Way With Worlds: The Power of Timelines
This was originally posted by Steven Savage on his blog, but has allowed me to republish it here as I think it’s useful for roleplayers! This is part of Steven’s Way With Worlds series of articles. -David
So let me be honest upfront. I love timelines in worldbuilding, in writing, in game design. I love history in general, so I’m biased, but there’s many reasons to love them in your creative endeavors. Mine is probably just a bit more irrational.
When I write, I often create timelines as a form of writing, and in worldbuilding they’re very important to me. So I wanted to cover their value for you as worldbuilder, writer, game designer, and so on. Also it sort of justifies my love so I don’t feel weird.
(Oh, and yes, I’m a Program Manager so you can guess I’m really biased towards Timelines professionally).
So here’s why I love Timelines . . . world building wise, that is.
You Know Your History
Having a timeline is pretty integral to worldbuilding because stories happen in a place that has a past. Recent events have one impact, past events another. Two people interact because their timelines intersect, two empires come to blows because they are competing for the same space at the same time. Your world was made at a certain time and the gods will return at another.
It’s actually too far out to say that worldbuilding is a way is all about timelines.
The value of timelines therefore is making sure you know what’s going on, why, and when. If you’ve ever read a story where the history was all too “timey-wimey” you know what I mean – imagine as a writer keeping track of that . . .
Having good timelines also means that your readers/players will find the worlds more believable. Think of what a timeline brings:
- A sense of cause and effect – and in turn a sense of stakes that cause can have effects in the future.
- A sense of believability. Good understanding of timelines means a solid, believable world because of the cause and effect. An unrealistic setting can be very realistic when its history makes sense.
- A sense of empowerment. Especially important for gaming worldbuilding. To see the past in turn is to believe you can influence the future or know why the characters in a game are doing what they do.
- Proper conversation. Ask how many of our conversations are about the past. Just think of what it means in writing/creating conversation in your settings.
Good timelines means believability.
They Stabilize The World You Build
I strongly recommend reviewing your world (and story, see below) timelines now and then. When you have good timelines and good continuity, a review can also help you polish your world, head off issues, and in general write better.
We’ve all made writing mistakes. But when you have a timeline, regular review can polish, strengthen, and improve your world. That timeline itself is a powerful tool.
Even if you don’t think you need the review . . . well it’s there in case you need it. You always have it there just in case . . .
Timelines Prime Awareness
Building timelines as part of your world-setting also makes you aware. The very act of contemplating interactions and so forth helps you become more intimate with your setting. Even f you don’t enjoy timelines, they are ways to truly know your world.
I find that taking time for timelines means that you develop awareness of so much more. Much as it’s good for readers/players you believe the world, for you it means a sense of what it’s all about.
Helps You Create Tales
The flipside to the centuries, aeons, and more of history that you have created is that when you’re good at doing timelines (say, in worldbuilding), that it makes storytelling easier.
I use timeline based storytelling when I write or run RPGs. I figure out what’s happening, how things interact, and what happens. I actually have even kept timelines of various characters/groups an then looked to see how they intersect. Literally, the story just unfolds as the different “timelines” interact.
This can be great for adding structure to your writing or creating a cause-effect chart for a game:
- Determine what happens when.
- Move the “timeline” along and determine how events intersect.
- Those events that are important to the players/readers/etc. are the ones that become prominent.
- Write/implement what’s important (and track what may be unseen).
Over time I find this method just becomes habitual. Which is good if you’re doing a complex tale or one of those mega-multi-ending visual novels.
Timelines Jumpstart Your Imagination
Well you may have all sorts of things going and your story is easy to write. Except for those moments where your imagination locks up and you’ve got a world with nothing happening.
This is where your Timeline keeping helps.
Read over the timelines in your world, review unused elements or hanging lines, or events tat had wide repercussions and see what they inspire. It’s playing “what if” or “what may happen’ with your own world, and can quickly result in many ideas.
Provides Good Organizational Skills
Working with timelines also teaches you good organizational skills. I’m not joking here – good worldbuilding needs good organization, and timelines are pretty much all organization.
Making the effort to keep good timelines (as needed), write with them, etc. just makes you better at keeping your ideas organizing and your worldbuilding. It develops good habits because you put a lot of work into this.
It might even help you elsewhere. I know a few cases where my world building record keeping was educational in my career, teaching me about writing and organizing documentation.
Timelines Reveal Flaws
Working with Timelines is also a way to find out where you have, are, and will screw up.
First, having good timelines reveals, when reviewed, where you made mistakes and need to fix continuity.
Secondly, having good timelines lets you double-check what you’re doing and think about current writing or active game development in an appropriate cause-effect manner.
Third, reviewing timelines keeps you primed (as noted) so you’ll be less likely to mess up. When your last review reminded you that the Dwarves are facing ecological catastrophe, you’ll make sure to mention it and eventually have it happen.
Timelines Let You Stay Productive
You don’t want to write, code, or do art. But you want to do something with your world.
Go flesh out some timelines. Go on, figure out what happened in the Boring Century, or work out the exact details of the Rival Band’s early days. It lets you be productive when you’re not up for heavy lifting, its fun, and it provides all of the above advantages.
Timelines Can be Fun
If you’re like me, messing around with Timelines is also just plain entertaining. Sometimes we need a break and want to come up with the history of an obscure wine in our setting because.
Again, though, this IS me.
I love Timelines, as you can tell. The advantages are really profound.
I also find that no matter what methods of the above appeal (or don’t appeal) to you the very exercises of some making you better at all the others. Writing with timelines makes you a better note-keeper, fleshing out timelines during writer’s block inspires you, etc. Working with Timelines in any extent improves your skills in all.
Plus, of course you have something to stick on a wiki or a blog or in a guide later.
. . . where your fans will catch errors or come up with fanfic that you never expected. But that’s the risk you chose . . .
– Steven Savage
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers and community at www.musehack.com, publishes books on career and culture at www.informotron.com, and does a site of creative tools at www.seventhsanctum.com. He can be reached at www.stevensavage.com.
All artwork by Jacob Charles Dietz from DeviantArt.