Timelines – Keeping Track of Your Plot

Most of my stories have had straightforward timelines, strictly chronological with few, if any, flashbacks or back story that could be confusing to the reader. The New Serfdom is a big step away from that simplicity, and it’s one of the reasons that the novel is still unfinished, almost a year since I wrote it during NaNo. A good deal of the plot depends on flashbacks, so I’ve been looking around for ways to get things under control. After all, if I can’t keep track of what’s going on, I can’t expect readers to.

National Novel Writing Month has an increasing number of sponsors, and starting last year, one of the more interesting ones was Aeon Timeline, being offered at a discount for NaNo participants and a higher discount for winners. It’s available for both Mac and Windows. I downloaded the trial, and since that was last year, I don’t remember any of the details, but it looked extremely well thought out. The trouble was that it was also quite complex, and I rarely have the patience to fool with a program that I can’t dive into without reading a manual just to understand the basics.

It’s probably a great program for anyone who usually writes complicated plots, but not for me. Even at the winner’s discount to $20.00, that’s too much spend on an app that I might use just once. Plus the time involved in learning it. You can check it out here. There’s a FAQ, videos, and a user’s manual.

When the NaNo forums reopened this month, the link to a web timeline was posted to the Resources forum. Tiki-Toki has a free version, and several premium upgrades for power users, businesses and teachers. I plan to sign up and try it out when NaNo is over and I can get back to New Serfdom. My main caveat about using it, even if it turns out to do exactly what I want, is that I don’t like to depend on cloud apps. Call me old-fashioned, but I want to know that my work isn’t going to disappear or be unavailable because a site has some kind of glitch or goes out of business, or my ISP is having a bad day.

Another option, and the one I’ll be working with for a while is a little mind mapping program put out by the brilliant Scrivener crew. I played around with it while it was in beta, and while it was extremely intuitive and flexible, I didn’t have any real use for it at the time. I downloaded the trial version the other day when my mind turned to the never-ending confusion of New Serfdom. Scapple isn’t designed for timelines, but I never let something like that stand in the way of my experiments, so I’m going to see if I can take advantage of its many features and use it that way. You can download a free trial that will last for 30 days of use. That means it will work for several months if you don’t use it every day. Price for both Mac and Windows is $14.95.


10 thoughts on “Timelines – Keeping Track of Your Plot

  1. All the writing-related apps are so tempting. But I just can’t bring myself to use any because I’m afraid adding a level of technology to my novels will just make the whole process MORE confusing instead of simplifying it. Maybe I ought to just give it a go one day. But when there’s a $20+ price tag, or a free trial that will render it useless after X weeks, I just can’t bring myself to jump in.

    1. I’m with you on keeping things as simple as possible. I’ve depended on Scrivener for writing for the past four years, and have used it in more ways than it might have been designed for, but I can’t twist it into a useful timeline. The trial for Scapple is flexible enough that I can probably work out the timeline for New Serfdom before it expires. If I think I would want to use it that way again, I’ll pay for it. Even with my tight budget, the price isn’t a big strain. I’ll be even more inclined to spring for it if I can find other uses for it that Scrivener can’t cope with.

  2. Don’t laugh, Catana, but when I have a problem with the way a novel should unfold, I buy a packet of catalogue cards (remember catalogue cards? libraries used them in days of yore) and wrote the name of the scene at the top, a 1-line description of what the scene does, in the middle, and the word count. I then shuffle the cards around until I get the plotline that feels right. This can take some time, but it’s great to see the book in this tiny, simple form and be able to move the scenes around easily. As Eisenstein once said (he used to do all his own film editing), when deciding what scenes go where, “Remember A + B is never A+B; it produces a completely different entity – C.” I found the catalogue card system a quick and easy way to try this out and get the very best structure for the book.

    1. There was a time when I would have used cards, and in fact Scrivener lets you do that, but what I’m trying to keep track of is the flashbacks and the continuity. Mainly, I need to make sure that I don’t have something happening at a time when it *couldn’t* have happened. The odd thing is that I’m not a visual person, so mind mapping programs are usually pretty useless. But in this case, I want to be able to set out different timelines in color, to keep them straight, and create a visual map of where each event belongs. The darn book wasn’t nearly so complicated when I first wrote it. I think it may have metastasized instead of evolving.

        1. Inception — yes, you and me both. I plan to watch it again some day when I have the time, and maybe take notes along the way. The novel isn’t quite that bad, but I wouldn’t trust myself to keep it straight without some help.

  3. I investigated Timeline – because of the link to Scrivener. But it couldn’t put out a simple calendar – so I could see which events happened one each day, something I do to make sure arcs work (sometimes down to the minute).

    I wrote to them – the thought had never occurred to them that ‘timeline’ and ‘calendar’ should be in sync and coordinated. Nor were they planning on providing such a feature.

    So I didn’t get it. No update planned the last time I looked, either.

      1. At least they responded – half the time you send an email off into the void, you get nothing back.

        I had asked them the same question years before – and received the same answer.

        A calendar – on which you could see where the individual items landed – seems a logical complement to a timeline.

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