September 2, 2013


Dear M,

Today we talk about Timelines. I have been burning to talk about them, for days. Creating a Timeline is one of my most favourite activities. It is also one of the activities I consider very important. If we get the Timeline clear before we start writing the actual story, the writing part would become simpler and easier and quicker than if the Timeline were just a few random notes on paper or in your head.

I have often told you that I started writing my first book wrong. How can it be otherwise, without a proper training or background? But the best part of any endeavour is when you figure things out along the way, and even though it means you have to plough through the work you have done and rework from scratch, you come out of it a better and more knowledgeable person.

I just wrote my story the way it came to me. Afterwards, when I figured out that there were too many threads in it and I was losing touch and forgetting some of them (despite the scribbles I had made in the name of notes), I decided to do this exercise. I am sure all the millions of articles I had read on the topic had led me to it, eventually.

The Timeline - as the name indicates - is a chronological order of things. Your story maybe told in that order, or in reverse, or bouncing between past and present, or in any order you chose. But to prevent you getting confused, and to prevent the reader getting confused, the best thing is to have a Timeline before you start.

I started (re-started, rather) with an MS Excel sheet. The year in question was 1997. So I began to enter each important detail for 1997, one point in each row.
1997 Jan - Winter, scene 1
1997 Jan 31 - scene 2
1997 Feb 23 - protagonist turned 25
I got all the incidents of this year in order, one for each row, a single line summary for each important incident. This also reminded me of important and relevant days that came in between, like holidays or festivals, that could have an impact on the story, a change of seasons that had to be incorporated into the story, etc. Things began to burst into view. Then I began to work backwards. 1972 Feb 23 - my protagonist was born. How old were his parents then? Then the years he went to school, the years he went to college, the years when other things happened to him, whether these activities were relevant to the story or not. Get what I mean?

If you don't have a clear character development ready at the time, this would help you to create it. If you do have a character development, you could take tips from that. Either way, the Timeline and character development enrich each other.

Build this, work on this, think about everything that could possibly happen. For my story, I went as far back as the 1940s, but that was because it was important to my story. Then to the future up to 2009, which was also important to the story. But the actual story does not start in 1940. It starts in 2009, springs back and forth between 2009 and 1997, and then for a while it slips back to the period from the 40s to the 90s. Hopefully it does not confuse the reader.

The Timeline gave me a lot of confidence to approach my writing. I was no longer storing everything on my head or on paper scattered across my table. I did not have to worry about if everything was handled, or of missing something until it was too late. The moment I had copied it to my Timeline (and backed it up somewhere safe) I could remove it from my head. And with it, the unnecessary worry of not trusting my memory. You have no idea how many times I had to refer this Timeline while I was writing!

What happens to the Timeline after you finish writing? It stays in your MS Excel sheet for some more time, until the editing and polishing are over, and until you are published, and it is for your eyes alone. You could retain it after that too. After all, you had spent days on this, why would you want to throw it out?


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