I would love to hear, in-depth, your system for keeping track of character arcs happening simultaneously in a novel. Particularly for characters' emotional highs and lows which don't sync up.

I am really bad at creating my own systems but good at following others'. I don't care if it's something rather elaborate like "draw 12 graphs on tracing paper and stick them up on a corkboard, along with index cards with highs and lows and yarn connecting them." I just really need step by step instructions to set it up myself.

  • "Swimlane diagram"
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 11:49
  • How many timelines are you talking about? 2-3 or hundreds? Many approaches would work well on a small scale, but if you are building something on a scale of Star Wars universe or Marvel universe, specialized software may be the only option.
    – Alexander
    Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 17:44

5 Answers 5


I use Excel or Word tables. There are key things I find work:

  1. Order events in chronological order and line up characters' story lines so they run in synch.

  2. Number the events and make a brief description of what happens at that point. No need to drill down to the minor details - keep it top level.

  3. Map the quality of each event in a character's story line in three ways:

    (a) ⇀ a forward barb for an event which helps them progress towards their goal
    (b) ↽ a backwards barb for an event which impedes them from reaching their goal
    (c) ⇌ a double barb for an event which creates some kind of cognitive dissonance (e.g. Huh?! A trick, a dilemma) - something that stops them in their tracks for a bit.

  4. It is vital to do this in the order in which events unfold for the characters, as distinct from the way in which the events unfold in the narrative form you end up using to tell the story.

  5. If there are loops (as you often find in traditional stories), you can condense these to view the larger arc of a character's story line more easily.

You'll find an example of how this works in action in this video of a lecture I gave on the process which is informed by George Spencer-Brown's classic work Laws of Form, a work which deserves to be better known: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZJdlhG0z78&list=PLoK3NtWr5NbrDCsvCEwaAnKcaDKPJ8XiE&index=1

  • 1
    Never would have thought of this, but it's genius. +1. Only problem is, I'm a discovery writer! (I think I'll be able to adjust it though)
    – Murphy L.
    Commented Dec 27, 2021 at 14:54
  • @MurphyL. - What do you mean by 'a discovery writer'? I'm interested ... Commented Dec 28, 2021 at 15:23
  • It means I don't plan my stories very heavily before writing them. See this thread: writing.stackexchange.com/questions/4027/…
    – Murphy L.
    Commented Dec 29, 2021 at 19:23
  • From my perspective, whether you're a 'planner' or a 'channeller' you'll always be balancing the narrative (or fabula) and the story underlying it (or sjuzhet) - in other words, 'how' you tell the story, and 'what' you're telling. If you are working on 'how' you're telling it, you'll be focusing on the reader's journey - and their story line. If you are working on 'what' you're telling, you'll be focusing on the characters' individual journeys and their individual story lines (not forgetting that the narrator can be treated as a character in their own right). The structures work both ways. Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 16:35

I like to track timelines with the help of diagrams, such as a simple flow diagram. I found it to be very helpful if I'm tracking three character's separate timelines (at the same time) and also to match events happening to two or more of them simultaneously. This method is preventing me to leave loose ends on the story.


Just So:

I'm sorry, what's wrong with a simple timeline? One where each character is on a long chart, and events they participate are highlighted? A pencil line is for any time they aren't doing anything, and a fat line for when they are. The highlighting can be in different colors, with the same colors for characters both together AND simultaneous. If you are tracking so many characters that this is clunky, you're probably tracking too many characters and need to simplify. If you need to track things short-term, you'd need a separate chart than one tracking story-wide events. So an intense battle scene would need it's own chart to track if Roland was already killed when Siegfried storms the gate, or if Roland should be there to fight him.



Get a blank electronic calendar with appropriate days -- there are Word templates and the like-- and fill in the appropriate data.


I know a lot of history, and so I know a lot about what was happening at different parts of the world at different times.

And I still find myself surprised from time to time to realize that two different events in different countries happened at the same time.

So you probably need charts with time lines to show how events in the experiences of one character relate to the events happening to another character.

Here is a link to some examples of timeline charts for history.

So you should make a similar chart with either a vertical or a horizontal flow of time.

The vertical or horizontal time scale should have equally spaced marks for each minute, hour, day, week, month, year, decade, century, or whatever, that passes in your story.

Some novels might happen in mere hours, in less fictional time than it takes to read them in real time, with many characters having experiences in different places at the same time over a short fictional time span.

Other novels could be epics in which long lived characters or gods decide the fates of entire civilizations over a span of many centuries or millennia.

And possibly different parts of your novel will have events happening at much different rates than others, and you might need several timelines with different time scales for your novel.

And in your timeline you would write the experieces of the characters at the times when they happen, or maybe with arrows pointing from the descriptions to the exact moment where they happen.

And if you are like many or most people you might underestmate the size you need for your timeline and cramm it full of cramped illegible notes, and have to start over again on a larger scale so it will be readable and have all the necessary information.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a very carefull writer when writing The Lord of the Rings. The Return of the King has a set of appendixes giving data about Middle earth. Appendix B The Tale of Years, gives chronologies of the Second Age and the Third Age.

It has entries like:

(Third Age)

1980 The Witch-King comes to Mordor and there gathers the Nazgul. A Balrog appears in Moria, and slays Durin VI.

1981 Nain I slain. The dwarves flee from Moria. Many of the Silvan Elves of Lorien flee south. Amroth and Nimrodel are lost.

And it has a section called The Great Years, that cover the events of the main action of The Lord of the Rings, happening in the years Third Age 3018 and 3019.

For example, in TA 3019 March:

1 Frodo begins the passage of the Dead Marshes at dawn. Entmoot continues. Aragorn meets Gandalf the White. They set out for Edoras. Faramir leaves Minas Tirith on an errand to Itilien.

So that entry says what four different groups of characters did on March 1, 3019.

I don't know how much Tolkien wrote out his chronology ahead of time and how much he made it up as he went, but he revised the novel several times and one of his goals was to make certain the passage of time added up, so I'm sure he made several versions of the chronology while he was rewriting.

There are several points where the narrator says that while one of the protagonists was doing something, his friends far away were doing something else, unknown to each other.

I have noticed only one chronological descrepancy between The Tale of Years and events in the novel, and as far as I know other readers never noticed it.

So J.R.R. Tolkien should be a good role model for someone writing a novel trying to keep track of simultaneous separated events.

And other answers suggest using various types of computer programs.

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