Keeping Time

Narrative fiction is essentially a linear medium: we read one word at a time and it is only by reading them quickly that they make sentences and layer image upon image to construct scenes and stories and the illusion of things happening at different times.

But even in this linear medium there are occasions when the events and knowledge of those events needs to be tracked: could the antagonist really get from the tube station to the top of the skyscraper in time to launch the drone? Who saw the monkey take the antique pen from Aunt Jemima’s desk? And when did Mr Kinnear learn that the monkey was actually a cunningly concealed alien spaceship?

Tracking this kind of information is enormously confusing and error-prone. Scrivener has custom metadata which can be applied to a scene and used to track exactly when that scene takes place, but that only works at the level of the scene: if there are multiple events which occur in the scene, or where there are disjoint sets of observers of the event, then metadata at the scene level might be too coarse.

Other options include constructing spreadsheets to track the event details, annotating outlines at a finer level of detail than the scene (see previous posts about detailed outlining, although where the time would be recorded is unclear – import the outline into a spreadsheet?), or the use of physical tools like index cards. The sequence diagram from UML is also of use here.

For NaNoWriMo this year, I trialled a tool called Aeon Timeline which supports detailed breakdown of events and their observers using a zoomable chart view to record and connect events.

My use of it was to help in figuring out the story events and how long things were really taking in the story: what the characters locations were at particular times, who could see certain occurrences, and so on.

The UI is easy follow, with simple keyboard shortcuts to add events and a very clear presentation of which actors know about which things.

What I am not clear on is whether this is actually any better than just laying out the events in a spreadsheet or sequence diagram. It is prettier, but it is also still a separate tool which you need to manually enter the data into. In those terms, annotating detailed outline text with event timing is likely to be more efficient – for me, at any rate, since my narrative is presented largely in the order it occurs.

Still, Aeon Timeline is a cool tool, and if your timelines are more involved than mine or if your storytelling is significantly more out-of-order than my stories then it might be worth your time investigating.

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