Who’s on First?

I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer. When I start a new novel, I usually have one or two basic ideas – a character I want to write about, or a setting, or a situation.  I’ve thought it about a little, and have a few scenes in mind. These scenes are not necessarily the beginning of the story, in fact, usually they’re toward the end. But I write ’em as they come to me.

I always find, about halfway through, that things are a little… confusing. I lose track of time in the story. Action A needs to happen, but does it come before Scene 30 or after Scene 22? Character B needs to argue about Action G, but how will that affect the timing of Scene 8?

I need to see the Big Picture. I need a timeline.

Ah, but the making of timelines in any useful way has eluded me. I’ve used spreadsheets, outline templates, tables… none of it does what I want. I want to see a real timeline with all the scenes listed, in a format that will let me see the entire thing at once.

There are software packages for sell. But at two or three hundred dollars, they don’t tempt me. I don’t get paid for my writing yet, you know.

There are few timeline templates available online. These are free – you just need to register and get busy. But I ran into snafus. In one case, you had to download the software, and I wasn’t going to do that without certain assurances and information about the host. But the links, such as “About Us,” or their privacy policy, terms, did not work. They had the links but not the information.

Too chancy.

Another one, after I downloaded the file, just didn’t work. It wasn’t a file type my computer recognized and I couldn’t find instructions on the site for what to do. So off with that one.

Some of the sites wanted monthly fees. Or their timelines just didn’t work.

But I think I’ve found the solution. See here:

Isn’t that pretty? I couldn’t fit it all into the picture, but it’s spread over three pages and I can see everything at once. It’s not perfected yet, but basically, it does what I want.

So here’s the secret. Start with a blank Excel spreadsheet. Then go here. This guy gives you step-by-step instructions for creating the timeline. I just copied his formulas into the cells. It works beautifully.

I admit I had my husband’s help with some of it. He’s the Excel King, but he’d never made a timeline before. Still, he was able to help with the chart part of it, so I didn’t go crazy trying to name things or make the timeline clean and readable. I ran into trouble because in the story, lots of action happens on one day, then there would be a few weeks between action, and a lot more would happen. Or there would be action over a few days at once.

That made it difficult to know what increments to use for the x-axis. These are the dates on the timeline. If I show every day, the timeline is too crowded with dates. And since the story takes place over a three month time span, there would be large blank spaces where nothing was happening. So after some experimentation, I set it to show every two weeks. My story is about a werewolf, so I had to keep careful (but simplified) track of moon phases.

Just putting this together forced me to solidify several actions in the story. It immediately all came together, showing me where there problems with my plotting, and helping me keep track of actions.

I haven’t tried to use this with my other WIPs yet, but I will. This is something I always need to do, and I’m excited about it.

Let me know if you try it. Hope it’s helpful.


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