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How to use a timeline to build emotion and meaning into your memoir or novel

While writing my memoir, I found that a timeline of key events in my characters’ lives helped me excavate memories and find context. I recently added another element to my timeline that has helped me advance the emotional beats of the story as I revise. And it works for fiction as well as memoir.

Because writers must go beyond the events of a story or life to include the meaning behind the memories, I realized that a key part of a timeline could include notes about the significance, emotion, and outcomes of character milestones.

As part of my timeline, I list ages and family milestones: births, deaths, major illnesses, turning points, and historical events. The new addition of emotion and meaning behind those events helped me find more opportunities to add conflict and resolution to my scenes.

Even if you aren’t writing a memoir, timelines are key tools for tracking milestones, meaning, and character change. This kind of emotional aspect of a timeline can also be a way of driving a story forward when you’re not sure what is going to happen next, since emotions often drive further conflict and action.

Here’s how I created a timeline for a story I’ve been working on:

  1. First, I created a table in a Word document with 40 rows and 8 columns. (Create yours to include the number of rows and columns that best fit your story’s time horizon and cast of characters.)
  2. Next, I listed the years in the left column starting with the earliest and ending at the top with the current year.
  3. Along the top row, I listed a character name in each column, and I included a column for historical events.
  4. Then I filled in milestones for each year of my characters’ lives. I was able to see what was happening to the characters in the context of history. This also helped me build in elements of setting.

Now, I’m adding the meaning or outcome of each of those events and have found that it is generating additional ideas to change the trajectory of the story.

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