Timeline Outline

When writing historical fiction work, it’s important to have an outline—a timeline to be more precise. This allows you to keep track of actual dates and events without having to dig through piles of books. This is also useful when you have a specific, complex story possibly with multiple sub-stories.

What is the difference between a normal outline and a timeline outline? The normal outline is vertical dealing mainly with the progression of the story, chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene. The timeline outline, however, is horizontal, showing mainly the relationships between specific events and character in a specific range of time. You can also see, in a snapshot, other events that occurred at the same time but with different characters.

How do you create a timeline outline? Well, you can do it by hand, but you’ll need continuous printer paper because timelines can be very long due to their horizontal nature. Or you can use an Excel program. Or you can use an actual timeline program on your computer. I have done it by hand as well as with a timeline program. Unfortunately, I can’t show you what it looks like when done by hand because the computer can’t scan continuous printer paper. However, here is a screenshot of what it looks like on the computer—at least one part of it. This is from my historical fiction novels, The Last King of Legend series, research I did for Book 2, ‘In the Face of Trials’, so there are no spoilers unless you haven’t read the books—in which cause I can’t really help you, but this IS history, so technically it’s still not spoilers.

Timeline Outline
This is Aeon Timeline. If you did NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) or Camp NaNoWriMo, and if you won, you obtained a discount for this program for a limited period of time. It’s incredibly easy to use. Let’s break it down.

There are multiple timeline templates you can use for your story. This specific one is BC – AD because I have historical dates to use. When I am outlining my fantasy novel though, I tend to just use ‘Years Only,” create a year, and go from there.

At the top you see the months and years. It has the ability to go to specific days, but I didn’t use that too much since I didn’t know the exact dates most of the time. In the middle with the little red dots and red vertical lines, the dots are the date of the event with a brief description of the event beside the dot. The line then goes down and hits horizontal lines. Those horizontal lines are the lifetime of characters (in this case ‘King Baldwin IV, Princess Isabella, and Baldwin V).

Now, if you look along the blue line of King Baldwin IV’s life, you see blue circles–circles that are full and hollow. The full circles mean Baldwin participated in that specific event, and the number beside the circle is how old he was when it happened. You’d have to turn on ‘Toggle Age Display’ to get that to turn up, but it’s a marvelous tool to have. Now, the hollow circles are events of which Baldwin was present but merely observed. For instance, he only witnessed Sibylla’s marriage to William Longsword whereas he participated in the Battle of Montgisard.

There are two other symbols you will see along the characters timeline. First one is a star. You see this on Baldwin V’s timeline in that picture. That represents his birth. The next symbol you will see is a block, and that represents the character’s death. It’s very handy.

Now, here is a glimpse of the timeline outline from my fantasy universe. This isn’t just one story but rather three different stories happening at the same time, but they’re all in the same world. It was getting confusing in my head, so I made this timeline to understand what happened first, who was how old when what happened, and who was where when that happened.

Fantasy Timeline
As you can see, this is a little more complex and compacted. There are more characters and more events than what you see in that snapshot, but it gives you an idea of how something like this might turn out.

“But Kelly, I don’t have Aeon Timeline. What am I supposed to do then?” I am sure there are other programs available to you, but I haven’t researched them. Otherwise, you can mimic this idea on a spreadsheet or by hand on paper.

When I wrote my timeline by hand, I had two characters’ lifespans I wanted to record for sure–King Baldwin IV and Baldwin V. My historical fiction novels ‘The Last King of Legends’ is based on the life of King Baldwin IV, so I had his lifeline go the length of the paper, and below that, I made vertical columns–each column a specific year from 1161-1185 because that was the length of Baldwin IV’s life. Now, Baldwin V was born during Baldwin IV’s life, and because of his importance, I wanted to include his lifespan so I could calculate his age at specific times. I put his lifeline directly above Baldwin IV’s. It looked something like this. I made this as a spreadsheet, and I’m starting at year 1174 due to limitations of space here. Also I didn’t fill in ALL the details of the years. Otherwise that would be spoilers for the books!

Spreadsheet Timeline
Now, of course there could more space between each year (sometimes as wide as a small paragraph). In each column, I wrote the events that happened in that year, and so on and so forth. This way I could just glimpse at the timeline and see which year was the busiest or the slowest. I could also look at it quickly and remember I had to set up for this specific event.

Does every story require a timeline outline? No. Must every author create a timeline for their stories? No. All of this is merely a suggestion for organization when writing something complex. And I have to admit, it is a lot of fun creating timelines (especially on the computer), so if you’re looking for another way to procrastinate while technically working on your story, there you have it. No, I’m not promoting procrastination–just always try to remember to procrastinate later.

For now, you have a fair idea of how timeline outlines might be beneficial to you. Now, with the next several posts, we will focus on the pros and cons of outlines–to use or not to use or just throw away the outline you had. That is what we will discuss.

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Different Kinds of Outlines

Outlines–you’ve probably heard of them but keep getting mixed messages, “They’re great!” “They’re okay.” “I never use them.” “I never stick to the outline.” You don’t know what to think of them, so let’s break it down.

In school you learned the traditional outline for an essay:

I)

    A)

         a)

         b)

    B)

    C)

II)

And so forth.

In writing, there are several ways to do an outline. The first one is the Skeleton Outline, which is very similar to the essay outline—just without the ‘I)’ ‘A)’ and ‘a)’. Here is an example from a random, time travel story I wrote just for fun, and the character ‘Elf’ is not an elf but an ELF—Energy Life Form. He is pure energy with a wicked sense of humor and can ‘possess’ objects making them come alive as long as he’s inside them.

Late that night, the city sleeps (here we introduce the setting)

       Weston mutters in his sleep (important details of what happens)

       A breeze flutters the drapes

       Weston awakes to the horror of Elf, who threatens him

       Elf disappears, leaving a very disturbed Weston

Elf returns to Sindric and reports (new scene)

       Sindric is pleased (what happens in scene)

       Sindric turns back to Helen’s letter

You can recognize the essay format. This is the barest of all outlines. It introduces the scene, then lists the basic details of what happens in the scene. Usually no dialogue is listed unless it absolutely important.

The next form of outlines is the Block Outline. This one contains much more detail and differs greatly from the Skeleton Outline. Here’s an example using the same scene from above:

<~>~<~>~<~>

Later that night when all is sleeping, a draft disturbs the drapes in Weston’s room. He mumbles in his sleep something about stubborn horses and not enough to drink. Breeze comes into the room. Weston ignores it and tries to sleep, but then he suddenly senses the presence of something in the room. He quickly wakes and is startled by the glowing wraith of Elf. Weston tries to get away, but Elf flies into his face. He warns him about betraying countries, etc. When Elf is certain Weston is too scared for the night, only then does he vanish with a wicked laugh he picked up from a movie before everything went bad. Candles blow out. Terrified, Weston doesn’t know if it was a dream or not.

Still giggling at himself, Elf flies through the empty streets and slips into Sindric’s window. Sindric is waiting for him. Elf announces his success and declares he should do that more often; it was fun! Sindric is amused but returns to his conversation with Helen on the paper.

<~>~<~>~<~>

Each paragraph is a scene, and it contains as much detail as you want to remember. It can include specific dialogue if you have anything in mind. This form of outline is a great way to get all the details out of your head and not rely on your memory to remember them.

As you can see, these paragraphs are blocks, and the paragraphs can get long—sometimes taking up an entire page. No indentations at the beginning of them, and that is done purposely because you want a clear distinction between the outline and the story. These outlines can look as daunting, messed up, and overwhelming as you would like because no one else will ever see it.

This is also always written in third person present tense. When written this way, the voice is very telling and not showing. This form of outline can be so thorough, you may feel that you’ve invested all the energy required for the scene, but if you purposely have the voice telling, you know you’re not finished with the story yet. You need to convert it from telling to showing.

Here is the scene I wrote based on that outline:

<~>~<~>~<~>

Once everyone retired to their respective chambers, Weston crawled into bed unable to hinder the content smile on his face. Everything was falling into place. It would be perfect, and thus he drifted off to sleep with such ideal thoughts.

A night phantom breeze breathed into the room, twisting the drapes into a ghostly figure before slipping further into the room. Its touch ruffled the feathers on his blanket and stirred pages of open books.

Weston mumbled something in his sleep, “Stubborn horses…” He murmured some more, “Didn’t get enough to drink…” He then turned onto his side, tugging the blanket closer to his chin. A lurking thought latched onto his mind, but the knight dismissed it. He tried to slip back into a deeper sleep, but his trained body sensed what his mind had yet to comprehend.

Weston’s eyes shot open.

“Hello,” Elf’s glowing face greeted him.

“AH!” Weston leapt back as far as he could while lying flat on his bed.

A wicked grin claimed Elf’s face, revealing all his pointy teeth. The ELF flew into his face and grabbed him by the front of his shirt. “Now listen here, buddy, and listen close. We all know you’re just a good-for-nothing stupid knight wanna-be, whose got less skill than a 4-year-old. We know your plans, and you will NEVER succeed. Do ya hear?” Elf demanded, bringing his bright glowing face centimeters away from Weston’s death pale features. “Well, do ya?”

Unable to form any coherent words, Weston stuttered and stumbled over his words, nodding fast. “Y-y-yes!”

“And if I even catch you even attempting to carry out your plan, I shall summon all great and evil spirits from the afterlife, and we will torment your mind so much, you will wish for death! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”

“Y-y-yes!”

“Yes what?” Elf growled.

“Sir?” Weston’s voice cracked under the strain of the single word.

Elf smiled with evil smirk and backed off. “Very good,” he nodded still hovering in the air. “Remember that.” With that, he spun around ready to dart out of the window, but Weston stopped him.

“W-w-wait!” the knight gulped when the night terror turned back to him. Managing to find his voice and gather his courage, Weston asked, “W-what are you?”

The smile returned but this time cold and unforgiving. “Your worst nightmare.” Candles blew out with a gust of wind, and Elf flew away faster than an falcon with wicked laughter in his wake.

 

“BWHAHAHA! I always wanted to say that!” Elf exclaimed as he came to a landing on the windowsill of Sindric’s room where the Scriptor waited.

“Say what?” Sindric opened the window to allow the ELF in.

Adopting the same voice he used to scare Weston witless, Elf demonstrated, “I am your worst nightmare. BWHAHAHAHA!”

Sindric looked at him with furrowed brows. “Did you really laugh like that?”

“Well, of course!” Elf sounded offended. “You can’t possibly be a good bad guy without the evil villain laugh. BWHAHAHAHA!”

“I see,” the words crawled out of Sindric mouth before he decided not to bother trying to understand Elf’s strange perspective. He focused on the task at hand and folded his arms across his chest. “How did it go?” the Scriptor inquired of their mission.

“Perfectly smooth!” Elf slid his palms together to illuminate just how smooth he meant. “If he does anything after this, then he’s denser than a hardheaded rock!”

Sindric decided to let the comment slide. He turned to his desk, unfolding his arms as he approached. Papers spread across the surface in a loose order, but that did not concern Sindric. He sifted through the paperwork before singling out a specific paper. Holding it up, he scanned it over and smiled. His plan was in motion.

<~>~<~>~<~>

So you see, the scene is much more alive now that it was fleshed out. With the outlines, we merely had a body, but when you write the actual scene, you breath life into that body, and it takes on a life of its own.

Are outlines necessary? I mean, do I have to use one when I write a story?” Of course not. I both use and don’t used them. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I find when I don’t use an outline, I don’t finish the story about 80% of the time, but then there are times when I don’t have an outline, and the story just takes off, and all I can do is hang on for dear life.

“Do I have to use these forms of outlines?” No. If you have a style that works for you, do that. I’ve seen many writers stress out over outlining because they don’t know how to do it, so these ideas are merely examples of how it can be done. If it doesn’t work for you, find out why it doesn’t work, and tweak it to work for you if you intend to use an outline when writing. 

Note: When co-writing though, outlining is important, but we will go into more detail on that when we discuss co-writing.

Next week I will show you another form of outlines useful when writing historical fiction or any kind of writing that requires a lot of dates, and then we’ll get into more details of the pros and cons of outlines.

Plot: The Spine of the Story

What is plot? What is story? To have a story, you need several basic elements—a clear storyline, characters, and a universe for the story. If you’re missing one of these, you’re going to encounter Writer’s Block. Sometimes you can have a great idea for unique aspect of a world for a story, but you lack characters and storyline. Or you can have epic characters but no world to put them in or storyline. Sometimes you can have a storyline but no sure world or characters for it, although usually with storylines, the characters and world will develop automatically.

Sometimes writers ask me to help them brainstorm certain aspects of their story, so I always ask, “What is your story about?” And sometimes I get a response like this, “Well, there’s this other realm—like another dimension—and only certain people can pass between the two dimensions, but they can drag ordinary people with them to the other dimension. When this happens, normal people gain superpowers, but they lose them when they come back to our own dimension. They usually lose their minds and go mad after an encounter like that. They know they had superpowers, but now they don’t, and no one believes them.”

I wait, but when they don’t continue, I press on, “Okay, but what’s your story about?”

They look at me puzzled. “It’s about those dimensions.”

I lift my hand to stop them from repeating themselves, and I look them straight in the eyes. “That is the universe of the story. That is the setting, the background. That is not the story itself. Who are the main characters? Who is the story about?”

This is when most writers pause then frown. “I…I don’t know.” And to be honest, I can’t really help you when you don’t know the answer to this. This is a form of Writer’s Block, and it is something every writer—even I—encounters.

So, what is plot? Strip away the universe of the story, the world, the extraordinaries of the story, the uniqueness of it, all the color and fluff and all the awesomeness of the story, and what is left? When you strip it down to its bare bones, what remains? What is the soul of the story? Who remains?

For instance, my medieval fantasy story, which I hope to publish next year or so, deals with magic and technology, crosses genres of fantasy and science fiction, has a huge cast of characters (I want to say around seventy-five characters prior to editing), multiple interweaving subplots, political intrigue, intense battle and fights, and emotional distress and heartbreak. However, at the core, the story is about one very powerful man who has always done his best to use his power for good, but he is accused of a crime he claims he did not do, yet no one believes him. They think him a lying, two-faced monster. Soon he realizes in order to clear his name, he must become the very man they think him to be, but will he lose himself and remain that man?

That is the main conflict of the story. That plot can be applied to any genre and any era and be retold into a new story. That is the beauty of plot. It is said there are 20 master plots, but plot relies on conflict, and there are only four kinds of conflict, ‘man against man’ (film: Gladiator, 2000), ‘man against society’ (film: In Time, 2011), ‘man against nature’ (film: Twister, 1996), and ‘man against self’ (TV Show: Perception, 2012). The difference between plot and conflict is, multiple conflicts form a plot. You can twist it any which way you want. In my fantasy story, the conflicts were mainly ‘man against man’ and ‘man against self’.

So, what do you do if your story is a good idea but has no plot? You need to know there is no magic formula. However, there are a few things you can do. First, recognize the problem and acknowledge it then think about it. Brainstorm with people who understand and encourage your writing. Watch films, TV shows, YouTube videos, read books and fan fiction, listen to music—the seed for the story might be anywhere.

Once you find it, there is no stopping you. Stories are funny like that. You pick up a seed, and suddenly it blossoms in full bloom right in your hand, and you have to quickly cast it to the ground because it’s very swiftly becoming a full tree! Its roots dig deep into the ground. Its trunk grows thicker and taller than you. Its branches reach out above your head in complicated patterns with leaves kaleidoscoping the sky—much like the interwoven subplots and paths of the characters.

But sometimes—despite everything you put into it—it doesn’t flourish. Is it because it’s not a good idea? No. It’s because it’s not time for that story to be written. Where you are in your life isn’t the right time for that story to be written. It’s also not the right time for others to read it—the world isn’t ready for it yet. So, pocket it away for the time being. Don’t forget it. Don’t lose hope over it.

“So I don’t have a plot—can’t get one regardless how much I think about it, what am I supposed to write? I have no idea!” Thus the terrible clutches of Writer’s Block. Yes, you can try to force your way through the story you have, but usually that results with pent up frustration, and editing is even more of a dread.

So what do you do in such a situation—especially if you want to write daily? Well, simple—write. “Write what?” Whatever comes to your mind. It could be a scene here, a conversation, a journal entry, co-writing with someone, a blog post, plotting out ideas—something, anything to keep you in the habit of writing.

How long will this spell go on? It varies—can be a few days, weeks, months, even a year or so. Does that mean you fail as a writer? No—especially if regardless of all this, you continue to write, continue to look for the story, continue to strengthen your understanding of the craft and sharpen your skill. When the story comes, you’ll be ready for it. You’ll hit the ground running without hesitation. You won’t lack confidence because you know you’ve maintained your ability. It’s like training for the Olympics.

Don’t think of it so much as a block but rather an opportunity to sharpen specific areas of your writing. You can focus on mastering description without being bogged down with a storyline. You can perfect the art of dialogue without worry of plot points. You can experiment with specific characters in any situation because they’re not tied to a specific story. You can strengthen your ability to write certain kinds of characters like the antagonist and how to make them relatable.

If it makes you feel any better, at this very moment I’m struggling with this myself. In one hand, I have a story with much potential and unique ideas but no characters or plot. In the other hand, I have these three characters but no story for them. I’ve tried to blend them together, but still lack the plot. So, what do I do in the meanwhile? Well, I make myself write at least a thousand words a day. I’m co-writing and writing blog posts like these, and I’m also writing random scenes experimenting with those characters I mentioned—never know when they’re reveal their story to me.

So if you’re struggling with this, don’t feel like you’re a failure as a writer or that you’ll never be able to write a worthwhile story. Sometimes the story will come to you in a flow that you just can’t stop, but if it were like that all the time, you literally would have no life, and you would be exhausted—physically, emotionally, and mentally. Other times the flow just ebbs, forcing you to slow down. It will pick up again, and you’ll forget the times you struggled with words.

Can a story have no plot? Of course, but the plot gives structure and purpose to the story. Having a story without plot is like having a body without a skeleton. Sure, you might have hands, legs, and something the resembles a head, and you can dress it up with fancy clothes, but in the end, it can’t stand on its own. A story with plot has bones, has a spine and the confidence to carry itself.

So write daily—something, anything. Be patient. And when you do write, determine the plot and the reason for your story.

Our next several posts will discuss outlines—how to craft an outline, when to use one, when not to use one, and when to step off the outline. See you then!

Immortal Words

TowerFinal

Artwork by Peyop (Pierre Fabre) – contact@cartographic.fr – www.cartographic.fr

 

“All right, we’ve discussed description, dialogue, point of view, tense, characters—can we get to the actual story now?” Yes, well…kind of. Before we get to the fundamentals of the story such as plot, outlining, structuring a story, etc., let’s discuss the purpose of a story—more importantly, your purpose for writing it.

Imagine, if you will, a time a thousand years from now. The world as you know it is gone, but some wise soul of our age built a library that went deep into the ground rather than above it. In this place, with the air properly circulating, are thousands upon thousands of thousands of books! Fiction, nonfiction, classics, modern—all are there. This library’s entrance has been sealed for a millennium, so the books have only gathered dust.

Finally, one day, the seal is broken, and a team of archeologists discover this profound well of tales and wisdom from a time so long ago. They can’t read the language because it’s an ancient and lost language, so they carefully gather a few books to take back to their experts to try and translate them.

What if your book was one of those chosen to be read? Your story stands on equal ground with the greatest pieces ever written. How will it stand? What would it say of our era? Will it have any depth to it? Any lessons? What eternal value does it have? In other words, why are you writing it? “Because the story has to be written!” That is a moderately okay answer, but as a writer, you should know it goes beyond that.

Why should your story be written? Because you’re curious how characters in a certain situation would interact and respond? Okay. Or maybe this plot is just really awesome? That can work. Maybe your story speaks of things relatable to people of all ages—such as love and hate, war and peace? That’s acceptable. But is there more?

Words and stories are powerful tools that shape the mind of the living—for good or for bad. Most writers, I find, will write on a whim because something catches their interest. That is fine and can work, but this can become a problem if stories with real meaning is overwhelmed by shallow writing. Am I saying you should never write fun stories? No—they’re fun for a reason. I wholeheartedly encourage writing them! Just…perhaps those stories should be considered the ‘Playground Experience’ because they’re helping you perfect your craft. However, as you face the prospect of publishing, think about your book being found a thousand years from now and how it would influence those who read the printed words.

As a writer, you have the chance to influence the future and history. You have the ability to make people think—to teach them how to think, so what will you do? Write for yourself? Your own enjoyment? Your own space and time in this world? Or will you go beyond yourself and write so others may learn?

“Kelly, you’re talking vaguely. What are you trying to say?” Okay, let me tell you why I’ve written and published my historical fiction novels, and maybe you’ll get a better idea of what I mean.

My stories are based on the life of King Baldwin IV—the Leper King of Jerusalem. He suffered a lot—lost his sense of touch, taste, smell, and eventually his sight, ability to hold his sword, ride his horse, or even walk. The disease decayed his face and his entire body, and he was forbidden to touch anyone. Not only was he greatly afflicted, but he had much responsibility as king of a kingdom at war, and he became king when he was thirteen though he died at age twenty-four. As you can imagine, he endured much in his short life, so why did I write his story? Why did I bother to publish it? Because his response to all his afflictions and how he never shied away from responsibility are good examples for us today—in a world where we sue someone because we spilled coffee on ourselves or how we encounter one difficulty while performing a task, and we throw our hands in the air and give up. Baldwin’s story is an example of how to respond differently and properly.

Several readers of mine who have experiences losing loved ones, hospital visits, broken bones, terrible sunburns, mental inability, and emotional drain, all tell me one thing when they reach out to me, “When I was going through that, I kept thinking of Baldwin and realized my situation could have been a lot worse. At least I wasn’t ruling a kingdom when it happened, I didn’t have leprosy, and I could actually feel what was happening.” In other words, it helped them stay calm in the situation and think through it rather than merely reacting.

Writing is powerful. Stories are powerful. That is something we have forgotten in this day and age when all we care about is recognition and fame in our time.

So why are you writing the story you are writing? Why should those words be allowed the immortality of ink? Beyond yourself, beyond your lifetime, beyond your legacy, why does your story matter? Why does the world need it?

That is something for you, and you alone, to contemplate.

Next, we’ll focus more on story.