Using timelines to organize information for your novel

Timelines can help you keep track of your information as your write your novel. These can keep your story consistent. A timeline suggests a past, present, and future or in the case of a plot, a beginning, middle and end. we can see cause and effect. We see patterns and turning points.

Characters

The most common timeline author use is to keep track of their character’s past. Charting their backstory helps you understand the character’s current attitude/characteristics. Or it can simply help you keep track of their past events or even the lineage of the royal family. If you keep timelines of your main characters, you can make sure the events work with one another.

Plot

Timelines can help with story planning. Or it can keep track of plot sensitive events like the order of battles or clues your mystery sleuth uncovers. You can track your hero’s movement as he journeys place to place. It can also help you plot storylines for dual protagonists or a protagonist/antagonist combo.

Pre-Planning

If you are a planner, instead of using an outline, you may want to plan out everything on a timeline. The benefit of the timeline is you can see at a glance what happens when. If you are unsure of when events need to happen, you might put the information on note cards which you can move around as you plan out the order of your story events.

Methods

There are many options on how to create your timeline and will depend on what type of timeline you are creating. For characters, you might be able to do something in Word or Excel. There are even programs online that can help you such as Timeline Maker, Timetoast and Timeglider.

When working on where my characters are since I often have multiple characters in different locations, I find Excel works well. Each column is a different character with each row being a different day. At a glance, I can tell where everyone, and it makes it easy to keep track of how long it takes to travel to the different locations. (I’m writing fantasy, so they are either riding horses or dragons to their next location.)

excel travel

If you have not tried timelines, give it a shot. You might just find that it keeps you organized, and your story flows better because of it.

Scenes of a Novel

I’m currently busy writing my sixth book, so I decide now was a good time to do a review of some of my previous posts on writing a scene in your novel. I have covered everything from starting the scene, ending the scene, adjusting the pace, and even specialty scenes. Hopefully you will find something here to help you with your writing.

Deciding how to begin a scene in your novel 

The goal of the beginning of a scene is to draw the reader in. It must make the reader want to read more. A few months ago, I wrote about writing the opening scene of your novel. That crucial scene is often where readers decide if they like your book or not. (Read more here)

Writing the opening scene of your novel

(Excerpt from my short story The Search) And thus begins my short story, The Search. I started with an action scene to draw the reader in. And that is the point of the beginning of your story. You want the reader to be hooked and want to keep reading. (Read more here)

Prologue and opening scenes

The very first words, sentences and paragraphs are some of the most important. This is where you are going to hook your reader into wanting to keep reading. (Read more here)

Finding the perfect ending to your scene 

cliff hangerEvery scene has a beginning, middle and end. The ending moments complete the scene and should leave the reader wanting more. It should make them eager to begin the next scene. (Read more here)

Beginning and ending scenes in a novel

Last week I wrote about one of the most crucial scenes in your novel – the very first scene. But there are still many more scenes to write. And each scene of course has a beginning, middle and end. Here are some tips and ideas on how to begin and end a scene in your novel. (Read more here)

Romance and sex in your non-romance novel

As a writer of fantasy novels, romance is not in the forefront of my plots. So when it comes to writing a bit of romance into the story, I begin to wonder how much to include and what exactly to do with the sex scenes if any come about. (Read more here)

Creating Fight Scenes

Since I write fantasy, I guess it is expected that at some point there will be a sword fight or other battle taking place. With each additional book in my trilogy, there seem to be more battles.  One of my reviews for Summoned said that I wrote, “awesome fight scenes.” I don’t know if that is true or not, but I do have a few tricks that I use when developing a fight scene. These hold true whether it is someone using a knife, a sword or their fists. (Read more here)

Writing a night or low lighting scene

So I was recently writing a scene that took place in a darkened street. A battle ensues and a chase. There is a lot of hiding out and sneaking down alleys. The fact that this takes place in a world without street lamps only makes the writing more difficult as I focus on what my characters would be able to see. (Read more here)

The importance of tension in your novel

Tension is the element of a novel that evokes worry, anxiety, fear or stress for both the reader and the characters.

One way to think about it is you are raising the stakes for your character, so he or she has to work to get what he or she wants. And this shouldn’t be easy. Basically, you want to keep saying no to your characters so that the conflict appears unsolvable. The more at stake for your character, the more emotions he feels about situations and events. (Read more here)

Not too fast…not too slow – it is all about the pace

Pace is the speed in which events happen in your novel. You need to balance the pace of your writing. If your scenes drag on and on (slow pace) then you lose or bore readers. If it is too fast, you will leave your readers unsettled and it won’t be a comfortable read.

The trick is to get the balance just right. And there is no one out there that can tell you what that balance should be. (Read more here)

Cutting unnecessary scenes from your novel

Every author at some point will write a scene that just doesn’t really need to be in their novel. The scene might be rehashing something the characters or reader already know. Or maybe it is connecting two scenes that could have been connected another way such as with a chapter break.

Every scene in your novel should be an integral to the story arc. If it isn’t, then it doesn’t belong in your story. (Red more here)

#TBT – A Halloween Story

It is Throw Back Thursday…and Halloween, so I am going with something I posted 6 years ago on Halloween.

One October about 8 years ago, my my local newspaper issued a challenge to write a Halloween “story” on Twitter using only 128 characters. (Their designated hashtag took up the remaining 12 characters.) They published the top entries which included two of mine. Here is one of my entries expanded into a 500-word short story.

The original tweet:

His fangs lock on the zombie’s neck. Growling, he thrashes his head as he saves me. Never walk in a graveyard without your dog.

The new short story:

It was a dark night. The moon hung high in the air as I took my evening walk. I had been pouring over the books for so long that I walk in the brisk air was just the thing to clear my head. Dexter, my Irish wolfhound, padded silently beside me. His ears twitched as he listened to the night sounds.

grave1My path took me by old village cemetery. It looked creepy enough in the daytime but now in the dim moonlight the bare branches looked like gnarled hands reaching down toward the graves. They shook slightly in the wind.

I smelled freshly turned earth which seemed odd since there had been no recent burials that I could recall. I stopped and surveyed the scene. It was then that I noticed the figure coming toward me. He walked with an unusual gait dragging one leg behind him as if it was heavier than the other.

Dexter gave off a low warning growl as the dirt on the nearest grave began to move. I stared in horror as a hand shot out from the ground. The dirt tumbled away as a figure arose from the grave. I took a step backwards, tripping over a large stick. As I scrambled to my feet, I grabbed it. Immediately, I liked the way it felt in my hand. I gave a practice swing like a batter warming up before the game.

When I looked back up, there were now three of them, one blocking my escape. Dexter sprang into action. His large paws hit the closest figure in the chest. The creature hit the ground hard. I caught a whiff of decaying flesh. The smell caused my stomach to lurch. I swallowed hard as I hefted my club over my shoulder. I swung with all my might at the closest figure. The creature grunted as the stick hit its chest. It reached out. A clammy hand brushed against my arm. Goose bumps prickled my skin. I swung my stick again, aiming higher. This time my aim was better. I hit the creature’s head with such force that it sailed through the air landing in the brush some distance away.

I turned my focus to the last creature, a mere three feet from me. Before I could move, Dexter bound forward, crashing into the figure. They landed on the ground. irish wolfhound grey dayDexter’s sharp teeth sank into its throat, his fangs locking onto it as if it was his favorite bone. Growling, he thrashed his head side to side, tearing the flesh.

“Good boy,” I whispered as my legs felt weak.

Dexter let go of the creature’s neck and lumbered over to me. He brushed up against my leg. My fingers curled into his rough fur. I patted the side of his body as I turned for home. As we trudged home, I remember my grandfather’s warning – never walk in a graveyard without your dog.

 

Sometimes writing goes in a different direction

Sometimes things don’t turn out like you planned. And when it comes to writing that is often the case. Sometimes what you think you are going to write goes a total different direction.

This happened to me twice in the past week. The first time was when I was writing my post for this past Monday. I planned to write about an incident regarding a stranger approaching a student on his way to school. Since there has been an increase in stories of human trafficking in my city, I figured that is what I would be writing about and even looked up some facts and statistics.

But when I began writing, I realized my reaction to this incident was not the same as those of my neighbors who were more alarmed than I am. They resorted to ultra-protective parenting mode and declared that our children need to be protected and shouldn’t be walking to school. Once I realized this was what I felt passionate about, I addressed that rather than writing about the possibility of human trafficking happening in my neighborhood (which I am by no means worried about).

The other incident happened as I was finishing out a scene in my latest work in progress. One of my main characters is worried about not being able to protect his friends from a dangerous situation. I wanted a conversation between him and another character which I hoped would reassure the main character that he is doing as much as he can.

Now, I don’t follow a strict outline so I began writing with just that vague idea of where I thought the conversation would go. I figured it would be brief, but you know you can’t predict what characters will do if you give them free rein. I let the conversation flow, going further than I expected and revealing a bit of backstory. But the conversation felt natural, like this is what the characters would actually say.

As the writer, I could have forced the conversation to be what I thought it should be. But it would feel contrived and in the end, I probably would have had to re-write the section as it would have an “off” feel. I let the characters be their true selves and that should make the story better. I’m still on my first draft so I’ll leave in the scene as it developed. Whether it stays that way in the final draft is yet to be seen.

What these two incidents reminded me of is that you can’t always plan your writing. Sometimes you just need to write what works for you. Sometimes you need to throw your characters into a situation and see what happens and not stick with what you think will happen. You never know where it will lead you. And it just might turn out better than whatever you had imagined.

Challenge your character

The other day as I was struggling to write a scene, I realized the scene wasn’t working as it didn’t have any tension. Now not every scene needs to be tense or full of conflict, but one useful tip to give your characters challenges. Nothing should come easy for them. This advice helped me to fix the scene.

In reviewing another scene, I noticed the protagonist did something the first time he tried. And that reminded me of another blog I wrote recently called “Super Easy, Barely an Inconvenience” which is a phrase used in every Pitch Meeting on the Screen Rant YouTube Channel. In this series by Ryan George, a pitchman (Ryan) presents movies to a studio executive (also played by Ryan). Whenever the studio exec questions a plot area that might cause the protagonist trouble, the pitchman explains that that the protagonist has no trouble doing it hence the phrase “Super Easy, Barely an Inconvenience.”

Once I realized my character wasn’t having to jump a hurdle or struggle to do something, I knew I needed to rewrite the scene. Characters need to face obstacles. How they overcome these challenges is what makes the story compelling.

Making characters suffer or struggle can help advance your plot or can reveal something about their character. It creates tension. It makes readers want to keep reading to see what happens next. Will the character survive or how will they get out of this scrape? Maybe this will be the event that tells the reader what the whole story is about. The only way they will know is to keep reading.

The challenges and hurdles you throw at your characters can be physical or emotional. It could be overcoming an obstacle like a steep climb up a mountain or it could be emotional when they must face one of their fears to get what they want. Perhaps the action is putting a loved one at risk. This can weigh heavily on your character especially if they are the reason that person is in danger.

Writers can’t afford to be nice. Characters need to experience both ups and downs. They are not real, so it is okay to make them suffer. Have them fall from grace and then restore them. Push your characters, test them, dare them to do more than they ever imagined being capable of doing. Conflicts test your characters’ resolve or can add battle scars that shape future decisions.

So next time you are struggling with a scene, step back and see whether there is tension or conflict or if this is just a passing the time type scene. If it is the latter, you need to eliminate it or rewrite it until it has that edge your readers want.

Killing off a character or two

Looking to add conflict or tension to your novel? You might consider killing off a character – or depending on the type of novel more than one character.

Image result for murderNo matter what type of novel you are writing – thriller, mystery, romance – there may come a time when you need to kill off one or more of your characters. From serial killers to mysterious deaths to killing out of jealousy or survival, murder or death can add to the conflict of your story. And what better way to have your antagonist instill fear than to kill off a few people. Or it could be your protagonist doing the killing to preserve his or her life or that of a loved one.

Or it could be an accidental death – a fire, a car accident, a drowning, an allergic reaction, the list goes on and on. For more suggestions and how they might affect the other characters, check out this blog. https://www.writerslife.org/ways-to-accidentally-kill-off-your-characters-in-fiction/

Image result for rulesBut no matter who is doing the killing, you still must follow the rules. As with any character action, there needs to be a reason behind it. No one – not even serial killers – kill without a reason. It may not be an obvious reason such as self-defense but even mass murderers have a reason for what they do. It is not “just because” or because they are “evil.”

And if they are going to kill off a character in your story, you need to make sure there is a good reason for the character to die. It could be to advance the plot, spurring your protagonist into motion. Or it could be to add realism. No one expects to read a war drama without anyone dying. But it just shouldn’t be because of “shock” value or you need something to happen.

Image result for death of a characterNow killing off a character you have spent time developing or are attached to can be hard. It can be equally hard for readers when a favorite character dies. When done right, a character’s death can break a reader’s heart, but if done wrong, it’ll just exhaust their patience.

As I delve into this topic, I will divide these characters into two categories – minor characters and main characters.

It is much easier to kill off a minor character. Many times, you and the reader are not as attached to them. I always think of a minor character as the first person killed in a horror movie. They are not usually well developed. No one has had a chance to really get to know or like this character before they die. Because readers can spot these insignificant expendable characters, I don’t encourage you to add characters just for the purposes of killing them off.

Image result for grave stoneNow killing off a minor character might be easy, but it is something entirely different to kill a main character. Remember, you shouldn’t kill a character just because you or someone else thinks you should. You should only kill off a character if it will advance the story. This could mean that this person’s death contributes to the development of another character or advances the plot in some way. The death can spur someone into action or show a strength that wouldn’t have been shown without that death. The main thing is not to this on a whim. Make sure you think of the consequence losing a main character will do to your story and the remaining characters and make sure the cost is worth it.

If you are willing to kill off main characters, you can have your readers expecting the unexpected. They may cry at the deaths and hate you for doing that, but they will know something else. They will know everyone is at risk. And that adds tension to your story.

Cutting unnecessary scenes from your novel

Every author at some point will write a scene that just doesn’t really need to be in their novel. The scene might be rehashing something the characters or reader already know. Or maybe it is connecting two scenes that could have been connected another way such as with a chapter break.

Every scene in your novel should be an integral to the story arc. If it isn’t, then it doesn’t belong in your story.

These unnecessary scenes can derail the plot or bore the readers.

So, as you are writing or revising your story, take a good look at each scene and make sure it belongs in your story.

Here are 11 types of scenes (or parts of scenes) that might be unnecessary.

  • A day in the life – Sometimes descriptions of a character’s daily routine can be interesting or provide important details into that character. Or it can simply be boring. There scenes often appear at the beginning of the novel as the author gets to know the character or isn’t sure how to start the story.
  • Backstory – You may have spent a lot of time developing the backstory for your character, but rarely is it necessary to share that backstory with the reader. And if you do share some backstory, it should be bits and pieces as needed instead of a long dump of information.
  • Hanging out – Conversations may break up action or scene descriptions but should only be used if it progresses the plot. No one wants to read the conversation of two characters just “hanging out” or exchange of pleasantries.
  • Description overload – Descriptions let the reader see the characters and the setting. But there is such a thing as too much description. Readers may tend to skip over this if they know nothing is happening. (I’m one of those readers.)
  • Information overload – Sometimes your character needs to update another with an event that your reader has already witnessed. There is no need to tell the event again unless perhaps in the rehashing (or internal dialogue) something will be revealed, or a connection will happen as the puzzle pieces fall into place. You can even create some conflict if the characters don’t agree on the fact or relevance.
  • Too much character thought – Extended character thoughts can become tiresome especially if they are doing nothing to drive the plot forward.
  • Repeated scenes/information – Repetitive scenes are an easy trap to fall into. But once you establish your character as a caring, dog-rescuing woman or top-notch safe cracker, you don’t need to go over it again in another (and another) scene.
  • Times-a-wasting – Characters need to take a break from the action. But you don’t want characters to sit around rehashing their tough day or just resting. Make sure their actions and dialogue move the plot forward.
  • Minor character relationships – Minor characters can give your main characters someone to interact with but you don’t want to spend too much on their life or history or romantic relationships unless it moves the plot forward. Heck, there are some minor characters that don’t even warrant a name.
  • Research dump – As an author, you may do a lot of research into something – your character’s career or hobby – so that you can paint their life realistically. But there is no reason to put in scene after scene with details of these jobs/hobbies. There is nothing wrong with using information to bring color and realism to a scene, but the scene should never be about the information unless it is actually driving the plot.
  • Transitions – Whenever you switch settings or jump time in your story, you’re usually going to have to account for what happened between Point A and Point B, if only to avoid disorienting readers. But this doesn’t mean you have to show your character driving to the next location. In fact, often you can easily change scenes with a chapter or section break with just a few words noting the time or location change.

Now, I know you probably recognize some of these scenes not only from your own work but that of other famous authors. I know a well-known romance author who often does the research dump.  And maybe these scenes worked in that story, but in most cases, these scenes are completely unnecessary, and readers wouldn’t miss them if they aren’t there.

As you write or edit your story, look at each scene. Imagine the story without it. Would the story still make sense? Would the plot still progress, and the character development still flow? If the answer to these questions is yes, then the scene is not needed. If there is only one or two important elements in the scene, then you might consider adding these elements to another scene and cutting out the parts that don’t advance the story.

Do this consistently and you will create a solid novel with no unnecessary scenes, and hopefully one that readers will want to keep reading rather than closing the book.