how that same argument would read once he found the money.

Chronology can be an interesting challenge for writers. For example, in the novel I am working on, there are several major characters that at different points become the focus of the story. Not all of their issues and experiences are directly related to those of the other characters in the story. My character Chelsea has several scenes that don’t include any of the other major characters. Taken on their own, her scenes have a definite chronology, but within the novel as a whole, they can easily take place before or after certain other character’s experiences within the narrative. Finding the right spot for them, thematically, will be one of my challenges.

In another instance, I have two scenes that concern the same two principal characters, Henry and Anne. I wrote the scenes in order, which is fine for my initial draft. However, if I leave the two scenes together, it will feel as if no time passed between the two events. Plot-wise, this is possible and it may even be desirable. If I break up the scenes by switching to another character for a while, it will seem as if more time has passed. That may be better, or it may not. I can only figure this out by playing with the order and seeing which combination of scenes works best.

How to work through the chronology of your novel

  1. Prepare a list of your scenes. The list should have enough identifiers for you to glace at the description and know exactly what scene it is. A good way to do this is to write down a sentence or two about that happens, being sure to name which characters are in the scene. You might want to give the scene a brief title, so that you can know it by glancing at it. The list should be easy to shuffle and reorder. I recommend using 3×5 cards, or if you are more technically motivated, Microsoft OneNote (my current tool of choice).
  2. Create an initial order. Don’t do a read-through yet; just shuffle the scenes until you find an order that feels like a good start. Take as much or as little time as you need, but realize that you aren’t committed to this order, it is just a starting place.
  3. Move the actual scenes in your novel so that they reflect your initial order.
  4. Read through the novel. Make note of any obvious continuity problems created by your order. You don’t necessarily want to make changes yet though, because the order is still not firm. Take notes about your concerns, any ideas for new scenes and any other thoughts about the chronology that you have.
  5. Go back to your list and reorder it again from scratch. This is one point in which 3×5 cards have an advantage over most other tools because you can shuffle them like a deck of playing cards and just start over, which makes it easier to embrace wholesale changes rather than minor tweaking.
  6. Move the actual scenes in your novel so that they reflect your new order.
  7. Go back to step four and repeat the process until you feel you have an order you can move forward with.

There are still many steps to the revision process. You will be revising existing scenes and adding new scenes as you go along. You should feel free to return to the chronology step as often as you need to.