Hello writers! Today, I have three questions for you:
Where does your story start?
Where does it end?
And how much time passes in between?
If you know the answers to these three questions definitively, then go forth and write! But if you hesitated, or hemmed and hahhed, or just simply don’t know, then this episode is for you.
First, I want to remind you of something we’ve talked about before on the podcast, which is the story present vs. backstory. Story present is the moments that pass chronologically from beginning to end of your story. Even if your story jumps around in time, there is a present-day sequence of events. And, by present day, I mean whatever time period your story is set in, so if you’re writing historical or futuristic stories, that time period is your present-day. Your story present could be anywhere from one day to many years, depending on what you want. But it’s essential that you know what that timeline is.
Backstory, on the other hand, is filled with the memories of past events that the characters bring with them into the story present. How an author chooses to address backstory can also vary. Backstory could be addressed through full flashback scenes or little moments of memory during the story present. You could have entire chapters dedicated to the backstory.
But this episode is not about using flashbacks or other tools of incorporating backstory. It’s about the story present. Understanding where your story present starts and ends, and how much time passes in between, is crucial for several reasons.
First, it gives you a constraint. We have talked before and will talk again about how applying constraints to your novel can keep you from going off into the weeds. I often share how when I taught 2nd grade, my students would write these stories that just went on and on with no clear direction, until they came to an abrupt end with something like “and then they went home.” Perfect for eight-year-olds, not great for adult writers.
Second, it helps with pacing. If you know that your story present is one week, then you know that pretty quickly your character needs to be facing some major challenges. On the other hand, a multi-generational story present can stretch these out a bit more.
Finally, it gives you a target to work toward, particularly with regard to when your story ends. If you know this ahead of time, it will help you make decisions about character actions, the evolution of relationships, major plot points, and more. In other words, you will know where the starting line and the finish line are and how long the character has to get there, and you’ll be able to ask yourself, what has to occur in order to make that happen?
Here are some steps to solidifying your novel’s timeline. Having a vague understanding of it just isn’t enough. Remember, these are decisions you can make at the beginning, and they are allowed to change as needed. But deciding these things ahead of time will keep you out of the weeds.
- Decide where your story starts. What exactly is happening when the reader opens to page one? Try writing this scene in at least three different ways until you are satisfied with your answer.
- Decide where your story ends. What is the final scene that your reader will read? As with the starting scene, try writing it at least three different ways until you’re satisfied.
- Decide exactly how much time passes between page one and the end. Is it a week? 63 days? 25 years? There is no right answer except the one in your head.
Here’s a tip, too. You know how we’ve talked about how your protagonist needs to change in some way, and that change needs to reflect the point of your story? Well, the beginning and end should show this. In other words, if the point of your story is that we can only love someone else well by loving ourselves first, then at the beginning your protagonist won’t love themselves or anyone else well, and at the end they will be able to do both.
Writers, I said this already but it bears repeating: all of these decisions are subject to change down the road, once you get into the writing and revising. But making an initial decision about where your story starts and ends and how much time passes between is an essential piece of the process of drafting a novel. Without it, we can wander off into the weeds or go on and on without ever feeling confident that the story has been told. My goal for you is always to give you tools that provide structure, efficiency and focus within your novel-writing journey. And who doesn’t want that, right? I’ll talk to you next week.