Plantser’s reverse approach to story timeline

When it comes to writers, there are three main types of approach: planners, pantsers, and plantsers (those somewhere between). Today, I’ll share my thoughts about using a timeline as someone who’s closer to just winging it than planning.

Maybe I should start by what I mean with ‘timeline’. In my view – but that may differ case by case – a timeline is a chronological overview of events in a story (surprise!). Unlike full outline, it’s quite basic, but it can take many forms: once you have the ’empty’ timeline, you can use various ways to note down the sequence of events, such as chapters or major events, or combination of both.

The differences

A planner starts crafting an outline and (by my understanding, feel free to correct me) starts writing once they know the plot down to quite a detail. Pantsers tend to just start and go with the flow. Plantsers are somewhere between, using aspects of both approaches. There are advantages and disadvantages to all paths – but they’re not the topic for today.

My ‘reverse’ approach

Now, I am a pure pantser when it comes to the first draft. I may have a few key points imagined, some in detail, but I rarely know how exactly will I get there.

That’s what the first draft is for. I just go where the story takes me and make things up on the way. And when the first draft is done, I might not remember some aspects well, especially if they were spontanneous ideas. So, at that point, I red through the draft and create a timeline of the events ‘as the story tells me’.

Now, what is such a timeline good for?

First, it’s a reference. As I improvise in the first drafts, parts of the story will come and go in the next drafts. A timeline helps me to see if there’s some other part that will need to be altered (such as removing references to a scene I deleted).

Another major aspect is the passage of time. Should I shuffle scenes around (and I’ve done that), it might need a review for timing. I’ve moved scenes across seasons, and timeline helped me to realize when I had to rewrite the scenery. This may be as simple as changing a single word (planting crops at spring -> harvesting crops in autumn) or rewriting several paragraphs (if the scene starts in some atmospheric description).

A timeline also helped me a lot when it came to tracking travel time – when a character embarks on a journey, it may be hard to keep the passage of days and weeks in mind a few chapters down the line. For that reason, I often started each chapter (or even scene) with a mention of how much time has passed, and built the timeline drawing on it. However, to prevent the scenes feeling all the same (after a beta’s warning – thanks, you-know-who!), it was a hell of a job to edit them out. But it was also an exercise in using the five senses to describe the passage of time instead of ‘X days later’ – something that helped me grow my skills.

Drafting… both?

When I created the first timeline sketch, I could see the events in order – and could spot some issues. Thus, when I was working on the next draft, I could remedy those – which then caused timeline changes. In my way of work, I usually noted those during a post-draft self-read. Thus, my process feels like taking turns drafting the story and drafting the timeline, using one to help me fix the other.

Sequel references

Another use of timeline is to keep a rough idea of the whole story when working on one part of it – that way, you can have a good idea when the major past events happened and thus easier way of referencing to them. Whether going backward (reflecting on past events) or forward (foreshadowing). The latter is possible only if you have an outline or a rough draft of the sequel before you close the previous book(s) – a good reason to draft the whole story before you finish the first book.

We’re all unique…

But there’s no right or wrong way to write, and people have their own ways to put a story together. So, you’re welcome to share your experience: Do you use timeline/outline of any kind? How detailed? What does it help you the most with?

Whether you comment or not, see you next time.

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