The Efficient Writer: Using Timelines to Organize Story Details

FACT: when we sit down to write a novel, most of us already have almost a book’s worth of notes tucked away in computer files, stored in writing apps, scribbled on notepads, or stuffed into the coffee-glazed ridges of our brain.

And honesty? This is my jam. I love the brainstorming stage because everything is still on the table.

This is my happy place. I put story puzzles pieces together, like what backstory events shaped my character and which important locations will tie into the story. It’s all about A leading to B, which leads to C.

I think about the ways characters are connected, make notes about the tasks they must complete, and hash out roadblocks I’ll put in the protagonist’s way. Creating a giant ball-pit of ideas? It’s glorious.

But then it’s time to actually write.

And my brain sort of goes, Oh crap.

It isn’t because I’m trying to pants my way into the story. I actually shifted from pantsing to plotting after seeing how much better my novels were when following story structure turning points. The Story Map and Scene Maps [Formal and Informal] tools give me what I need, so all good there.

My Problem? Searching so many notes for important information that keeps my worldbuilding consistent and supports the logic of my world.

Like, where did I list out the hierarchy of mages for the magical order the hero belongs to? Or what was the sequence of artifacts he had to find to build a weapon that will protect him from dark energy infiltrating the magic community? If I flub these up, readers will notice, so I have to make sure everything is consistent.

Trying to sift through notes for where I had jotted this information down was costing me time, and occasionally it pulled me out of the creative flow. Some information, I found, needed better organization.

Thankfully, we created Timelines at One Stop for Writers. Ironically when we built it, I was thinking of how it would help other writers with their story planning, not imagining how much this tool would also help me. But wow, does it ever work well to keep me organized!

(Okay, I have to show you. Excuse me while I geek out a bit.)

Most people think of timelines as a way to create a calendar of events that happen throughout a story…and they’d be right. It’s a handy way to plot time sensitive events, like the order of battles in a war that will put your character on the throne, or the clues your mystery sleuth discovers at crime scenes as he hunts for a serial killer:

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But timelines can also be used for so much more, like charting a character’s backstory wounds to better understand why they fear Abandonment:

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Or, as a way to crystallize a character’s motivation in your mind, drawing right from the Character Motivation Thesaurus entries:

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Timelines are also great for grouping objects or places and the important details associated with them, especially when you’ll need to source this information throughout the story. This was my big problem!

Here it is helping me keep track of the special powers of sacred gemstones in one of my stories:

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Maybe you plot using Save The Cat, or you’re a bit of a note card plotter like Michael Crichton and like to write down story events and then play around the order. Timelines work really great for this because all the boxes are “drag-able,” so you can test out different scenarios by moving things around:

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Honestly, I could probably come up with a million ways to use this tool, but I think you get the gist. If you want to see more ideas of what can be tracked and organized using a timeline, there’s a list here. Between this and the Worldbuilding tool, planning story details and keeping it all organized has never been easier.

Want to give the timeline tool a whirl?

You can find it at One Stop for Writers, along with a ton of other writing resources. (And if you need it, there’s an active 25% off code for One Stop For Writers plans at the end of this post.)

Do you ever create timelines to help you keep your story organized? What types of things do you track? Let me know in the comments!

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About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in About Us, One Stop For Writers, Plotting, Story Structure, Time Management, Uncategorized, Writing Resources, Writing Time. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to The Efficient Writer: Using Timelines to Organize Story Details

  1. Mark Marderosian says:

    Great article. The software is similar to storyboards. From my background as an animator, when doing the timeline, I wrote out blurbs of the scenes on about 50 note cards with slight detail. And then tacked them to wall so the whole story was in front of me at once. This way I could get a sense of the pacing flow too. Most important for me was being able to switch scenes around if needed. Being able to do this physically with actual tactile paper made me think through the decisions with more depth, but that’s me.
    Thanks again and glad I discovered your site!

    • Yes very similar. I like the ability to switch scenes around also. The first time I did it was with physical note cards, but this is so much handier. 🙂 But I do know what you mean about the tactile component–I feel that way about resource writing craft books. I am able to digest the teachings more by holding the book and marking a spot if need be, but it isn’t the same with an ecopy.

  2. :Donna says:

    Timelines is definitely my preference! It helps everything, I think 🙂 Plotting, pacing, character arc, etc. I have software that—when I finally get to writing my novels—has a timeline feature 🙂

  3. H L Wegley says:

    I once created a sequence of action scenes where timing of events had to be accurate, often down to the second, for about 2 hours. I couldn’t have done that without a timeline.

  4. Just call me Graphic Organizer Girl! I not only use timelines but I save them. More than once I have been searching for a particular bit of information or data and find it on my lovely timeline. Oh, and I also date every single paper on which I write because you never know…

    I’m so glad you shared this article; it’s very informative and helpful. May you have a very lovely day.

    • Hi Sharon! I am like you–I keep everything. But this is why timelines I think is so vital for me–it will help me organize those details I just can’t lose track of. Happy you found the article helpful. 🙂

  5. This is fabulous, Angela. I can’t wait to use it!!

  6. I’ve been sold on Plotting! I’m trying my first story on plotting, organization of details, worldbuilding logic, etc. It takes time, but I think in the long run, and in the end, it’s worth it!

  7. Paul Vitols says:

    Hi Angela. That does look like a cool tool. I’m all for inviting the left brain to the writing party.

    I appreciate your devotion to the teaching of storytelling craft, and you may be interested to know that I’ve again mentioned you and Becca in my latest blog post. I suggest that you may be saving lives–and I mean it.

    Thank you.

    • I just finished the article–some very good food for thought. At least writers now have support and access to what they need–I can’t imagine how dark the dark days would have been for writers of the past. This is why we should celebrate them all, known or not, for following a passion that many around them didn’t understand or support. 😉

  8. As an unapologetic plotter, I use timelines often. My current WIP involves two hi-tech government projects in two timelines. I think I’m going to parallel plot it, in which timelines are a necessity.

    • Unapologetic–I agree! There are just so many things to plan out when you write, and some novels are more complicated than others. If you mess something up (get the timeline of events wrong, mess in a detail, break the worldbuilding logic, etc.) the reader will be completely pulled out of the story. Hurray for us plotters and planners!

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