Time Line Helps You Plot

Time Line Helps You Plot

I know that my new novel will take place over a 98 hour span of time. So, I’m working with those 98 hours, creating and structuring the time line of the story in these ways.

Divide the Novel into Acts

The idea of 3 acts is old, but still useful. Some divide a story into four acts. In 3 acts, the structure is the opening, the middle and the conclusion. In 4 acts, the middle is divided into two sections and can have various structures. For example: conflict/resolution, trying to solve a problem/learning to accept the problem. It is useful to think about some sort of twist or change at the midpoint of a story, something that escalates the story or twists it in a slightly new direction.

For example, in the movie Lion King, in Act 2:part 1, Simba is living the good life, makuna matata. But at the midpoint of the story, he sees his father in the stars and realizes he must return to take his rightful place. Act 2:part 2 is about Simba struggling to take back the pride.

While that sort of midpoint change is helpful, I still like to think of a story as 3 acts, instead of four because it helps me keep the middle integrated better.

Act 1: In the opening act, I want to introduce the main events and characters and explain exactly what is at stake. The act ends with something that forces the characters to commit to solving a problem in a certain way.

Act 2: Emotional Heart This act has been called the emotional heart of the story. I’m learning to make sure that the emotional arc of the characters is clear here. At that midpoint, the character inevitable faces what s/he fears the most and there is some sort of character growth.
Act 2: Solving the problem. Also in Act 2, the main character tries a number of strategies for solving the problem and most of them end in a disaster which makes everything worse. Oh, he learns things and has a few successful moments. But they are illusions.
Act 2 ends with another disaster which sends the story into Act 3, with the potential for a lot of action.

Act 3: Here, the story events build to a climax. The story can actually end one of four different ways.

  • Failure, but that’s good.
  • Failure, and that’s bad.
  • Success, but that’s bad.
  • Success, and that’s good.

In other words, the main character of your novel can succeed in his/her goal. But the story events will tell the reader if that success or failure is a good thing or not.

Slot Novel Events into Time Line

Besides dividing the time line into acts, I’m also trying to slot in events. I know certain events are possible given the setting and characters, but the order of events has some flexibility. I’m finding the combined time line and division into acts useful. Originally, I wanted two characters to star gaze at a particular point in Act 2, that is in the structure of the story. But when I consulted the time line, it was mid-afternoon. Won’t work. If they star gaze, they’ll have to have a different dynamic going on than I had planned because they’ll be at a different point in the act structure.

Track Emotional Arc through Time Line and Events

Once I have the time line divided into acts and have slotted in some events, I’m looking at the emotional arc of the main characters and of the subplots. How do the stages of the emotional arc fit into the structure I’m building?

Whew! Seems like a lot of prewriting. Yes, but my weakness is making sure the emotional arc is strong and I’m trying harder to solve problems in the planning phase. Also, the event can not stretch out any longer. This story must resolve in 98 hours. So, the nature of the beast requires more planning this time. Lots of planning. But I’m also starting to try out some voices, and when I get to that, it’s starting to be way more fun. That’s when the structure will allow me to turn loose and be very right-brained about the story, secure in the knowledge that the skeleton is right.

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