When writing a novel, the fastest way to inconsistency is to lose track of your timeline. For some stories, the timeline can be simple, flowing in chronological order from a single character’s point of view. But for others, it can get mighty complicated. Think about all the interweaving threads of Game of Thrones, or the out-of-sequence time-hopping of The Time Traveller’s Wife.
There are a lot of ways you can track a timeline, and it doesn’t require dedicated software. It can be as simple as post-it notes on a wall, or an outline in a word processor, where each scene is captured in chronological order. If you’re feeling spicy, you might employ a spreadsheet. But, none of these options worked for me. Word documents made it too hard to visualize how different events interacted. Spreadsheets were a little better, but not great, and a pain to maintain. The classic post-it notes on a wall solved the visualization problem, but I don’t work in just one place, and it’s tricky to take the wall with me. So I went looking for tools to help.
What I found was Aeon Timeline.
Developed for writers, program managers, and legal practitioners, Aeon Timeline has become an integral part of my writing process.
Why I like it
I love Aeon Timeline for a few simple reasons:
- Its flexibility.
- Its visualizations.
- Its ability to sync with manuscript projects.
Aeon Timeline has been designed to let you capture whatever you want, starting with the style of calendar: you can opt to work with real dates (at any point in the past, present, or future) or with relative dates/times (e.g., day 1, day 2, etc.). Working on a project set in a fantasy world with its own calendar? No problem. Define your personal calendar with its own eras, months, and weekdays. One weakness here is that out of the box, it only provides the Gregorian calendar (no Chinese, Bhutanese, Julian, Hebrew, Hijri, or Buddhist options as of yet).
Once you have your base calendar configured, you can set what you want to track. You can define the core properties used on events, and any number of “entities” that can be linked to events (such as characters, arcs, locations, etc.). For each type of entity you define, you can then determine what properties are captured about those entities. For example, characters can have a “Birth Date” that will allow the software to calculate and display the ages of any people linked to the event. Events can also be color-coded. The available colors, and the labels assigned to those colors, can be configured as well.
By now you’re probably getting the idea.
To you get started, the software comes with a bunch of pre-configured templates. The standard templates include things like fiction, project management, legal, historical, and screenplay, plus some more generic options. If you start using the software a lot and the existing templates aren’t quite right, you can create your own easily.
Aeon Timeline only offers two views, yet its ability to visualize my timelines is a selling point. This is partly because those views are all I’ve needed, and partly because you can filter and configure those views to suit the circumstances.
The two views are “Timeline View” and “Relationship View.”
Timeline View is your standard timeline, with each event drawn on its own row according to dates/relative times marked across the top. By default, each event is displayed as a colored line with an identifying label (ID, title, start and finish dates & times). You can expand an event to show a summary card, or select it to see all its information in a properties panel on the side. You can configure some basic settings for the main view (light or dark theme, hide IDs, etc.), but more importantly, you can set what is displayed on the summary cards. These cards can include any of the properties you’ve defined for the event and place them in one of two columns, making a bunch of information available at a glance. For example, I like to keep track of the moon phases and weather as properties of events to help me avoid inconsistencies. I’ve added these to the summary information, so I can instantly check what I’d said the weather was doing in a particular scene.
In addition to customizing the summary display, you can also group events by entities (e.g., by arc, character, or location) and filter events (by entity or property, such as character, location, weather, duration, tag, etc.). Filters can be multidimensional and saved for easy re-use.
The other built-in view is the relationship view. This lets you create a cross-reference table of entities against events. Events are displayed down the table in rows, and the entities you pick are displayed as columns, with color-coded symbols displayed on the intersections to show which events have those entities and what role they play. For example, it can provide a cross-reference of characters against scenes, making it easy to see if a character has mysteriously vanished for a while. Once again, you can group the information in the table and filter the results.
All this functionality is great, but at the end of the day, we need to write our manuscript (and our outline, if you’re like me). One of the pains of managing a timeline is when it comes to editing because you’re now handling the information in multiple places. Aeon Timeline attempts to alleviate this by providing built-in project synchronization with two popular manuscript tools: Scrivener and Ulysses. Connect your timeline to a project in one of these tools, and you get some cool abilities:
- Selectively import scenes directly from your writing project to the timeline.
- Link properties in your timeline to metadata in your project and sync the information (including start and end date/times).
- Two-way sync connected events with your project (update your timeline with changes from the manuscript/outline and update the manuscript/outline with changes from the timeline).
As I mentioned up top, Aeon Timeline isn’t the only way you ca. keep track of your story’s timeline. You can do it physically with sticky notes on a wall, or you could track it in a word/google doc file or a spreadsheet. If you use writing software like Scrivener, you could track it in scene metadata and create binder views to display the timeline of events. But when I set out looking for a tool, I had some specific requirements:
- Simple tracking: I find keeping tracks of dates in spreadsheets or outline files cumbersome.
- Visualizations: I hate looking at a table of dates and would much rather see a visual timeline of events to help me think through sequencing.
- Minimal duplication: I didn’t want to be double entering information in my story bible, project, and timeline.
As I noted at the start of this article, Aeon Timeline advertises it is also a product for project managers and other professionals. I’m not making any representations as to the suitability of the tool for anything other than writing, as I haven’t used it for anything else.
Try it out
Note: Aeon Timeline have offered members of the Writing Bloc a discount. Join our slack channel to get more details.
Have you used
We also discuss Aeon Timeline on our latest podcast episode on World-building. You can listen to that by clicking here.
The author paid for their copy of Aeon Timeline. The Writing Bloc do not have a commercial relationship with the developers of Aeon Timeline and do not receive any referral incentives or commissions (nor have they asked for such).