Friday, February 27, 2015

Making a Fiction Timeline

I'm talking about timelines for your current WIP, by the way - not the timelines you made with a scissor and gluestick in elementary school.
Why would anyone make a timeline for their novel, though? What is the point of it?
Okay. Do you ever find yourself going back over your draft with a calculator, wondering how long it has been since Johnny left home with nothing but a sandwich in his pocket and a half-filled canteen clipped to his belt? You have to figure out if he'd be dead from starvation by now, but you have no clue how long it's been since the wolf attacked, since he lost the stockpile of berries he gathered in the river, or since his canteen sprung a leak during the rock slide. Maybe you have some vague idea. But every time you need to figure out how much time has passed you have to whip out a calculator or take notes while rereading over the last few chapters.
A timeline solves all this. All the events of your novel get put into a easy-to-read format so you can easily see when everything happened. No more rereading your chapters just to figure out if little Johnny should be dead by now (most of my character should probably be dead by now regardless of time frame, but that is beside the point).
So how do you go about making a timeline? There are a few ways, depending on your resources and preferences.

The first is the simplest. You make a list of all the events in the book that you want to be able to remember - plot points, phases of the moon, chapter lengths, etc. - and then write down the time and date next to it. You could use plain paper, index cards, or a word processing program (which allows for easier info changing).
I like organization and detail, so I'd spice it up by creating several columns of information, including name of event, character point of view, start time, end time, and maybe which characters were involved. You could use plain paper or index cards (one for each event) on rings.
You could do the same thing in a spreadsheet program like Microsoft Excel, which allows for limitless columns. Going digital, obviously, makes it a lot easier to change the information repeatedly as your novel progresses.

Even more tech-savvy is using a online timeline program. One program I know of, Tiki-Toki, allows people to create one timeline for free or multiple timelines with a premium account. It can be exported to a printable format and the timeline never expires. You just need a username and password to access it. What is nice about programs specifically for timelines is that you can add additional information likes notes on the event, character arc, labels, and more. You can also adjust the zoom to display varying amounts of time. The problem with Tiki-Toki is that events are not displayed according to their length (e.g. an event taking up three hours will only have an indicator the same size as an event which takes fives seconds).
A screenshot of the timeline I made using the online program Tiki-Toki.

Lastly you can buy a timeline program for your computer. Aeon Timeline is what I use and I love it. Events display according to their length so you can compare lengths of events and see if they overlap.  For speculative fiction novelists, you can create your own calendar with different year lengths, month lengths, etc. There are also several "normal" calendar settings to choose from. You can create character arcs and easily track which characters, organizations, and places were present or involved with each event. Various viewing settings allow you to filter events that are displayed or seperate events by arc. Additionally, if you have Scrivener Aeon can sync with it. Just like Tiki-Toki, the zoom can be adjusted and it can be exported. Aeon actually has better export options, with more formats and better layout. Particpants and winners of NaNoWriMo have had discounts on Aeon available to them the last two years (it's how I got the program).
A screenshot of the timeline I made AFTER the Tiki-Toki one using Aeon. The Relationship View at the bottom portion indicates who was participating in an event or observing, while the divisions at left split events up by arc. Both are optional views.

Of these methods I have used all, bur I quickly abandoned a simple list format and found Tiki-Toki. Then I found Aeon and never went back. It's the most convenient method and also the best designed. It is also the most expensive, but it isn't too bad with the NaNoWriMo discount.
Making a timeline has made it so much easier for me to keep track of the events in my stories. I now consider it a integral part of my planning process and keep my timeline up on my laptop when writing
What about you? Do you use timelines? How do you make them?


  1. Woking out the days since something happened in my story is the worst. I've always just kept a rough one in my head. I didn't know that there is programs you can get to timeline for you. I'll defiantly be looking into this!

  2. Haha, yes, it is isn't it? Especially when you have to figure out how long you kept the charrie on the boat, and how long it takes to walk from point A to point B. xD
    Yeah, well they don't make the timeline FOR you. You still have to enter in the events. But it IS a lot easier. :) Definitely check them out, and if you participate in NaNoWriMo I'm pretty sure they'll do discounts on Aeon again this year. Winners get a bigger discount. :)

  3. This is amazing. Fantastically amazing.
    *ahem* Thank you so much for this post. It's so helpful.