Miscellaneous · Writing Tips

Writing Tips: Keeping Track of Time

How many times have you been following a television show, and there is a full moon every episode? Or their clothes don’t change? Or the weather stays the same all year long, unless snow, rain, or sunshine is used for symbolic enhancement?

It’s unrealistic, and it drives me crazy. It may be a personal pet peeve of mine, but I doubt it. Even Florida doesn’t have sunshine every day, but writers seem to set weather and time aside, especially when they’re more focused on the storyline. At first, I completely agree. Write. Don’t worry about small details. However, I really think revision is necessary for situations like this. Time needs to be tracked. 

When I do revisions, I actually label each chapter with what day it is, what time it is, and how long the chapter lasts. Then I move onto the next chapter and then the next. At the end, I count how many days have passed, and I make sure my characters’ speech correlate to it. I wouldn’t want my protagonist to say, “You haven’t left me alone for weeks!” when it’s only been four days.

My best piece of advise? After writing every chapter, track how much time passes and make sure EVERYTHING correlates: time, seasons, moon cycles, etc. 

When I was writing November Snow, this was initially really easy, but for one reason–each chapter was labeled by a date. The only thing I had to do was print a November, 2089 calendar and follow it. It would’ve been difficult to mess up. But, when it comes to the other novels I’ve written, I had to pay attention much more, because chapters weren’t labeled. Time passed differently, and I had to pay attention to everything: days, seasons, moon cycles, etc. Some say the moon cycle is extreme, but, really? You can’t have a full moon every chapter. I’ve seen this happen one hundred times, and, as a reader, I notice, so I strive to pay attention to these things, extreme or not.

This is an example of how I kept track of November Snow. Each chapter is on there, blue represented the viewpoint of Daniel, while pink was Serena. The yellow star is the full moon.

Not only should you keep track of time passing in the present moment of your novel, but you need to track your characters’ past. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written something, went back, and realized I contradicted myself on when one character did something. For instance, I might say Protagonist 1 met Side Character 1 at birth, but ten chapters later I say they met as teens. Even though we, as writers, like to believe we memorize everything we say (because it is so real to us) we don’t have perfect memories. As humans, we don’t even remember everything about our own lives, let alone hundreds of stories and characters we’ve created.

This is an example of what I create to keep track of a childhood. Daniel's list shows year, age, and interactions with other characters are bolded.
This is an example of what I create to keep track of a childhood. Daniel’s list shows year, age, and interactions with other characters are bolded.

I normally create tables, and they save my life during revision, especially if I take a few weeks off between writing and revision to clear my head. I really recommend trying this. It will help you solidify your world, and you will feel more confident about your creations, because you will KNOW–for a fact–that everything fits together perfectly.


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47 thoughts on “Writing Tips: Keeping Track of Time

    1. It is difficult! I thought about using another novel of mine as an example with a longer plot with more history, but I thought keeping it simple for this post would be more clear. Thank you for the grats.

  1. Great post Shannon. I also keep a word document going on the side so every time my character references something outwith my story’s world – like a song, or a mobile phone – I make a note. Then every now and then I go through the document double-checking everything is as it should be. For example, I once gave a character a mobile phone in the early 80’s – cells were around in the UK at that point but they weren’t exactly common or cheap, so I had to find a compelling reason that my character (a young woman without much money) would have one.

    Probably no-one else would notice if I hadn’t, but it’s important to get these things right.

  2. I so agree! I find this difficult when things change in revision, too. I’ve made adjustments to characters’ ages, which means major events/eras in their lives shift or shorten, and I’ve added scenes that change the timing on what comes after. It’s tough to remember to change everything if you don’t have notes and a master timeline.

    Creating a world with a history is a hassle, too. :/

  3. On my last revision for my novel, I thought I’d better write a timeline for all my characters (when they were born, when they met, when big events happened), and I discovered that parts of my backstory were impossible. I’m so glad I did it. I never realized how off I had been. Would have been very confusing.

  4. Fantasy definitely makes this harder, especially when you have to factor in birthdays during ‘time passes’ sections. I’ve started noting how much time passes between books and I check passage of time during edits, but I admit to not being 100% successful. Night time gets even harder for me because I have 4 moons to work with.

  5. As a reader, rather than a writer, I so agree with what you say! Just the other day I was reading a book where the heroine asked the hero how he had found out about something. He replies that he has been told by a third character. Meantime, I’m yelling silently ‘No you weren’t! The heroine told you herself two days ago! You had a conversation about it!’

    It breaks the flow and throws the reader right out of the story.

  6. I am as picky a writer as I am a reader, and I HATE when writters mess up the details and try to slip them past me, my favorite show “walking dead” did it 2 weeks ago (the main charicter Rick fired 3 shots from his gun then had to reload, WTH, Revolvers have 6 rounds, and if he has ammo to reload, he has ammo to top off in the first place.

    Details are what make the world, and what break the story when you ignore them.

  7. This is so true. I did my first NaNoWriMo this year and failed miserably because I didn’t plan. I’m bookmarking this!

  8. Hey Shannon,
    I like your suggestions. I’m going to start keeping a chart on a calendar, making sure the seasons match up with what the characters are wearing, etc. I’ll admit that I need to work on describing more setting elements (that’s why I love revisions).

    And you’re right about television shows only portraying one season all year long. I watch ”Pretty Little Liars”–setting is Pennsylvania, but it’s never been anything besides fall. Yeah right, where’s the snow?

    Keep smiling,

  9. Awesome advice!! It’s definitely something I never put too much thought into, but now that you say it you’re right — it is kind of annoying when time and character interactions and full moon cycles, etc… are all jumbled because we, as writers, don’t take the time to think of those little details during the revision process. I just got that program Scrivener, so this idea will be really beneficial for me to add in my little side notes as I flip through the chapters on my clipboard so I can keep a good track of time as well! Thank you!!

  10. I had the same problem with my speculative fiction, Life in Slake Patch…it had to cover a whole year…so I kept track of seasonal elements as best I could. Your system is easier – thanks for sharing.

  11. Great article!

    I like to think I’m very good at keeping track of environmental conditions, visual space and placement of characters, which is one less thing to worry about.

    My current baby (returnnovel.wordpress.com) has a glossary/bible with short character biographies and that worked well at the beginning. Unfortunately, the story has caught a bad case of character proliferation, and updating the bible is becoming a massive chore.

    Where I *really* fall down is keeping track of characters during a revision. Once again, the search function has become my best, and possibly only friend. Once again, thanks for the advice and encouragement.

  12. Couldn’t agree more Shannon. Whatever world is being created it has to have consistency otherwise you lose the reader’s trust. My novels are written in ‘real time’, ie set in particular years and months within those years. I keep one big timeline chart starting from when the oldest character is born and expanding into days of the month during the timescale of the novel. I then map relevant real events (political, world events etc) and individual character life events, as well as the events of the novel timescale. However, I have learnt to allow a bit of poetic licence and don’t necessarily give the exact date of each novel event, get the weather right for the season, but not necessarily exactly as it was to the day. But it’s still important to map how many days have passed between each event and the chart helps enormously with this. I haven’t paid much attention to moons, however, and will now think about mapping them too.

  13. I use Google Calendars to do basically the same thing and it really helps keep me organized and track things like which day is a weekend (and therefore characters won’t be working or in class), and how long ago some event happened, so when a person says “six weeks ago I…” she really means it. It lets me add time of day, location and other people present too. I can see how it would be even more useful when tracking events for more than one character if your point of view shifts back and forth!

  14. Keeping track of time in a story is essential, especially when you start mucking around with time itself. When you go non-linear the calendar becomes 3-dimensional. Great fun.

  15. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one obsessed with time. My central characters are time travelling from 1909 – 1913, and you’re right, it gets messy if the days get away from me. I love your system and shall adopt it when doing the revisions. Cheers 🙂

  16. Perfect “timing” Shannon…I just sat down and spent an hour re-writing my timeline for my sequel. I was working on a piece to slip into a Wednesday (book date) but upon reading it back I realized that one of the characters touched an incident that didn’t happen until Friday. I guess it’s like the old saying that “man invented time so everything wouldn’t happen at once”.

  17. I love this post! It always bugs me when I see inconsistencies in a story, though I am sure it is so difficult to keep track of everything, especially in fantasy books. I am always really impressed when authors write something that deals with time travel are able to keep up with this type of information! It has to be difficult!

  18. Reblogged this on Children's Author Kevin Sheehan and commented:
    I’ve found during my many editing sessions that my inability to keep continuity with time in my work is a major issue. It’s especially hard for longer works or manuscripts where you take several breaks from and just plumb forget the time of day when you pick it up again.

    Shannon A. Thompson has provided some great tips for avoiding these pitfalls. Writers take note!

  19. Like Linda Joyce, I favor spreadsheets. The degree of manipulation you can perform in lining up scenes and chapters with days and years and characters is greater.

    Novel writing software such as YWriter (and Scrivener, I’m sure) lets you track elapsed time per scene down to the minute, if you’re doing something closer to “24.”

  20. So true and so important! I just read a novel and every time I think of it the first thing that springs to mind is that the little girl had tadpoles, in November, in Scotland… That sort of thing so spoils a story for me that I planned it incredibly carefully for the manuscript I just wrote – including sunrise, sunset, weather, dates/days with a 2013 calendar, characters ages/families/appearances… it was surprising to me, as a first time novelist, that this aspect was harder and more time consuming than plot/ideas/flow of writing.
    Great post. You’ve crammed in so much writing experience for your years.

  21. I have actually created timelines and family trees to keep track of things but love your advice of keeping track of it chapter by chapter. Such a common sense idea but not one which most people think of when they’re busy trying to develop mood and write dialog. Thanks for the great tip.

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