The problem of complexity
If you ever have a difficult time managing the threads of your plots and subplots, this strategy may help you. It can also help to bring lackluster characters to life.
It’s important to me, as I write my stories, that my characters feel alive. I don’t want anyone to be a mere plot device. In real life, we don’t exist just to further someone else’s story. Everyone has their own aspirations, fears, desires, and worldviews built from their individual struggles. Our characters should be the same.
So for every character explored at more than a passing glance, we should make sure we understand how the character got here, what they want, why they want it, what’s standing in the way of them getting it, and what they’re willing to do to overcome those obstacles.
In addition, there are broad, impersonal storylines to consider—the local and world events that have led to the characters’ current situation. There are main plots and subplots. There are inanimate objects that play ongoing roles in the story. There are organizations with their own evolving agendas.
So I write an individual timeline for every important entity in my story. The readers will never see most of this work, but I believe it’s important for bringing characters to life and making the world feel real and immersive.
But when we’re juggling more than a dozen timelines, it can get increasingly difficult to keep track of all the narratives and ensure the intersections of those timelines make sense and that we’re not creating plot holes.
My requirements for a timeline organization system
I needed a system that had the following criteria:
- Minimal cognitive effort spent finding tools or user interface elements. (Again: simple.)
- Gives me the flexibility to:
- Free write ideas
- Reduce events to simple lists
- Get very broad overviews that I can drill into to find the more minute details
- Allows me to make comments that I can return to when I’m unsure of something, have questions remaining, or just need to leave a reminder to myself for later
- Doesn’t require me to bounce back and forth constantly between tools or sections within a tool
I use Scrivener for this. I prefer Ulysses as a general writing tool (I think Markdown is far superior to rich text in almost all situations), but Scrivener gives me the ability to add notes and comments to the sidebar, which is instrumental to this process.
If you don’t have or don’t care for Scrivener, I’m sure this process can be adapted to other writing tools.
Note: I sometimes use Aeon Timeline to help me get all the details of the timeline in perfect order, but it’s not my favorite tool for figuring it all out.
The basic idea
The basic idea is simple, and most writers probably do some variation of this. I write an individual timeline for every important character, object, or other aspect of the arc and then check all the intersections of the different timelines.
Note: This is not the story outline. Readers may not even learn everything I put in my timelines. This is a way of organizing every entity’s location in time and space in relation to one another. Figuring out the structure of the story is another process entirely.
Also note: for simple stories with single narratives, this may be unnecessary, but I still wouldn’t rule it out. It’s helpful to place every character in a story of their own, even if it’s never revealed to the reader.
In my current work, the story plays out across two worlds. It has over a dozen main characters, each with their own agendas, hopes, and fears. It involves other sentient beings with their own unique perspectives, along with objects and organizations whose paths I have to track. I get overwhelmed by all the threads.
So I create a “Timelines” folder, and inside that, I create an individual folder for every important character/entity. They all get their own timeline to track their progress and whereabouts through the story.
Then, within each folder, I create a document for each important event or action. I emphasize the word important because there should be as many as are needed, but as few as possible to get an overview of the timeline at a glance. So whenever possible, I combine smaller events under one parent. The key is to keep cognitive load as minimal as possible.
So, for example, let’s imagine we’re writing a story in which Gilbert is flying to NYC to see his close friend Sue. But their fun is interrupted by aliens destroying New York.
Inside my “Timelines” folder, I create a folder for each entity: Gilbert, Sue, the aliens, and the city itself, since it will change as the story unfolds.
Then, inside each timeline, I create a document for each major turning point.
Writing the details
In each document, I write out the details and list the smaller events.
For example, the headlines in our alien invasion story are: Gilbert flies to NYC, he meets Sue and they go to a museum, aliens attack NYC, and they flee NYC as it falls. Those are the key events, but within each of those will be a number of smaller details.
I just write those details freely, describing the sequence of events and making important notes to myself. If I try to be clear and concise at this stage, it stifles my creativity. (Clarity and concision will come next.)
Bullet point summary
Now I summarize my ramblings into bullets. I do this right at the top of the same document.
I use as few words and bullets as possible to know what happens here. Sometimes it’s only one bullet. When I return later while I’m writing or outlining, I want to be able to get the gist at a glance. If I need more detail, I can still read below.
Now I try to put my bullets into a sentence or two and I put it in the document’s synopsis. This makes it easy to scan through my cards.
The three questions
Most of us have some variation of this. As I’m writing my timeline, I ask these three questions at every milestone for every character:
- What do they want?
- What power do they have to go after it?
- What can I put in their way?
This is best done here, at the timeline stage, while it’s still easy to make adjustments.
Tracking intersections and major turning points
You can get buried in minutia when you’re tracking every character’s placement in relation to one another at every moment, so at this stage, I just need a basic visual to denote all the major events and meetings.
My method for this is simple: I just create an empty document that visually separates documents before the major event from what comes after. I name them using this convention:
I’ll put that milestone inside of all relevant timelines and it helps give me a visual of when they’ve all experienced something momentous in the story arc.
I often find I’m unsure of what needs to happen in some part of the timeline. Perhaps I’ve written something contradictory and I’m unsure of how to reconcile it. Maybe I just don’t care for one bit, but I haven’t come up with anything better yet.
Rather than getting stuck at these parts, I just select the bit of text I’m unsure of and make a comment so I can return to it later.
This process could be easily adapted to another piece of software.
We could abstract the process in a more generic way.
- Create a timeline folder for every character/entity.
- For each entity, create documents for each important milestone.
- Within each document, list the sequence of events relating to that milestone.
- Start by just writing out everything that happens and any necessary notes.
- Put a simple bullet list at the top of the document with what you must know at a glance.
- Create visual markers for the most important milestones, especially if they intersect with other entities, so you can make sure they align properly from each entity’s perspective.
If this process was enough, then you’re probably ready to turn this into an outline (or just start writing if outlines aren’t your thing). To do that, I go through every document in every timeline and decide what I must tell the readers as part of the story, and I organize it all from there.
If you’re worried the timeline process may have still left gaps or inconsistencies, you can turn, now, to a timeline tool like Aeon Timeline. Enter all the important bits with precise dates and times, and you can ensure everything makes sense and happens in the correct order.
Download my free Scrivener template
This template includes the Timeline folders I’ve described here, along with a few other tools I use. Instructions are included in the template.