6 Tips for Creating Your Story's Timeline
Chapter 3 “World Building” – Section 1 “History”
“Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events.”-Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essay I, History
From the events which take place in your novel, to the culture of the people groups present, to the attitudes present in the characters, to the nature of the cosmos and the natural consequences of actions, everything in your story will be rooted in the history of the world. Each of your characters will start out as the sum of everything they've experienced, thought, and done, before the story even began. The society of the world you create—whether a science-fiction utopia, a steam-punk dystopia, a fantasy village of elves, or simply an alternate version of modern Earth—will only make sense and work together organically if there is a common history behind it to make every aspect of the world logical and uniform. And even whether good is cosmically rewarded or if consequences are merely the direct result of actions, depends on what you create as the prehistory of your universe. Today, I'm going to list some tips for what things to consider when creating the time-line of your world, as well as for how to use them.
Tip 1: Write down the specific details that you need for your plot to work.
Likely, you already have an idea for some specific details that are integral to your story. Take “Maze Runner” as an example. Every bit of information that the characters receive about the time before the trials exists, at least in part, as a justification for the giant maze/deathtrap that James Dashner had in mind. So take into consideration what unique attributes you need in your world in order for the story to work. Maybe you want a modernized world but without electricity; to get that you must devise an alternate series of historical events so that electricity was either never discovered or that it was never needed. If you want a race of evil orcs who murder everything in sight, you must create a fictional time-line in which there is both a reason for orcs to exist, as well as for them not having developed any sort of healthy culture, despite being social creature who work together for survival.
Tip 2: Remember that everything in your novel must ascribe to reason or insanity.
Whenever you create a division in your time-line that separates it further from reality—the use of technology in a world of magic, multiple sentient species living simultaneously despite how that contradicts how evolution would work, etc—there should be a valid reason for the deviation. For example, why do you need a city-sized maze with expensive and ridiculous traps, when a small room with some puzzles and spiky sticks would do the same job while expending fewer resources? Why are technological advancements being pursued in your world at all, if magic is so much easier to use? Remember that unless humans live in extreme luxury—with an abundance of time, resources, and patience—their solutions to problems will be the most practical. If this is not the case, there must be a believable insanity or logic behind the particulars in your world. For example, perhaps there is a technology-favoring religion that forbids the use of magic, or the giant death traps are ultimately for the amusement of a rich and deranged ruler.
Tip 3: Decide if you are writing about Earth, Alternate Earth, or a New World.
While any one of the above requires great effort in order to create well, and can likely produce the sort of stories that you have envisioned, it is worth figuring out which one will serve your story best, based on a series of pros and cons. By using a fairly accurate version of our modern Earth—as crime shows, thrillers, and detective novels often do—there will be very little work that you will need to do in creating your time-line, and most of this will be relevant to only the recent history (days, weeks, months, maybe a few years) relative to when the story begins; however, you will have to stay closely within your reader's perceptions of reality, with very little opportunity to shape the world in drastic ways. With an alternate version of Earth, you create for yourself a template by which you can change things as much or as little as you want, and you only have to account for the changes in history relevant to your alterations. If you create a new world, you have complete creative freedom, but must create a fictional history to justify your world and to harmonize the forces within it, if you want to avoid fatal plot-holes. If you are creating an epic, a continuing series of novels, or some other sort of large work, in may well be worth the effort to create a wildly diverse Alternate Earth or New World.
Tip 4: Start at the very beginning of the cosmos.
In order to create a logical and uniform world that seems real to your readers (whether fantasy, sci-fi, or any other sort), you must decide what cosmic forces are at work in everything that happens If you want a believable world of chaos, like Homer's The Odyssey you may need to create universe ruled by an order of fickle gods. If good is rewarded and bad punished by random events withing the story, then it should be ruled by singular karmic deity or force, or perhaps a council of just gods. If the only rewards and punishments for actions come from the natural consequences of one's actions, you may have a godless universe or one of a deity detached from interference. This sort of cosmic planning is also important for writing in a realistic Earth, for your perceptions of the nature of reality will be dependent on your philosophical / religious / observed perceptions of the world around you, and must be kept as uniform as any fictional force.
Tips 5: Remember that a good fictional world is subject to realism.
This does not mean that you can't create magical or absurd worlds, only that it will be more powerful if the reason for their absurdity lines up with realism. Take the wizarding world of Harry Potter. It is absurd; the Ministry is run ineffectively, nobody understands the concept of practicality, and the wizards themselves are each kooky and nonsensical. However, the world works and ascribes to realism in the sense that these absurd aspects of it are the realistic consequences of magical characters being estranged outcasts of the muggle world, having to create a magical sanctuary that they share with other bizarre creatures, and having spent more energy working on their magic than on building an efficient civilization.
Tip 6: Remember that most of your world building will not be directly revealed in your story.
Yes, the sad truth is that unless you want to bore your audience to tears, most of this work will never be directly revealed to your audience, at least not in a way that will directly show the extent of the work you put into it. But there is a beauty in this, as it allows the readers to piece the puzzle together for themselves as you drop clues for them—revealed mostly in the nature of the world—throughout the journey. Kingdom Hearts is an excellent example of it—as it had fans eagerly piecing together how the world worked, one Ansem's Report (journal), villain's monologue, and subtle revelation at a time. If nothing else, all your work will all go into making your world a more subconsciously believable and artfully crafted place, that readers will pick up on at some level by the subtle details that make it so real, unique, and vivid.
Weekly Recommended Watching: Adventure Time (cartoon series that illustrates a surprisingly deep and detailed time-line that subtly reveals a tremendously complex history for the world and for each character. Note this is done slowly and over the course of several seasons.)
Write-A-Novel Exercise 3.1
Create a time-line for your story by writing down the events which occurred in order to make your fictional world possible—starting from the beginning of time and detailing events that separate your world from the real one, as described in the tutorial. Upload your time-lines as word documents, scanned sketches, MS paint files, or whatever other form works best for you.
Critique other writers' posts by offering suggestions for time-line events which would fit well into their story, and by pointing out any inconsistencies or lapses in logic that the original poster might have missed.
Click here to post your exercise.
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I could be totally wrong in my statement about evolution. And it's certainly anthropocentric. However, I don't think I'm the only potential reader who sees things that way. So, if you want to create a world in a way that is intuitive to your reader's sense of reality, you need to give us a way to understand how your deviations from expected norms are possible. Give us a believable reason that two sentient species co-evolved.
That's the real point I was trying to communicate. And I will make a note to be more clear in that when I redraft this tutorial. Thank you for your question, I hope the answer provided clarity.
Just thought I'd point out that evolution can indeed work this way (and has). Our current world gives us a slightly skewed view of this (as does our culture).
I couldn't resist mentioning this, even though I see your entirely valid point.
I think your point is clear either way - that there are Reasons things are the way they are, and the writer should know the Reasons - this is just a technicality I felt compelled to point out.
Now, just to create the rest of the timeline.
I have also - let's see One... two... three.... four.... five... six... more than six stories in my head. Got to write down the ideas before they leave.