Home » Forum » Author Hangout

Forum: Author Hangout

Timeline

PotomacBob

I doubt that it's a problem in a short story, but for stories covering a long period, how do authors deal with keeping the timeline straight?
How do you make sure you don't have a character doing something two years after he or she died? How do you make sure a character was at an appropriate age (instead of, say, 3 or 4) when they first had sex? How do you insure that, everywhere in your story, a sibling keeps the same age difference throughout?
There's probably a hundred other questions that arise. How do authors deal with it? A separate reference document?

sunkuwan

@PotomacBob

Before i even start, I will create an excel file with all character sheets that includes, age, body type, hair color, height, family connections, etc.

I will add new characters if they appear or if they are just side characters.

Replies:   PotomacBob
Crumbly Writer

I create separate timeline and character list files. The character lists identify who is who, the proper spelling of their names, their roles and their relations, what they look like, as well as when they were first introduced. And in stories with a LOT of fatalities, I'll also list when each character died (i.e. in which chapter).

The timeline lists each chapter by date and how far into the story it happens (# of days), the chapter titles and briefly describes the major events.

I also provide my editors with these, as they're a handy way to resolve questions (was this mentioned before?).

Since I also add a character list to the story, I add every character to the cast list, but only add them to the more formal character list if they appear in more than one chapter, which eliminates a LOT of the secondary characters. I also drop anyone from previous books in a series if they aren't referenced in the current book. When I finish the story, I'll then build the character list from the more detailed cast list.

Replies:   PotomacBob
Uther_Pendragon

It, as usual, depends.

In the Brennan stories, I just know their relationships. In the Crew stories -- just 1 so far -- I have a large file that lists a lot of facts about each one. (Relative ages aren't a major problem.)

Sometimes, I get a timeline with events and chapters both on it, so I don't have them going through five years of college before graduating, for example.

PotomacBob

@Crumbly Writer

Darn! That sounds like a lot of work, and a lot of time spent not devoted to writing.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
PotomacBob

@sunkuwan

Is your "age" entry set at a particular time? If not, how do you know what age the character is 7 years after you set the age? Does the Excel program calculate it for you? (Sorry, I rarely use Excel. I prefer a database to a spreadsheet.)

Replies:   sunkuwan
Crumbly Writer

@PotomacBob

Darn! That sounds like a lot of work, and a lot of time spent not devoted to writing.

It is, but then, it cuts down on errors trying to format each separate book when I need to publish, and I've learned it's best to nail down the formatting and design elements from the start, rather then rushing the important elements in order to publish the story quickly (I make a LOT of mistakes taking that approach, which I've learned to compensate for).

Since few here are concerned with self-publishing, that saves a LOT of extra work. Also, few here use more than a single editor, while I often have an ever-changing array of different editors, which adds even more complexity. So the complexity on my end resolves the complexity on the back end, so it's easier farming it out to multiple people without losing track, not updating or not responding in time.

Most of all, I've always liked having on 'standard' for how I construct books, so any detail (like timelines or cast lists, or even my esoteric bibliographies and Astrographies (the names of alien planets and systems)) that I add to one, I automatically add to the others, which only further complicates each one.

oyster50

Some of us try to keep it all in their heads and thereby tread on their tallywhackers all too often.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
sunkuwan

@PotomacBob

Sure, it is an easy math equation.

- you set the birthday of the character in one cell
- the date of the current Chapter in another
- and let excel tell you how old the character is in the mentioned chapter

(I have a chapter by chapter breakdown of character appearances, will be tedious if you do it after the story is finished, but comes quite in handy when you do that while you are writing.)

If you are super fancy, you could make all of that really pretty and have everything mumbled into a dropdown list with excluding filters by chapter, etc. etc.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@oyster50

Some of us try to keep it all in their heads and thereby tread on their tallywhackers all too often.

Trust me, I do that too. I'll often sit on a story for months or years before writing ANYTHING down, which is why, if I can't write a story within a particular time, I consider it 'dead', as I can no longer remember how the story is supposed to play out. But these details are more essential for the editing/revision process than they are for writing, so I keep them updated as I write, so that when I'm done, I'll have the details ironed out (though realistically, I often leave huge tracks incomplete in my first draft, only adding the missing details during my revision phase).

Replies:   sunkuwan
sunkuwan

@Crumbly Writer

Same for me.

I have several stories floating in my mind for years, playing out the different scenarios and plot points over and over, changing it over the years.
I will think of the story very often, even if I don't really plan on thinking about it.

Until I write it down. Then they will vanish.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@sunkuwan

I'm lucky, since I don't write family sagas or histories, each of my stories only consist of relatively short periods (typically weeks or months, rather than years).

My longest story (both chronologically, word-content-wise and timescale-wise) was six separate books, each of which covers a similar timeframe (weeks/months), while the entire series took less than a full year to unfold.

It's simple keeping track of ages then, though I worry about how many days pass between chapters, so I'll remember how to reference past events.

Replies:   Uther_Pendragon
Switch Blayde
Updated:

@PotomacBob


I doubt that it's a problem in a short story, but for stories covering a long period, how do authors deal with keeping the timeline straight?


It's even harder when you write a series with the same character. You have to be consistent across novels.

My second Lincoln Steele novel takes place after the first one (there are references to the first on in the second one). How much later I don't define, but it's a short time since he needs R&R from the ordeal in the 1st one.

In the second one, I have a character who he had a relationship with in the past. When I chose how many years ago that was, I had to make sure he was still in the military at the time.

I'm not answering your question. I'm agreeing with you that it's hard.

Crumbly Writer

@sunkuwan

Same for me.

I have several stories floating in my mind for years, playing out the different scenarios and plot points over and over, changing it over the years.
I will think of the story very often, even if I don't really plan on thinking about it.

I developed the style long ago, in my first extended (more than a single book) story, when I'd get a overall plot outline (in my head), and then throw a wrench into the works, making it utterly impossible to write. Then I'd sit on it, until I finally resolved how to handle the complicating factor.

That process make the story much more detailed, complicated and complex, which is precisely what fascinates my readers (and KILLS most fast-action page turners).

As I've stopped that process, my stories have becomes much shorter, focusing much less on nitty-gritty details of daily life, which my readers enjoyed, but it still fosters a sense of complexity in my stories which makes keeping track of multiple documents seem like child's play! 'D

And what my readers ultimately enjoy about my story, is how I take a complex, little understood problem, and slowly piece it all together so that, by the end, all the pieces fit very neatly together to form a coherent whole, which they (my readers) could never hope to have figured out on their own (i.e. the final resolution is often quite surprising, even if the final scene isn't.

Replies:   PotomacBob
PotomacBob

@Crumbly Writer

And what my readers ultimately enjoy about my story, is how I take a complex, little understood problem, and slowly piece it all together so that, by the end, all the pieces fit very neatly together to form a coherent whole, which they (my readers) could never hope to have figured out on their own (i.e. the final resolution is often quite surprising, even if the final scene isn't.


Could you give me the name of one of your stories that does that?

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
awnlee jawking

@PotomacBob

Timeline issues seem to be amongst the most difficult errors for editors to catch.

For example, in one story I read, the Mary Sue character explained to their disciples what was happening. Then a few paragraphs later, the Mary Sue character received some surprising information via a message. But the information just received was a crucial element of the Mary Sue character's earlier explanatory monologue! The author credited multiple editors; whether they all missed it or whether the author did a last second cut and paste is anyone's guess.

AJ

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer
Updated:

@PotomacBob

Could you give me the name of one of your stories that does that?

Virtually ALL of them have that basic premise (huge problem, coming out of the blue, which need to be slowly investigated over time, as they slowly reveal on issue after another.

My earlier stories, which I'm now looking at rewriting, incorporated my earlier 'Let's make this impossible to write, just SO it's more complex' style (The Catalyst (6 books) and the Great Death (3 books), are slowly being pulled (archived on SOL and unpublished outside).

Since only the Great Death remains of my earlier works in easy access on SOL, and the work is also much longer and more involved, I'd recommend you start with my more recent stories to see where I start from and how I construct my stories. My currently posting series starts off with The Cuckoo's Protagonist, which was written several years back when I was in my 'short, concise, but with few personal details' period, while the currently posting Lost With Nothing to Lose and it's sequel, the as yet unpublished Building a Nest of Our Own, are slowly building back up to my larger story sizes.

The Great Death
o Love and Family During the Great Death

Not-Quite Human
o The Cuckoo's Progeny
o Lost With Nothing to Lose

Replies:   PotomacBob
Crumbly Writer

@awnlee jawking

Timeline issues seem to be amongst the most difficult errors for editors to catch.

They should have caught that error, since it happens within a single chapter, but timeline issues are especially complex if your editors are not reading the entire story at once, and even then, they typically only catch issues after editing the entire thing and then doubling back for another pass (where the inconsistencies are more obvious).

Thus, how you include editors is often vital in how they resolve these issues.

PotomacBob

@Crumbly Writer

Thanks

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@PotomacBob

Thanks

Don't mention it, as I'm always happy to promote my own stories. 'D Sometimes I assume that everyone is so familiar with them, that they simply don't want to hear about them any more.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

Sometimes I assume that everyone is so familiar with them, that they simply don't want to hear about them any more.

The pedantic editor suggests these words are redundant: 'I assume that everyone is so familiar with them, that'. :-)

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Ross at Play

The pedantic editor suggests these words are redundant: 'I assume that everyone is so familiar with them, that'. :-)

In other words: I assume everyone is sick of listening to me talk about my own stories!

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

In other words: I assume everyone is sick of listening to me talk about my own stories!

Hey! ... You lead with the chin. I have a spare fist doing nothing. Blame Pavlov, I say. :-)

REP
Updated:

@PotomacBob


how do authors deal with keeping the timeline straight?


I use MS Project for long stories. The program is a scheduling program that was designed to help manage large Engineering and Manufacturing efforts. Especially when the effort is divided amongst multiple people or groups.

I outline each chapter as a series of tasks and assign a duration to each task. Linking the tasks sequentially gives me the timeline of the story. A bit more complex than it sounds as I can define a task to start X days after a prior task, at the same Start Time as the prior task, or immediately after the prior task ends.

I also add columns to the display giving the column a title reflecting a subplot. Marking the task as part of one or more subplots allows me to check that each subplot that spans multiple chapters is being presented in a logical order, and is brought to a conclusion.

Replies:   Keet  Crumbly Writer
Keet
Updated:

@REP

I use MS Project for long stories.

Now that is what I call creative use of software! And very fitting if you think about it. For those authors who plan a complete outline before writing this could be a good tool to use and the schedule itself is a good reference document. You can easily keep track of time, human resources (characters in your story), and tasks (events in your story).

I suppose you worked with MS Project before so you naturally used what you know?

Replies:   REP
Uther_Pendragon

@Crumbly Writer

My longest story (both chronologically, word-content-wise and timescale-wise) was six separate books, each of which covers a similar timeframe (weeks/months), while the entire series took less than a full year to unfold.


Different strokes for different folks.

My longest story in words covers roughly from September through February. Almost no flashbacks, either. My longest story in story time covers a long life, and has less than 200 words, and only one sentence. (You thought that Life Sentence was about a criminal punishment?)

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
REP

@Keet

I suppose you worked with MS Project before so you naturally used what you know?


I was a working manager of a Technical Writing/Training Department. I used it to plan schedule, costs, and man loading of the different contracts my department supported.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@REP

I use MS Project for long stories. The program is a scheduling program that was designed to help manage large Engineering and Manufacturing efforts. Especially when the effort is divided amongst multiple people or groups.

I outline each chapter as a series of tasks and assign a duration to each task. Linking the tasks sequentially gives me the timeline of the story. A bit more complex than it sounds as I can define a task to start X days after a prior task, at the same Start Time as the prior task, or immediately after the prior task ends.

Rather than scheduling each individual chapter (hint: I don't work with formal story outlines, so often don't know where a story might lead, I find setting up a strict weekly production schedule more productive.

By setting something specific: write one chapter each week, edit one and review one (while posting), you force yourself to crank out chapters. (I used to do two chapters in each category, but …) Real life often intervenes, but if you miss a few days, you know at the end of the week, you've got to get those chapters done! That prevents the perpetual delays of 'I'll get to it, but I just don't have the time!' everyone suffers from. Even if you can't dedicate that much time, simply setting a definitive goal helps keep you focused and moving at a consistent basis, while not limiting your producing more than that.

Unfortunately, due to recent health constraints, my strict regime has gone to hell. I'm trying to restart it on a more limited basis, but I'm still struggling with each chapter.

While I have used MS Project professionally, and am familiar with it, it's primary purpose is scheduling and allocating resources (team A needs to invest 16 hours so team B can reach milestone X), which doesn't really apply in a one-person artistic endeavor. So while I support the need to schedule your productivity, I'm not sure MS Project is the best way to do it. (Plus it's not a cheap project, at least the last time I priced it, several decades ago.)

Replies:   Keet  REP
Crumbly Writer

@Uther_Pendragon

Different strokes for different folks.

My longest story in words covers roughly from September through February. Almost no flashbacks, either. My longest story in story time covers a long life, and has less than 200 words, and only one sentence. (You thought that Life Sentence was about a criminal punishment?)

I love the whole premise of your story, capturing an entire life in a single, run-on sentence. But my example wasn't a suggestion for how to construct stories, but more of my saying: based on how I write, keeping track of ages isn't really a pressing concern. My characters simply don't have time to age (though Alex's did have a single birthday in that 6-book series, it just happened to fall within that short time frame (and he became a legal adult, allowed to make his own decisions, which was essential to the story).

Still, even though aging characters isn't an issue in any of my stories, I continue to work diligently on my timeline over the course of each book.

Crumbly Writer

@REP

I was a working manager of a Technical Writing/Training Department. I used it to plan schedule, costs, and man loading of the different contracts my department supported.

I love it!

"Sorry, Tom, but according to my schedule, you were supposed to finish editing 12 chapters by Tuesday, so either get your act together, or I'll hire an 18-year-old amateur who's desperate for this non-paying gig!"

Keet

@Crumbly Writer

By setting something specific: write one chapter each week, edit one and review one (while posting), you force yourself to crank out chapters. (I used to do two chapters in each category, but …) Real life often intervenes, but if you miss a few days, you know at the end of the week, you've got to get those chapters done! That prevents the perpetual delays of 'I'll get to it, but I just don't have the time!' everyone suffers from. Even if you can't dedicate that much time, simply setting a definitive goal helps keep you focused and moving at a consistent basis, while not limiting your producing more than that.

I think you misunderstood what REP does or I completely misunderstood ;)
What I think REP does is outline the story itself in MS Project, not his own writing schedule. What it means is the schedule in MS Project is the story itself with all time lines, characters and events.
That's why I thought it was a brilliant use of software that was not created for writing. The project gives a complete overview and reference for the book. It's probably most useful for long stories with many characters and events where it otherwise would be difficult to keep track of them.

Replies:   REP
REP

@Crumbly Writer

while I support the need to schedule your productivity


I probably wasn't clear. I write the chapter first, and then I outline it in Project. I only do this for long stories, and my primary purposes are to track the evolution of multiple subplots and to create a timeline when the timing of events/scenes is important. Basically, I don't want to write a scene that occurs 3 days after an event and then follow it with another scene that occurs 1 day after the same event.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
REP
Updated:

@Keet

Yes, that is exactly what I do. All I have to do is select the Gantt Chart view and I can see any timing problems with my scenes.

You can't sort the tasks in Project. I copy the subplot columns (which I insert), task description, and start time into Excel. Sorting on subplot and subsort time, groups all of a subplots task descriptions in chronological order so i can review the flow of the subplot.

Crumbly Writer
Updated:

@REP


I probably wasn't clear. I write the chapter first, and then I outline it in Project. I only do this for long stories, and my primary purposes are to track the evolution of multiple subplots and to create a timeline when the timing of events/scenes is important. Basically, I don't want to write a scene that occurs 3 days after an event and then follow it with another scene that occurs 1 day after the same event.


Good point, and as Keet said, I was misunderstanding your reason for using the tool, based on my own uses of it in managing projects for businesses in the past. You're not using it to 'schedule' events or resources ahead of time, you're using it to correlate various elements in order to document them after the fact. Which makes perfect sense, as that's precisely what I'm doing in my own 'timeline' document. I'd just never considered tying all my story threads into a separate document by chapter.

It is an elegant solution, but one which isn't obvious to anyone familiar with the software. Kudos!

P.S. That's why it's so beneficial having these detailed discussions, as we're able to see the newer innovations others have derived from thinking things through differently than we have. Each of us seems to add a different component to keep track of, but trying it all together makes sense too.

Replies:   Keet
Keet

@Crumbly Writer

It is an elegant solution, but one which isn't obvious to anyone familiar with the software. Kudos!

It isn't obvious because only if you have worked with it you know about the software and that's almost always on a management level in a business. It also has a steep learning curve. There are several open source alternatives, but again, it has a learning curve. It's certainly worth the effort if you tend to write multiple books at the same time with many characters and events. One look at the project schedule and you see where a book is at.
I bet there are some authors that use a spreadsheet to keep track of a time line. The power of project management software is that it takes away the 2-dimensional limit of a spreadsheet.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Keet

It isn't obvious because only if you have worked with it you know about the software and that's almost always on a management level in a business.

That's how I know it, and while I did use it to track business projects (software development projects), I only used it for a short time (a couple of years). Still, I used it fairly extensively during that time.

But then, my needs aren't that complex. Rather than an expensive management software package, or even a complex number crunching spreadsheet, I'm comfortable keeping mine in plain text (actually in a table in Word, though without any sorting or calculation functions).

I'll have to investigate the uses you describe here, but again, it's not a pressing need, as my (almost) text version already serves my needs nicely, but I do want to see whether I can tie my loose plotlines together so I can track which have been resolved, and in which chapters. During my revision phase, I often cull any subplots which either never panned out, or more often, just didn't rise to a substantial element in the story and simply get cut because they're just not worth the extra pages. Though I often cut entire chapters, this would allow me to identify problematic subplots before that point, though often, I never know what'll ultimately play out until I write the entire first draft.

So while it'll likely be useful, it's not a critical, pressing need.

Like REP, I only create my timeline ad-hoc, piecemeal until I finish the entire story, and then filling in the missing pieces ad hoc as I revise the story. So even then, the timeline is not a vital element, only an aid to myself and my editors so we can figure out when something happened in the story so we can tell if there are any conflicts within the story (like meeting someone after they've died, or referencing someone before the MC actually meets them). It's important to correct those issues, but they get resolved on their own in time, not through a complex and expensive piece of software.

Replies:   Keet
Keet

@Crumbly Writer

So even then, the timeline is not a vital element, only an aid to myself and my editors so we can figure out when something happened in the story so we can tell if there are any conflicts within the story (like meeting someone after they've died, or referencing someone before the MC actually meets them)

What software you use, if any, to create a time line depends entirely on the story you write. That is if the story is complex enough that it requires a time line to keep track. I would say that the complexity of the story justifies if project software, a spreadsheet, or the back of a beer coaster is used. So if you use a table in Word and that works for you then all the better since you can keep it in the same environment as the story itself.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer
Updated:

@Keet

What software you use, if any, to create a time line depends entirely on the story you write. That is if the story is complex enough that it requires a time line to keep track.

Actually, since this discussion is about the value of timelines in general, I'd say that any story, regardless of its complexity, could stand a timeline. After all, even a happy little tale of your dear

Aunt Betty can get into trouble if she had her youngest before meeting her husband (though that's definitely possible in anyone's universe).

The key is, a timeline helps you identify and correct story inconsistencies. Unfortunately, as REP and I both stated, despite our high-tech solutions, we both create ours on an ad hoc, after the fact basis, well after we write the entire story (first draft). REP starts sooner, to his credit, but claims it's never completed until much later.

That isn't encouraging advice for those who 'post as they write' authors who make up the majority of SOL authors. The 50+ chapter stories REALLY would benefit from an organized timeline to keep track of implausible occurrences in their stories, simply because there are so many events it's impossible to keep track of them all in your mind alone.

What we need is a simpler, less expensive and time consuming (extensive training required to use) solution they can use as they're writing.

So I'll ask the room at large: does anyone maintain a detailed up-to-date timeline as they write, or is the problem just with us 'only post complete stories' simply 'letting it slide' because we can?

P. S. Once again, kudos to REP for an elegant and comprehensive solution to something many of us struggle with, but if we're advising others to begin keeping timelines, we need simple, easy to maintain systems.

Replies:   PotomacBob  REP  Keet
PotomacBob

@Crumbly Writer

What surprises me (assuming I understand the thread) is that most of you only create a timeline AFTER you've written a chapter (or more).
I would have thought that step 1 would be to create an overall story arc in your mind, then (2) commit that arc to a written timeline, and from that (3) write the chapters.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
REP
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer


just with us 'only post complete stories'


The post as you go authors would find a detailed timeline of their plot and subplots even more beneficial than the post when complete authors. The PAYG group has to get it right before they post a chapter. The PWC group has the luxury of going back and fixing their mistakes.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Keet

@Crumbly Writer

Unfortunately, as REP and I both stated, despite our high-tech solutions, we both create ours on an ad hoc, after the fact basis, well after we write the entire story (first draft). REP starts sooner, to his credit, but claims it's never completed until much later.

If you don't set up a time line before, Why not add an entry to a time line after every event/scene you write? That way you can immediately see if there's a conflict and you can correct it before you have the whole story written and it might be more difficult to correct.

Replies:   REP  Crumbly Writer
REP
Updated:

@Keet

Creating an outline and timeline before you start writing is a good idea for it helps to keep your plot on track.

Adding entries to the timeline for each event sounds like a good idea, but in practice it may not work.

An event can affect multiple subplots, so keeping separate timelines for each subplot means you have to enter each event in each subplot file and that is a lot of work.

Combining all of the subplots into a single file would reduce the amount of work, but in a long story you might have over a thousand entries on your timeline. That makes it difficult to follow the sequence of the subplots' events when they are spread over say 20 chapters; unless of course you have a way of sorting the subplots events without affecting the date-time assigned to each entry.

Replies:   Keet  Crumbly Writer
Keet

@REP

Creating an outline and timeline before you start writing is a good idea for it helps to keep your plot on track.

Adding entries to the timeline for each event sounds like a good idea, but in practice it may not work.

An event can affect multiple subplots, so keeping separate timelines for each subplot means you have to enter each event in each subplot file and that is a lot of work.

I understand that completely. I was just responding to the remark that some create a time line not before but afterwards. I'm not an author but if I ever picked up the courage to start writing I would most certainly start with an out line and time line. I don't think I would be able to follow what I'm doing without those.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@PotomacBob

What surprises me (assuming I understand the thread) is that most of you only create a timeline AFTER you've written a chapter (or more).
I would have thought that step 1 would be to create an overall story arc in your mind, then (2) commit that arc to a written timeline, and from that (3) write the chapters.

Yeah, I'd come to the same conclusion, that everyone prepares their timelines ad-hoc, after the story is complete. However, your assumption that authors should prepare it first fails based on one key principal, it's not the key components of the story which cause us the most problems, as we understand those details and know when they occur, instead it's the little, seemingly insignificant details, which you never anticipate, which typically trip you up. Thus the protagonist's age isn't the issue, it's the secretary first introduced in chapter seven, who shows up again in chapter 11, saying something which happened in chapter five, which cause most unforced errors. We don't forget the key story components, but when you don't track the minor, seemingly insignificant ones, where you stumble. Thus it's not a lack of planning, but not knowing to prepare for the stray characters you introduce in the course of the story which are the problematic ones.

Crumbly Writer

@REP

The post as you go authors would find a detailed timeline of their plot and subplots even more beneficial than the post when complete authors. The PAYG group has to get it right before they post a chapter. The PWC group has the luxury of going back and fixing their mistakes.

That was my assumption, that we PWC (Post When Complete) authors simply don't bother paying attention, but that's also why I asked the PAYG (Post As You Go) crowd how they handled it.

Again, it's not a lack of preplanning that trips you up, but our not anticipating adding minor characters who then 'pop back up', almost on their own when the need arises. Since we never anticipate them being a returning character, we never think to account for their general background details. If they only show up once, as first planned in chapter 7, then no one would care about an additional detail in chapter 11 conflicting with prior events in chapter 5.

As a result, I'm more interested in figuring out how the PAYG crowd handles these issues, or whether they're 'handled' at all and they simply throw up their hands and say 'Shit! There's nothing I can do about it now. I'm NOT going back and rewrite twenty-some chapters to get that one minor detail right!'

Rather than a hodgepodge of different solutions, we need to identify simple solutions that both groups can use to as a simple, easy to implement and maintain system, especially if it can be applied retroactively to the current ongoing stories.

Any idea on that front?

Replies:   Keet  REP
Crumbly Writer

@Keet

If you don't set up a time line before, Why not add an entry to a time line after every event/scene you write?

Again, that might just be a personal lack of necessity, as the PWC crows simply doesn't have to get it right initially, especially if we're always adding new elements during revisions. Thus it's easier to wait until the story is completed and then document the various added details.

But, to verify that's actually the core issue, I'd like to hear from the PAYG crowd, to see whether they're even concerned with the issue, and whether they're troubled by story inconsistencies enough to worry about it. But it sounds like, rather than esoteric and expensive solutions, we need simply suggestions that anyone can introduce, that helps both groups on an ongoing basis. After all, adding a cute cocktail waitress in chapter 17 is just a problematic in a 50-chapter story as it is in a 20-chapter story!

We each started describing our solutions, which was incredibly helpful and provided insightful clues about which details are essential, but if we're really going to suggestion solutions, we need to ignore our collective individual solutions, and suggest a strategy which anyone can implement.

But, as usual, 'simple' is often much more complicated than complex, which is why simple solutions are such a rarity! :(

Crumbly Writer

@REP

An event can affect multiple subplots, so keeping separate timelines for each subplot means you have to enter each event in each subplot file and that is a lot of work.

Combining all of the subplots into a single file would reduce the amount of work, but in a long story you might have over a thousand entries on your timeline. That makes it difficult to follow the sequence of the subplots' events when they are spread over say 20 chapters; unless of course you have a way of sorting the subplots events without affecting the date-time assigned to each entry.

That's why, in my solution, I have an easy-to-implement method of adding character details the first time a new character is introduced, so if I have them suddenly reappear in the future, I can verify the details. However, I only document that character as a returning figure when I finally do a global search of names in the story at the end, when I'm creating the 'official' Character List from my 'unofficial' Cast List, based entirely on whether the character appears in more than one chapter.

It seems to me, that we could utilize that basic strategy and make it work, by documenting each detail. But as our experienced shows, the interim Cast List isn't really for the author, it most often comes into play when an editor or beta-reader has a question, and it provides a place to check details so they can verify whether something is a problem or not.

So I'm hoping that some variant on my solution might apply to everyone. If so, and we still need to determine whether that's true or not, but if it is, then we can define the central data everyone needs to document to resolve most outstanding issues. However, I think we've already established those, we just haven't formalized them yet.

Again, that's why we need a couple PAYG authors to speak up and explain whether our proposal might work, or if not, where it would likely collapse, before we can propose a 'basic model' for everyone.

This has transformed from 'how do you handle this?' into a 'will these techniques help anyone besides me?' issue.

Keet

@Crumbly Writer

Rather than a hodgepodge of different solutions, we need to identify simple solutions that both groups can use to as a simple, easy to implement and maintain system, especially if it can be applied retroactively to the current ongoing stories.

Any idea on that front?

I don't think there is a simple 'for all' solution. I realize that creating and maintaining a time line is a lot of work but essential if you seriously want to create a larger story. A simple way would be keeping a list of characters and events with a time indicator. Easy but very limited and still prone to hide timing errors. Complex would be using project software. Steep learning curve but if you enter everything correctly it immediately indicates overlaps or timing problems.
One thing I think that makes keeping a time line a nuisance is that you have to continually switch between writing and timeline software.
Would it be easier if you could place markers in your text with time-character-event, possibly with codes and then have a script retrieve all those marker to generate a time line? While generating it could point out discrepancies you have to correct.
When the story is finished another script could remove all the markers. Just a thought. I have no idea how a timeline as used by authors looks.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Keet

I'm not an author but if I ever picked up the courage to start writing I would most certainly start with an out line and time line. I don't think I would be able to follow what I'm doing without those.

This sounds simple, but authors basically fall into two distinct camps in this regard. There are the detailed plot outline crowd, who thoughly set in stone what happens in each chapter, and then there's the 'my characters lead the story, and I simply allow them to do what they will' crowd. To the one side, the idea of fictional characters having minds of their own is laughable ridiculous, while to the other the idea of locking your story up tight prevents the kind of 'free-flowing' story line which allows your characters to tell you when you're in trouble.

With that in mind, it then gets even more complicated when you through in that while some authors (in both camps) prepare detailed timelines, others (like me) keep everything in their heads, assuming they can 'fix' any problems that crop up during our final 'revision' phase, where we tie up any unresolved issues and/or subplots.

In essence, we're discussing two different mindsets, complicated by two independent approaches to storytelling.

Damn, the more we discuss this, the more complicated it seems. My elusive dreams of a single and elegant solution seem farther and farther off the more information we gather. :(

Replies:   PotomacBob  Ross at Play
Crumbly Writer

@Keet

One thing I think that makes keeping a time line a nuisance is that you have to continually switch between writing and timeline software.
Would it be easier if you could place markers in your text with time-character-event, possibly with codes and then have a script retrieve all those marker to generate a time line?

Sadly, with what we're describing, there are simply too many variable that we (at least REP and I) both track to be able to implement it easily like that. Which is why I'm suggesting figuring out what everyone needs first, then then defining what data they need to track.

P.S. I may have accidentally erased several posts by mistakenly hitting the 'back' button rather than the 'submit' button, but I'll only know when I review the last twelve fifteen posts and recognize any which are missing. :( But … I think they're all there where they should be.

PotomacBob

@Crumbly Writer

What about flashbacks? If the chapters of your story, when assembled, are not in chronological order, and/or you did not write them in chronological order before assembling in whatever order you want them, do you then have to go re-read everything you've written (maybe months earlier) to see if the timeline works? And continuity?

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Ernest Bywater

While writing a story I keep a notes file at the end of it that includes some important timeline events, but I don't see much advantage in a detailed time line for a single story. However, when i was writing the Clan Amir series I found writing a detailed timeline of people, births, deaths, and story events was critical to keeping things in order over the 7 books in the series as the 44 stories over 355,000 words weren't written in chronological order.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

Hmm? I see a basic flaw in what you're proposing we try to do here: you're thinking again!

Methinks dragons be where you're looking.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@PotomacBob

What about flashbacks? If the chapters of your story, when assembled, are not in chronological order, and/or you did not write them in chronological order before assembling in whatever order you want them, do you then have to go re-read everything you've written (maybe months earlier) to see if the timeline works? And continuity?

Nope. As long as you clearly label the chapter containing your flashbacks, it's easy to check the details. Plus, by keeping track of when things occur in your Cast List file, you'll know when everything is supposed to happen, so if your editors or Beta-readers have questions, they can easily spot inconsistencies.

Again, very simple solution with little to no extra effort.

Replies:   PotomacBob
Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

While writing a story I keep a notes file at the end of it that includes some important timeline events, but I don't see much advantage in a detailed time line for a single story. However, when i was writing the Clan Amir series I found writing a detailed timeline of people, births, deaths, and story events was critical to keeping things in order over the 7 books in the series as the 44 stories over 355,000 words weren't written in chronological order.

The deciding factor in my case (for maintaining a dedicated timeline file) wasn't that date conflicts were that common, instead it was because I typically create 'formal' Character Lists in my published books, so I've got to convert my simple Cast Lists into specific Lists which feature each multi-chapter character. Thus I've already identified the problematic 'minor characters'.

With that, simply offering the Timeline and Cast List documents for my editors allows them to easily spot the few chronological discrepancies. (i.e. I stumbled into a 'simple' solution purely by accident.)

Crumbly Writer

@Ross at Play

Methinks dragons be where you're looking.

Sorry, I left all my dragons in my previous 2-book series. Now I've moved on to multitudes of different (non-similar) alien species! 'D

PotomacBob

@Crumbly Writer



Nope. As long as you clearly label the chapter containing your flashbacks


How DO you label the chapters? Some sort of date code?

REP

@Crumbly Writer

Any idea on that front?


Yes, the following may work okay, but there may be a few bugs to workout.

Most of us have access to a spreadsheet program, so that is what I would use.

You need to use 2 worksheets: the first to retain the time formulas and the second with times saved as values - do a copy of the first worksheet and paste it into the second using Paste, Values. Sorting the first worksheet destroys your timeline. The second worksheet is what you can sort. Sort on subplot with a sub-sort on start time. That puts the subplots events in chronological order.

Add a column for Event Description, Event Duration, Conversion Factor, Start Time, and End Time. Then add a column for each subplot.

Use a row for each entry, regardless of what the row contains. It could be the chapter number, what you use to flag the start of a new scene, or a dummy entry to insert time between events.

I like to be able to find my events in the Chapters. So every time I start a new Chapter or Scene, I add a row with the description of Chapter X or New Scene. To keep these rows in place relative to the events, you have to add an X in each subplot column. For an event, put an X in each subplot column that you think the event will affect.

Defining a timeline is where the problems can occur. You can copy a row's End Time to the next row's Start Time and use a formula to automatically calculate the new row's End Time. You can enter duration in days, hours, or minutes or a fraction of your time unit. You just have to use the proper conversion factor: a conversion factor of 1 is a day, divide 1 by 24 in the conversion column and 1 is an hour, and divide 1 by 1440in the conversion column and 1 is a minute. In the end time cell, multiply duration by conversion factor and add it to the start time. A dummy entry can be entered to add time between events for the story action isn't non-stop for 24/7.

Up to this point you have control of the timeline. Start adding entries in the middle of the sheet's events and the subsequent start times shift accordingly. In the New Scene description you can define the date-time you want a scene to start. That will help to restore your timeline, but you can still have to review your timeline carefully. You may have added a full day of events and want the timeline to shift by a day.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@PotomacBob

Nope. As long as you clearly label the chapter containing your flashbacks

How DO you label the chapters? Some sort of date code?

You don't label the book, you document it in the timeline, specifying where the flashback occurs when when it references, so it's easy for editors to reconcile conflicts. The idea is that the timeline isn't for story planning issues, but to enable your editors to catch potential story conflicts by allowing them to double-check relevant details.

Michael Loucks
Updated:

@PotomacBob


How DO you label the chapters? Some sort of date code?


I'm not @CrumblyWriter, but I use date indicators to break up sections of a chapter. Each section begins with something like: July, 4, 1989, Chicago, Illinois. Makes it easy for me, my editors, and my readers to follow the timeline.

My editor creates a calendar for his own use in Excel after the fact.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@REP

Yes, the following may work okay, but there may be a few bugs to workout.

It's an intriguing concept, but it seems to involve a LOT of unnecessary work for a problem which really doesn't occur often. For myself, I rarely spot these errors, but my editors do, so my simplified timeline gives them the means to catch inconsistencies.

If an author dedicates major components of his time to avoiding problems which rarely occur, then he's just wasting time he could better use finishing the story and writing another one. In other words, as promising as this idea sounds, it sounds like a HUGE time suck. (No offense, but it just doesn't seem like a sensible use of your productive hours.) While it's a fascinating design challenge, it's not really something that'll pay off in words written per week. In short, it's like spending months creating a huge Rube Goldberg mouse trap, when simply calling the exterminator would be both faster and cheaper.

Since you are using software to track the allocation of project man-hours, maybe you should use it to track how many the project is wasting? (i.e. it's a 'negative investment of time', or one which simply doesn't pay off in terms of reducing inefficiencies.

Note: Don't forget, I'm an economist and statistician at heart, so I know all the relevant economic concepts. 'D

If you do try it, let me know how much time the entire process takes vs. how many potential conflicts you avoid so I can run a quick 30 sec. comparison.

Replies:   REP
Crumbly Writer

@Michael Loucks

I'm not @CrumblyWriter, but I use date indicators to break up sections of a chapter. Each section begins with something like: July, 4, 1989, Chicago, Illinois. Makes it easy for me, my editors, and my readers to follow the timeline.

I believe that Ernest uses that technique as well, even though he doesn't use flashbacks that much, but it's an easy to track way to correlating timeline discrepancies in flashbacks.

REP
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer


If you do try it, let me know


You asked if I had any ideas on that front. I sounded like you wanted a simple way to identify plot and timeline inconsistencies that everyone could use without a big learning curve. I doubt there is any way to do that, that doesn't involve a lot of work. Using a spreadsheet as I defined emulates what I see and do with Project. But you can't create a Gantt chart with a spreadsheet, and you can't define the length of a day.

I'll continue with Project. My approach has saved me from embarrassment on a number of occasions when I made plot inconsistency and timeline errors.

ETA: One other advantage Project gives me is I can define Event B to occur 6 days after the end of Event A. If my characters are involved in Event C and if C is linked to Event A and if C occurs at a different place at the same time as Event B, then the Gantt chart will show the conflict.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer
Updated:

@REP


You asked if I had any ideas on that front. I sounded like you wanted a simple way to identify plot and timeline inconsistencies that everyone could use without a big learning curve. I doubt there is any way to do that, that doesn't involve a lot of work. Using a spreadsheet as I defined emulates what I see and do with Project. But you can't create a Gantt chart with a spreadsheet, and you can't define the length of a day.


Yeah, I know I'm being hyper-critical of the very suggestions I'm asking for, but I still have this delusion of a 'simple solution' we can use for every author. So as soon as something seems to take more effort I throw on the breaks and ask 'how can we sell this 'everyone should keep a timeline' if it might slow their stories down even more.

Thus, I'm critical of my own ideas. At the end of the day, I'm not sure it makes sense for everyone to maintain timelines, especially the PAYG crowd, as it just becomes too complicated. :(

In short, I was peddling multiple, conflicting agendas, rather than just asking 'which techniques work' so authors can decide for themselves which techniques to apply. Sometimes idealism cuts the rug out from under us idealists!

That said, yes, your solution should identify most conflicts. My main objection was that my timelines, as well as guiding me in writing the story, also helps my editors. The more complicated spreadsheet or advanced software solutions mean the tools won't be available for my editors to identify inconsistencies which I've missed.

But yes, we need new ideas, not just 'perfect' ideas.

P.S. How's this for a compromise. Your Gantt chart seems ideal for authors to identify timeline discrepancies, but they should also offer a basic test/WP based timeline for editors and beta-readers to identify conflicts they still miss. That's two strategies for two different problems/groups.

Replies:   Keet  Ross at Play  Ross at Play  REP  REP
Keet

@Crumbly Writer

but I still have this delusion of a 'simple solution' we can use for every author.

And I'm afraid it will stay a delusion. As you read in this thread there a numerous ways a time line can be kept and almost every author uses his own system or doesn't use one at all (the 'memory system').
One or two solutions for all would mean that all would have to work with the same system and I don't see that happening.
Besides that I don't think every story requires the same level of details in a time line which makes a general system that can handle both simple and detailed as required even more difficult.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

In short, I was peddling multiple, conflicting agendas, rather than just asking 'which techniques work'

It was a bit like watching grass grow, but I was sure you'd eventually get there when I posted this 36 hours ago:

I see a basic flaw in what you're proposing we try to do here: you're thinking again!

Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

P.S. How's this for a compromise ...

You're thinking again!

REP
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer


How's this for a compromise.


The difficulty is you need scheduling software to automatically generate a Gantt chart. Typical price is over $100 for a downloadable copy. MS's price is around $625, so I think the low priced versions may have limitations. My low-cost version limits my use to non-commercial uses.

ETA: It doesn't have all the bells and whistles I recall being in the version I used when I was working.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
REP

@Crumbly Writer

WP based timeline for editors


When I started sending files to my editors, I downloaded information from Project to Excel and sent them a spreadsheet of subplot date, but no timeline. I doubt the timeline would be of any use to an editor.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Keet

One or two solutions for all would mean that all would have to work with the same system and I don't see that happening.

I never imagined I could force everyone to use a single system, but I was hoping to suggest a single 'solution' which works for those currently not doing so.

It seems a worthwhile goal, if the many PAYG authors could catch only a few discrepancies in their stories. Given how many my editors and I uncover in my short 20 chapter files, imagine how many there are in the never documented and updated 50+ or 200+ chapter saga!

Again, it was a perfect dream, but it collapses when compared to reality. :( (Frowning over the death of a dream, rather than those who never cared about a solution not getting one.)

Replies:   Keet
Crumbly Writer

@REP

The difficulty is you need scheduling software to automatically generate a Gantt chart. Typical price is over $100 for a downloadable copy. MS's price is around $625, so I think the low priced versions may have limitations. My low-cost version limits my use to non-commercial uses.

Again, my 'compromise' is we continue using our fancy-assed but hard to implement solutions (including your 2 file searchable spreadsheet idea), while providing our editors (and other authors not already keeping timeslines) with the simpler text based version.

I never imagined hundreds of authors would suddenly pony up for extensive business software from the 90s!

Crumbly Writer

@REP

When I started sending files to my editors, I downloaded information from Project to Excel and sent them a spreadsheet of subplot date, but no timeline. I doubt the timeline would be of any use to an editor.

Just like my cast list, I provide my time line to my editors as "reference material". They never even glance at it (for the most part), but IF they find a discrepancy somewhere (ex: a misspelled name, or dates which don't match up), they can quickly double check and spot the problem before reporting it to me.

The timeline and cast list don't need editing, or even to be read, but they're there if my editors need to check what something was supposed to say.

Keet

@Crumbly Writer

Again, it was a perfect dream, but it collapses when compared to reality. :( (Frowning over the death of a dream, rather than those who never cared about a solution not getting one.)

I did some thinking, investigating, and scribbling about the possible design for a universal tool for story time lines. It took about 15 minutes to come to the realization that it becomes very complex, very fast.
Just thinking about a how to store and represent a scene with multiple participants, with different relations, and where some characters are only part of the time in the scene made me realize that it would require quite a complex piece of software. More complex means more learning and more work to use it, ergo the less authors would use it.
I'm beginning to think that the choices authors make in how they create and use a time line mostly depends on the knowledge they have of possibly to use software and the amount of effort it takes to use it, not what they actually would want in a time line.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Keet

I did some thinking, investigating, and scribbling about the possible design for a universal tool for story time lines. It took about 15 minutes to come to the realization that it becomes very complex, very fast.
Just thinking about a how to store and represent a scene with multiple participants, with different relations, and where some characters are only part of the time in the scene made me realize that it would require quite a complex piece of software. More complex means more learning and more work to use it, ergo the less authors would use it.
I'm beginning to think that the choices authors make in how they create and use a time line mostly depends on the knowledge they have of possibly to use software and the amount of effort it takes to use it, not what they actually would want in a time line.

In my case, although I use Word (which many authors don't have), I try to keep it simple, mainly so it's easy for my editors to use. While I keep track of several details, I don't keep track of minor characters, or even every character in every scene, but just when each chapter begins and ends, what happened and when (what day and how many days into the story) it is. Anything beyond that doesn't really help the story, and my editors catch most of my timeline issues anyway, and they ONLY check the timeline when there's a specific question (as it's easy to determine if the reference is correct or not, just like spellings for the various character names).

Since the complicated details don't typically trip me up, and no one really cares about the minor characters who only appear once or twice, there's little sense in tracing their every movement.

Again, my timeline isn't to prevent ANY conflict from ever occurring, it merely provides a quick way to verify whether something is an issue or not.

Usually, it's not the errors you expect, and dedicate months to ironing out, that trip you up, it's those you never expected and which completely surprise you, having never anticipated them.

Replies:   Keet
Keet

@Crumbly Writer

Since the complicated details don't typically trip me up, and no one really cares about the minor characters who only appear once or twice, there's little sense in tracing their every movement.

I stopped trying to figure it out even before thinking about minor characters since that depends on the depth of detail an author would want to enter. But you pointed another important thing out: the purpose why different authors keep different types of time lines. One does it to keep track of all the characters and another to detect discrepancies in time and place of characters. Each requires more, less, or different types of data to register.

Back to Top