Tuesday, March 21, 2006


I'm setting up my new novel's timeline tomorrow, starting with an event that happened 700 years ago. The novel won't begin with that event, or the others that occurred over the subsequent seven centuries, and there will be no flashbacks. Still, I need to impose order on one character's lengthy backstory, and chronicle it in major events before I wrestle with the present (this is all part of my practice of knowing a lot more about my characters than the reader does.)

If you think of a novel as simply a series of events, fortunate, unfortunate or otherwise, you can map out a basic structure that will help you create your scenes. Here's the first part of the original timeline for StarDoc.

1. Cherijo packs her things and leaves Earth for a new world.

2. En route to the new world, Cherijo broods over her situation.

3. Cherijo arrives at the new world and insults her new boss, Dr. Mayer.

4. At her new job, Cherijo makes mistakes and questions her decision.

5. Cherijo clashes with Reever, the colony's telepathic linguist.

6. A slaver forces Cherijo to deliver his mate's quintuplets.

This was my initial plan for the opening chapters, and when I wrote the book, the timeline gave me a story roadmap to follow. I decided to open the book a little differently, because the solitary packing-to-leave scene I had in mind provided too much info dumpage temptation, and that's the reason the novel opens with Cherijo in the shady part of town, hiring a pilot and ending up in the middle of a bar fight. This change in plans didn't alter things, and I find that if I timeline only off significant events that affect the protagonist in relation to the central plot, setting changes generally won't cause a problem.

Timelines allow you to move through the novel plan without a lot of unnecessary information or the cast of characters cluttering your view. I find the hardest thing about working off a synopsis is that it reads in story form. I'll break up a synopsis into one or two paragraph chunks when I use it for creating chapter sumarries, but even then it's too wordy or not orderly enough to really be useful.

What most helps you all when you're working out your novel plan?

Related links:

Holly Lisle's Scene-Creation Workshop -- Writing Scenes that Move Your Story Forward

How to Plot When You Can't

How to Make a Timeline


  1. I've found the only thing that works for me is the rather luddite index cards. I have one index card per scene. I start with the important event scenes and then start filling in between them.

    Usually there's only one sentence or so on the cards :)

    Then I start writing and occasionally move the lesser scenes around in order and have been known to discard one or two but it gives me the freedom I need without boxing me in...

    Not sure how much sense that makes.

    At some point I may put up on my website the progression from scene card to rough scene to polished scene so other folks who struggle with methodology can see an example. Of course that means I need to sell this one first because I won't put it up with uncontracted work being used.

  2. Novel plan? novel plan? Uhh...

    I usually hold the whole thing in my head and makes notes. No plan as such.

    Once the book is written, then I'll go back and look closely at the structure, the timeline, the characters, etc.

    I'm lucky that, so far, I've not had to do much post-writing, and that the books I've handed out has had good feedback.

    Now, all I have to do is to go out and buy the confidence to send them to publishers. It'll come. Someday. Soon. I hope...

  3. Mind maps, big sprawling mind maps with lines and two or three word notes. Letting the old brain freefall then drawing it all together as I write. Plus I keep a big whiteboard covered in scribbled notes and a ‘to-do’ with the same kind of thing, keeping track of things that occur to me on the way.

    Mind you, maybe that explains why I’m only able to produce one novel a year ;}#

  4. Mindmaps(tm)(r) to get me started.

    Then, nested levels of question and summary, down to scene level. outline each scene based on the summary.

    Needless to say, all these levels interact during creation, with changes cascading up and down the hierarchy.

    It would be an insane strategy, except that it works really very well in Word Outline view.

    Here's a sample:

    Mind you, I'm unpublished. Ask me whether it was any good this time next year.

  5. A whole bunch of empty scenes in yWriter, with rough ideas in each outlining what should happen. Sometimes I only work a chapter or two ahead, so as not to spoil the surprises awaiting me.

  6. What works? Writing out a basic outline--the bones of the story--by hand, in pencil in a notebook. This is when I figure out the basic story questions. How did X happen? Who killed Y? Etc.

    And a small bit of dark chocolate as a reward for each section I outline helps too.

  7. Anonymous8:31 AM

    My plans are as bare bones as possible - the "outline" of major events that must happen is never more than one page in length, and by the time I've gotten half-way through the project, most of them have been crossed out or moved, so the page isn't even usable. I hold onto about three major points I know I have to make to get to the ending, and the rest is free-form.

    I've tried to do a detailed outline and scene summaries before, and they resulted in nothing being written. I knew too much detail, and it gummed up the works. I do much better giving my characters a general direction and then turning them loose and following along for the ride. Occasionaly, I have to round them back up and shift them back on track, but, for the most part, they know what they're doing. *-* I then generate a timeline based on what they've told me and what's happened, so that I'm ready for the next book.

  8. you all make me ridiculously jealous.

    I can't plot out in advance to save my life. I can't do time lines, chapter outlines, synopsis, nothing.

    shoot, here's how bad I am about it. When I was getting ready to submit what I hoped would be my first standalone to Berkley, I was asking the editor about it. This was before I hooked up with my agent.

    I had this idea I was playing with, but it was just that. An idea. I had no idea what all was going to happen after the first few chapters which just evolved from that idea as I wrote them, no plotting, planning, nothing.

    I mentioned the WIP to her and she said she just needed the first three chapters and the synopsis. I took a deep breath and admitted that I absolutely cannot write a synopsis until the story is done. She laughed and said she just needed the basics.

    I said, well... the basics are the books ends with the bad guy dead and the hero and heroine living happily ever after. But I have no idea how they are going to get there.

    She wasn't bothered by that, Thank God. just told me to write that down and send it along with the chapters. Fortunately, I did pad it up a little more than that, but geez, i sweat bullets every time somebody mentions a synopsis.

  9. I use microsoft Visio. It's the same idea as using post-it notes or note cards.

  10. I generally don't outline, but this is the kind of thing that looks like it might work. Thanks.

  11. Anonymous2:28 PM

    I made a plot outline where I broke the story into manageable chunks each ending with a mini-climax (until the big one of course), because seeing "Part I: 40k" doesn't scare me as much, and I know my chapters run about 4k right now, so that helps a lot, too. Then I went through it chapter by chapter writing down scene ideas. It changed as I wrote, though. Keep in mind, I've only finished one book, but that was the process that got me through the first after many false starts with different systems. The next one I think I'll use a more barebones plot outline and not outline the last part, just have an idea, because the first book feels rather flat to me and I think that being too slavish to the outline might have been a factor. I'm still experimenting. :)

  12. I've been using PBW's three questions for my characters lately, and it works. :) The whole who is she, what does she want and what is the worst thing you can do to her thing. It really has helped me develop and get to know my characters much faster than the way I was doing it.

    I am still working on trying to write the ending before the rest is completed. That part has proved to be very hard. I can't write endings. :)

  13. Anonymous8:11 PM

    PBW, I've emailed you the survey. Have fun, and if you're so inclined, post 'em on the blog (it'd be awesome if other writers wanted to answer them, too.) Thanks again! Oh, and "Anonymous" above was me. :)


  14. Thanks for the links! It's just what I needed. I'm in editing hell, and about to kill my characters. These might help me get out of the hellhole I dug myself in.


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