Novel timelines aren’t always needed. Short stories or novels that happen over a short space of time usually don’t need them. Even longer novels may not need them.
When I began writing “The Carduan Chronicles”, I didn’t need a timeline. There was one space ship, nine Carduans. Other than keeping track of the weeks and months to keep the natural happenings in sync, I could meander along.
Then I added a second ship coming in from space. The two ships had to meet up in a certain length of time, 16 of their weeks. A timeline became essential. Even the novel itself became a countdown of sorts.
Novel timelines can rescue a novel from major blunders. When I wrote “Dora’s Story“, I rarely used a timeline and didn’t set one up. The plot floundered so I set one up and found I was a year short in the novel.
Trying to insert that necessary year brought me to redoing some plot lines and creating subplots. I had to have a beta reader go over the story. She found several places where my repairs didn’t fit in or weren’t made.
I wish I’d done the set up sooner.
How do you know when novel timelines are necessary? Look at your plot. If you have subplots fit into the main story arc, if the main character has a time limit, if you have more than one plot line running, you definitely need one. Or you can set one up just in case.
How elaborate does a timeline need to be? That depends on the plot. For “Dora’s Story” the timeline was more general. For “The Carduan Chronicles” the timeline is day by day.
There is one big pitfall in novel timelines. I tend to rush events, impatient to get to the crisis.
If you drive 60 miles at the speed limit of 60 MPH, it takes an hour to get there. Cooking a roast takes a certain amount of time. Most people don’t walk 50 miles in a day.
Keep your timeline realistic.
A side benefit of doing novel timelines is a better understanding of your plot. And that is part of the recipe for a better novel.