I don’t know if anyone else has done this before, but the idea popped in my head and it seemed to work out pretty nicely.
After cutting out a few characters from my alien invasion novel, I knew that there were gaps in the story waiting to be filled. Sometimes, a couple of months of story time would pass by without anything happening. With some characters, several months of story time would pass before the book returned to them.
Having so much time to spare doesn’t work for me, not with my fiction. After cutting out the weakest characters, I asked myself where could I put in new scenes that give us more character development and narrative.
Now, I’m a visual learner, so I can’t just write up a timeline. I have to see where the characters are in the story. Enter Microsoft Excel.
Here’s what I did…
In the leftmost column (Column A), I marked down the story time in weekly intervals from the beginning to the end. If your story is shorter, say a couple of months, you may want to give more focus and do daily intervals. If it’s longer and spans a couple of years, weeks are the way to go because while a month is roughly thirty days, a week is exactly seven days. Don’t worry about taking up a lot of space with your timeline chart. This is a visual aid. It’s not meant to be printed.
At the top of the subsequent columns (B, C, D, etc.), type the names of each of your viewpoint characters. Now, with each character, go down the column and mark which weeks in your story’s timeline they appear in. Don’t worry about getting the specific day down (unless, as I said, it’s a shorter time scale). Just approximate where in the timeline each one appears.
When this is done, go through your chart and highlight those weeks in which no characters appear at all. Highlighting will make the gaps stand out and allow you to, at a glance, see how much space you’ve got to work with. From there, you use your best judgement. If you see a three-month gap at the end of a year, ask yourself which characters you’d like to devote some of that time towards. It may be a few. It may be all of them.
If you have weeks marked down where certain characters appear, try to find a space for characters you’ve neglected. I did this with one of my characters a few times because he would have otherwise not been too noticeable in the final piece.
That’s the ultimate goal of the timeline chart. It’s a tool to help ensure that you and your readers are frequently touching base with your characters so that none of them accidentally get thrown off to the side of the road, and it’s to make sure that you make efficient use of the time scale of your story.