Kate Beckett of CASTLE has a secret weapon. This weapon gives her the power to neatly collar every culprit within a cool forty-five minutes each week. Thanks to this particular tool, she has the highest arrest rate in the precinct. And no, the secret weapon is not Richard Castle’s pretty face, or his crazy theories, or his cappuccino machine.
Pop quiz! After examining the body and talking to Lanie, what is the first thing Beckett does when trying to solve a murder?
If you said “roll her eyes at Castle,” then you’re right about it being the first thing she does but wrong about it having anything to do with solving the murder. If you said “start a type-A version of a serial killer’s creepy collage,” then ding-ding-ding! You win at crime-procedural quizzes! Kate is not Kate without her trusty murder board.
***SEGUE ALERT: What the heck does this have to do with writing? Well, I’m about to tell you…
After finishing the bulk of my most recent novel, I realized that I didn’t have a clue how much time was passing between each scene. This led to all sorts of inconsistencies about setting (Why is it suddenly warm and sunny? How did she get from point A to point B so fast without teleporting?), plot (How did she know X when she doesn’t find out about Y for another three chapters?), character (Would she be talking to him again so soon after he did Z?), and realism (If A happens on a Monday, and B needs to happen on a Friday, how does she realistically avoid the villain until then?).
If you’re a painstaking outliner, then you likely haven’t got these kinds of problems. But if you’re more a pantser, like me, there comes a time in the organic growth of your novel when you need to find and eradicate these inevitable inconsistencies. For me, the easiest seek-and-destroy strategy involves reverse engineering my novel—in other words, filling in a backward timeline.
Let’s go back to Beckett for a second. When she comes on the scene, the murder has already happened. She’s effectively at the end of the story. She needs to figure out everything that happened leading up to the murder to figure out who the murderer is. And what does she always start with? Time of death.
For your novel, time of death is any point in your story that must occur at a certain time. If your villain has to cast a spell on the solstice, then make that point your “time of death” and work backward (and/or forward) from there. If you don’t have any points that must occur at certain times, pick a season you want the story to take place during and adjust your dates/times from there according to the amount of time you want between each plot point.
If there are multiple points that must occur at certain times, then mark them all in your murder board first before filling in the other events. When I did this for my novel, I found several places I needed to cut back on events and other places I needed to fill in to make the required dates work. (FYI, I used notebook paper, but a whiteboard like Kate’s would probably be more efficient and require less scribbling.)
As you fill in all the events that happen in your novel, patterns start popping out. If you’re constructing your story well, there’s a warp and weft of action and reaction, cause and effect, which carries your characters through to their fateful conclusion. If something’s off, you can tell in a glance. It’s like taking a step back and seeing the forest rather than the trees.
Flub-ups to keep an eye out for:
- Scheduling mishaps—Be true to your world. If your protagonist is in school, remember to account for that. If it’s a Wednesday, she’s probably supposed to be in school instead of chasing bad guys. You can write around that, of course. She can skip school, or if she’s not a skipper, you can mention it’s a school holiday or just skip over a few uneventful days in your narrative to get to the weekend. The point is to be mindful in your writing so that your reader doesn’t have to wonder about it.
- Dropped subplots—In my experience, subplots are the true heart of the story. They are often more character driven and provide substance to back up the external events of the main plot. But they are also pretty tricky to weave in. It’s easy to introduce them in the beginning and then unconsciously drop them until the end, which can leave the reader with a slap-dash, wow-that’s-awfully-convenient feeling instead of the thoroughly satisfied feeling you’re going for. Seeing the forest will help you tighten up those subplots, weaving them in through the middle better.
- Extraneous fluff—Many stories struggle with flabby middles. Tightening up the subplots will help add texture to the middle, but if you want your story to fit into that size-6 slinky black dress, take a hard look at your timeline to determine if every scene is doing all the work it can. I personally think every scene should have at least two, if not three, purposes. Each must somehow advance either the main plot or a major subplot. If one of your darling scenes is a side-trip to Disneyland that has nothing to do with your characters saving the imploding world, and you just can’t cut it because it showcases how the characters are reconciling with each other, then find a way to make that trip to Disneyland matter to the main action. Take another scene you care less about that does move the main action forward and combine it somehow with the Disneyland scene.
- Missed opportunities—Capitalize on your theme by weaving in small moments of character self-realization as well as imagery and/or allusions that illustrate it. Use foreshadowing to add depth to your scenes. The murder-board timeline gives you the perfect perspective for where to fit these extras in without them coming off as heavy-handed.
For Kate, the murder board helps her build the story that tells her who the villain is. For writers, the murder board showcases the story as it currently exists so it can be tweaked and prodded into perfection. In both cases, it provides the sometimes painful and always uncompromising truth. What you do with that truth is up to you.
Your turn! How have you used timelines (reverse or otherwise) to help you structure your story?