The Writer’s Toolbox – Timeline: A Writer’s Best Friend

Posted: November 6, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Every writer develops their stories in different ways. Some outline, some write from scratch and let the characters develop and the plot emerge as they write. Others might draft three or four chapters before they decide it’s time to step back and determine the flow of the story.

I’ve tried all of the above and other approaches, but always come back to, and finally settled on outlining. My “ideal” story will be mapped out with all questions and issues resolved before I write the draft. Of course, that’s in a perfect world.

Regardless of the approach you use, at some point the chronology of the events in the lives of your characters will need to be validated. Most, if not all stories involve background events for your main characters, which may or may not be included in the final version. But these events are important because you want to ensure, for example, that your antagonist (let’s say he or she is a serial killer), was in a certain location at a certain time when he or she claimed their first victim. You also want to make sure he or she was not six months old at the time of the murder.

Here is where a timeline is most useful and I believe must be part of the writing process at some point of story development. What you use to create a timeline is a matter of choice.

In the past I’ve used a Word document in the standard outline form and even used Post-It notes on a whiteboard, but a template I created (and am always “tweaking”) in Excel has proven its worth and stood the test of time. If you’ve ever ‘Googled’ the phrase ‘Timeline in Excel,’ you’ll find more examples than you’ll know what to do with. The truth is, figuring out which one best fits your needs can consume a lot of time.

I’m hoping to spare you that research time.

I’m a proponent on providing examples because I believe giving advice without suggesting how to implement that advice falls well short of being effective. It’s like your doctor telling you to lose weight then sending you on your way without recommending the best approach.

For the moment and the sake of this blog, consider me a caring doctor.

Here is my prescription – my timeline template in Excel in column listing form.

  • Event Month
  • Event Day
  • Event Year
  • Time of day (Estimate)
  • Time of day (Precise)
  • Event Character
  • Event Character birthdate
  • Event Character Age
  • Details (a short summary of the event)
  • Event Location
  • Where does the event become known?
  • Notes (a free form column to expound on event details, ask questions, or brainstorm

If you’ve used Excel for any amount of time, you’re aware of its flexibility and power. Using drop-down lists, tables, and calculations, I’ve saved considerable time filling in the columns in my template.

For instance, I created a character table in a separate sheet and use a drop-down to select the Event Character. This keeps me from having to refer to a separate source of characters.

I use drop-down lists to select Event Month, Day, and Year.

You’ll notice I listed two Time of Day columns. In the Estimate column, I use a drop down list of 24 values corresponding to the hours of the day. This is a ball park time for when the event might occur. In the Precise column I enter the actual time the event occurred, because multiple events are likely to occur within a given hour and it’s essential to list them chronologically. Are both necessary? Perhaps, perhaps not, but to each his own, and in the words of actor Fred Dryer who starred in the TV series, Hunter, “works for me.” I’m probably dating myself but you get what I mean.

The character name table includes birthdate which allows me to set up the calculated column to show the character’s age at the time of an event. This allows me to verify that the CEO of a company is not four years old, for example.

Hopefully before I progress too far into the story development phase, I’m able to create a drop down list for my scenes or chapters, allowing me to select from the list to enter it into the column where does the event become known? For instance, the event date and time our serial killer won’t become known until later in the story, after the protagonist investigates (and hopefully finds and stops the dude).

The Data –> Filter tool in Excel is a powerful and valuable assistant.

Once I fill in as much of the timeline sheet as I can, I can display by a certain value or values by selecting that value or values from the column.

  • I filter by character to track the events in their life.
  • I filter by date to see what events occurred on that date.
  • I filter by scene or chapter to isolate the events that will become known at that time, which allows me to start drafting that particular scene or chapter.
  • I validate that my character’s age jibes with the event, and check the time to ensure the facts of the story are presented as they occur in the story.

. . . All at the touch of a button!

Another benefit to this timeline manifests itself during the brainstorming phase. By filtering on an event for a certain character, I can create previous and/or subsequent events for any character I believe will contribute to the plot. This determines the flow of the story.

For example, I might have an event, ‘John discovers a dead body.

From this I can brainstorm and create previous and subsequent events for John as well as other characters. Who is the person? Who killed them? How did they get there? When did they kill this person? Did anyone witness the murder? Placing characters in a location and time will help to determine hints, clues, and witnesses.

I’ve discovered the best thing about this timeline approach to developing story is it’s more fun than writing the actual story.

Isn’t it “time” for your timeline?

 

My Author website:

https://www.wordpress.com/jstrandburg

My Blog:

https://jackstr952.wordpress.com/

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Comments
  1. Theresa Oliver says:

    Great advice! I use Click Charts, a Mind Mapping program that I just found. It is fabulous and would work well for Timelines, too. Thanks for the advice!

  2. Jon Gilbert says:

    Excellent information! This is one of the things I struggle with most. Thanks for the advice.

  3. Kylie says:

    I tried something like this in excel but gave up when I found Aeon Timeline. Cheap but brilliant timeline software. It also syncs with Scrivener – so a huge timesaver with outlining and time lining. I love the work you have put into your spreadsheet, very clever (I’m still an excel geek at heart)

  4. erika leigh says:

    Reblogged this on Erika for President and commented:
    In case you missed it – Post on timelines from Jack Strandburg @jackstr952 #writingtips #amwriting

  5. RhiwSider says:

    Very much along the lines with what I do too. For long time periods and good casting I find these spreadsheets an imperative.

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