How mapping your timeline can help you finish your novel

Do you know the timeline of your novel?

Whether you’re a planner or a pantser, there will come a time when you need to map the timeline of your novel.

Time is a really helpful framework for working out how to approach your novel (planner) or where to take your novel (pantser).

In this article I’ll:

  • talk you through how mapping their timeline has helped two writers I’m working with get back on track
  • look at a couple of examples of novels that use time as a device to frame the action and discuss why they are so effective
  • finish up with a list of books written in a limited time frame that you might like to explore.

How mapping a timeline helped these writers

M was a little lost

M is a coaching client in the early stages of a feel-good mystery novel that has many moving parts. She had drafted the opening chapters and numerous other scenes, but she was getting a bit lost. She needed a framework to slot it all into.

We discussed the idea of setting the story over the course of a year and I suggested she plot it out month by month. She ran with this and it all fell into place.

It turned out this aligned perfectly with the seasons: the protagonist’s new life begins in the optimism of summer; the mysterious death, which is the midpoint of the book, occurs in the dark depths of winter; things start to turn around for her in ever hopeful spring.

There’s the time frame she needed.

Having this concrete structure has helped her go back and fill in some of the blanks and has also given her the confidence to write future scenes, knowing clearly where they fit.

And as a bonus, it’s helped her organise her random pieces of writing, which were all over the place, into a folder for each month.

B had run aground

B is a romance writer I’ve worked with on and off for a couple of years, appraising work in progress. She’d run aground with her novel, so she came to me for a refresher session. She told me writing used to be her happy place, but now it was stressing her out.

The first thing I did was assure her that it was a compelling story with strong themes; she’d lost sight of this with the stress of the writing. Then we started working through some practicalities, beginning with the timeframe.

She’d drafted about 70% but up until this point she’d been working in a timeless vacuum. She hadn’t deeply considered how long the central relationship of the book had taken to get to get from new love to bad love, and how long it would take for the protagonist to realise she was pursuing the wrong person. Stepping back and talking through the timeframe gave her a clearer perspective.

She realised she’d rushed some aspects of the story, and not allowed enough time for others.

Thinking about it in terms of time was enough to jolt her back into action. It gave her a plan for what to work on.

Escaping from rabbit holes

Both these writers are pantsers. Their happy place is to write in flow and see where the characters take them. But sometimes their characters were taking them down rabbit holes that lead to nowhere.

Writing in flow is a great way to unleash the imagination, but there will come a time when you need to step back from that magic place and examine the framework of the adventures your characters have taken you on.

And time can be a very useful framework start with.

If you’re a planner, understanding the timeline of the book from the outset will strengthen to your outline. What seasons are running through it, what major holidays? Any significant birthdays? All these elements add a richness to your story. They don’t need to be front and centre, just present.

If your story covers a number of months or years, you might even find that you can constrain the action of the novel to a shorter time, and use reflection to flesh out the back story, rather than writing it chronologically. You don’t always have to begin at the beginning!

For inspiration, here’s an overview of two novels use a restricted timeframe to great effect.


Two novels that use a restricted time framework

Day – Michael Cunningham

American writer Michael Cunningham has two novels that use a restricted time frame, The Hours (1998) and Day (2023). The Hours (winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize) is set over a day, and is a nod to Virginia Wolf’s novel, Mrs Dalloway, also set in one day. Day, as the title suggests, looks like it’s going to use the same framework, but (spoiler alert) there’s a surprise. It does indeed follow the characters through the parts of the day, morning, afternoon, evening, but not on the same day, they are in successive years.

There’s something refreshing and compelling about this structure.

Framing each chapter in a portion of the day allows Cunningham to delve into the minutiae of the characters’ thoughts and emotions for that limited period of time, but there’s also a sense of spaciousness between the three acts of the book: morning, afternoon, evening.

This gives it a wonderful contrast between the intimacy of the characters’ inner worlds as they are on the cusp of a life change, and the freedom to fill in the blanks when we meet them a year later in a whole new situation.

Strangely, this helped me feel closer to the characters than I would if I knew every detail. I cared deeply about these characters, as if they were old friends. I’m not sure why, maybe because that’s what can happen with dear friends that you don’t see often — sometimes you are privy to their deepest thoughts and others they surprise you by making a life change that you didn’t even know was on the cards.

The Weekend – Charlotte Wood

Australian author Charlotte Wood’s 2019 book The Weekend is (you guessed it) set over a weekend. It follows three old friends performing the sad duty of clearing out the beach house of the fourth member of their tight friendship circle. They have a weekend to complete the task, and things unravel more and more as the deadline nears. Wood shares the narration between the three characters, which slowly reveals the strengths and flaws of the relationships as the weekend rolls on.

Knowing the limited time frame from the outset gives the action a powerful intensity. Can a lifetime of friendship become undone in just one weekend?

There are plenty more examples of novels that frame the action within a limited time. I’ve listed a few that you might like to explore at the bottom of this post.


What’s your timeline?

Do you know the timeline of your novel? If not, keep this idea up your sleeve for a little booster if you find yourself struggling or lost down a rabbit hole.

If you’d like a hand with it, give me a shout. There are a number of ways I can help new writers with their work in progress, and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg.

Yes I'd love some help

Novels with short timeframes

I’ve linked to the publishers or author websites where available.

Between a Wolf and a Dog Georgia Blain (2016)

Follows a number of interconnected characters on a rainy day in Sydney.

I adore this book. I’ve read it a couple of times, which is why I’ve put it top of the list. Highly recommend.

Saturday Ian McEwan (2005)

Set in London on a single day in February 2003 against the backdrop of mass protests against the Iraq War.

I haven’t read this but sounds interesting. (Thanks Google for giving me some pointers.)

Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf (1925)

Set in post-World War I London, follows an upper-class woman as she prepares for a party she is hosting that evening.

May be more accessible than some other Woolf books. Or maybe that’s just me.

The link goes to a free ebook (Mrs Dalloway is out of copyright, so you’re not stealing.)

A Single Man Christopher Isherwood 1964

Depicts one day in the life of a middle-aged Englishman living in Southern California, who is recently bereaved.

I confess, I’ve only seen the movie. But I do love Isherwood, and it’s on the list.

After Dark Haruki Murakami (2004)

Set in a single winter’s night in Tokyo following 19-year-old Mari on an unexpected odyssey through the city.

I haven’t read this but have included it because I know he has many devoted fans.

Catcher in the Rye JD Salinger (1965)

Follows teenager Holden Caulfield as he wanders through New York city for a few days after being expelled from school.

This book is often referred to as the first young adult novel.

Day Michael Cunningham

Set over a morning, afternoon and evening in three successive years, through the eyes of a few members of a Brooklyn family as their lives slowly unravel.

I adored this book. Highly recommend.

The Weekend Charlotte Wood

Told from three perspectives of three friends over a weekend as they clean out the beach house of a dear friend who has died.

Notable also for how it deftly tells the story from different perspectives, slowly building the picture of the three friends’ connections.

Cold enough for snow Jessica Au (2022)

Meanders through a young woman’s memories while she’s on a short holiday a in Japan in Autumn.

This book isn’t for everyone, but if you enjoy an exquisitely crafted meandering structure, with not a lot of action, you’re in for a treat.

Prodigal Summer Barbara Kingsolver (2000)

Set over one humid summer in the Virginia mountains, following three different characters.

I read this about six years ago and it’s still in me. She’s a master of her craft.

And speaking of seasons

There are many books that use a season as their setting, particularly summer. But that’s another story. (One worth thinking about… seasons can be a powerful backdrop to your story.)

Want more writing tips like this?

Sign up to my email list for more tips and tricks, as well as notifications of events and discounts. Nothing too spammy, I promise.

You can unsubscribe at any time if you decide it's not for you.

...almost there...

Thank you for signing up to my email list.

Lu Sexton

Hello, I’m Lu Sexton. Helping writers get their novel where they want it is my favourite thing to do.

I developed my coaching method through years of working as an editor with new writers. I started offering manuscript appraisals in a workshop setting rather than as a written report, which the writers really loved, and so did I. So it grew from there.

If you are curious about how I could help you, give me a call or drop me a line.

Contact Lu

Lu did a wonderful job editing my novel! I can’t thank her enough for her careful reading and astute suggestions – I trusted her judgements all the way through. They were spot on!! So much is going on through the writing process with characters, settings, plot, etc. Lu provided great queries and feedback where required on these elements, as well as a razor-sharp focus on the clarity, flow, grammar of every line. I won’t go into how much I’ve learned by going through her edits!


cover of Jemma and the Raven

BD Reeves

author of Jemma and the Raven

Lu’s support, encouragement and wise advice has been invaluable and I cannot recommend her services highly enough. If you’re stuck with your writing and need an outside eye and some brilliant suggestions – get Lu.


Roz Hammond

Coaching client