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Timelines / Outlines [Aug. 19th, 2010|11:23 pm]
Hey writer-types:

What do you do when you need to figure out a timeline/outline for a story?

I think I have all the pieces, but when I try to lay them all out -- this needs to happen before that, and that needs about two weeks, and in the meantime the other is happening, so these characters need to go over yonder and then come back -- my brain starts grabbing wildly at any other line of thought, and I just can't get any traction. Heck, I even have an excuse to allow for temporal slippage if I can't get things to line up properly, but when I start to think about "okay, so how long should X be hanging out at Y" it's all ugh, I don't even know, let's think about some new setting detail instead.

I suppose I'm really only asking those who write out-of-order, like me. This is an incomprehensible question for those who write in order and only figure out where they're going when they get there. I already know where the story's going and where it's stopping on the way; where I'm getting in trouble is trying to make sure that it can make all its connecting flights, and isn't going to end up stranded in B-concourse of Instanbul International Airport...

[User Picture]From: snowninja7
2010-08-20 06:30 am (UTC)
Spit it out, then go back and fix the timeline. I bet the pieces will play more nicely once they're safely out of your head and onto a computer.
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[User Picture]From: epinoid
2010-08-20 12:44 pm (UTC)
Once you have the elements captured put each one on a page or index card or sticky notes and keep rearranging until they work for you. I haven't used that for a story but it works pretty well for planning projects.

And yes you could do all of it in a editor but for some reason it works better when you can physically rearrange things.
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[User Picture]From: bats22
2010-08-20 12:48 pm (UTC)
I don't know if this is quite relevant, but this reminds me of an interview I saw with John Cleese, talking about he and Connie Booth wrote episodes of Fawlty Towers. Cleese noted that he was very annoyed at plot-based comedies where the flow would be [joke] [joke] [joke] [PLOT] [joke] [joke] .... i.e., that it was very obvious when the writers realized, "Oh yes, we need to advance the plot here... there you go."

So the method that they used to write episodes was to get a big roll of butcher's paper, and start putting down various elements on parts of the page, with sub-elements flowing through time. Then they could start interrelating various threads and elements, scribbling lines and connections back and forth. I always thought that Fawlty Towers did a good job of making everything crash down on Basil's head at the very end in unison, typically with the various weaving sub-plots coming together.
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[User Picture]From: kev_bot
2010-08-20 01:22 pm (UTC)
I generally just pick a starting point and just write, but when I do outline, I generally just write chapter titles and a suggestion of where I want the chapter to end. I still WRITE in order, though.
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[User Picture]From: annlarimer
2010-08-20 02:53 pm (UTC)
I can't describe it. It's in my head like one of those old wooden molecule models, and I just keep working at it until OH HEY NEAT IT'S HELIUM!

The worst time I had was with "Hard Cheese," where I had to go from the end of the movie to the day of the Cheese Rolling. In real life, it's on May Bank Holiday (Memorial Day here), which wasn't enough time. So I moved it to Midsummer Day (more or less - I don't know if it still says so in the actual story), which is a good day for pointless traditions. I also had to find out the local school year, and fake enough time for all the investigations and for the news to die down, and then made the internal time fluffy and unspecific, because by then I just wanted to punch the whole thing in its smug goddamn face. Again, not unlike the old wooden molecule models.

Anyway, my point is, if it ends up in Istanbul, it's telling you it has to be there. Have it buy some souvenirs and try the local coffee.
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[User Picture]From: tdjohnsn
2010-08-20 04:13 pm (UTC)
I don't write out of order, but I do plot things ahead of time. I think I would sit down with a calendar and actually put sticky notes with scene descriptions on it. Or better yet, take the calendar apart so you can line it up on the wall. I've tried using gant (gnatt?) charts, but I am missing some important part of how they work (and they refuse to include weekends) so that has never been successful.
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[User Picture]From: ng_nighthawk
2010-08-20 04:44 pm (UTC)
epinoid has given the classic answer to this problem, which was much discussed in school. The alternate classic answer was given by snowninja7, which was also discussed in my class on structure and organization.

However, I find all of this frustrating. The page/notecard method takes so much setup, I'd rather spend the time creating. And maybe I'm just too nervous to go ahead with writing it out and fixing it later--but to give myself a little credit, I also like to have the events relate to one another more strongly, so not knowing which bits happened at which times frustrates my desire to have the writing happen in context, like knowing whether I'm foreshadowing or referring back when I draw on an image or event from another scene.

So whiteboards have been my friends when faced with things like this, but when you have a long list sometimes the whiteboard is frustrating to maintain. So most recently I've actually used free workflow and UML tools like Gliffy.

Then I have the best of all the worlds. I can quickly generate boxes with notes which are similar to the notecards. I can even color-code the boxes, or give them a different shape, to add meta-data. I can draw lines between them and put them on different levels, as annlarimer described in F.T.

But since it's all virtual I can easily save different variations as different files, or clear it all out and start over again by removing the lines but keeping the boxes. Also, I type so much faster than I write, the process is just simpler for me.

That said, some folks need material structure for their creative process (I'm picturing future-Hiro's timelines from the end of S1 Heroes) so YMMV.

There are many tools like this, you probably have one you prefer, but Gliffy is online and free so that was cool. My main complaint is that it'd be better in HTML5 than Flash.
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[User Picture]From: goddessdster
2010-08-20 09:00 pm (UTC)
I've been trying to figure an answer for this that doesn't involve index cards or outlines, because yawn, but I realize I can't. I almost always write out of order, but the storyline or arc or whatever it is that is the gluey thing that tells me I have some idea what is generally going to happen when, is already in order in my head. So when I sit to write a new scene, I already know where to put it. I know. I'm not helpful at all. I'm gonna go hang out with Ann and suck down some of her Helium.
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[User Picture]From: flwyd
2010-08-21 01:28 am (UTC)
MS Project?

Somewhere along the way (I suspect Cinema Interruptus), I realized that most movies don't have a rigid timeline in terms of hours and days. Like most elements of great movies, a calendar is only involved if it's important to either the plot or the mood. So yes for suspense, detective films and movies where there's a bomb to disarm, no for comedies, romances, and a lot of great dramas.

So as long as the sequence makes sense, the time isn't always important.
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