Story Timeline Progresses

November 21, 2009

I gave up on the idea of using Microsoft Project to help me create a visual timeline of the story, as I originally described in this previous entry. Microsoft Project proved to be way too constricting for my purposes. While the visual timeline elements looked great, it was a pain to keep each entry (representing a single step in the story outline) simple to represent.

I briefly tried using Microsoft Word’s table features, but moving line items right or left was unwieldy, and the page size constraints kept getting in my way.

But one program excels…

As it turns out, Microsoft Excel is serving gracefully as the timeline foundation, giving me more control than using a Microsoft Word table, and giving me more flexibility than Project.

image

As you can (barely) see in this image, I’ve . . .

  1. formed each step in the story outline into a row item.
  2. broken down morning, afternoon, and night of each day into columns, grouped into days, and days into weeks.
  3. placed each step into its rightful place in time by dragging it horizontally, revealing the chronological flow of the story.

One example problem I’m trying to solve for:

I’ve got a group of American college students visiting the country on their Spring break, and I want to keep at least one of them central to the developing story. The problem I’m having is that the main storyline, which is interwoven with a major court preceding and an approaching political election, doesn’t fit within the weeklong length of the typical Spring break. So, how do I keep the visiting students involved in the plot?

That problem is what initially alerted me to the timeline challenges.  Drawing up a physical timeline, like the snippet shown above, is helping me to reveal any other time-related plot problems and, I hope, helping me to solve them as well.

Though initially daunting…

I’m finding that this particular time problem isn’t insurmountable. It kept me awake at night for a time, until I finally laid out the story onto this timeline, which made it easy to brainstorm my options, and make a visual check of the effects of initiating such options.

Toward solving the weeklong student break, for example, I’ve mulled over several possible solutions as:

  • Create a weather-related event back home (a freak snowstorm, perhaps, big enough to close airports) that prevents the students from returning at the end of the week, or causes extended school closings.
  • Have an injurious event happen to one or several of the students, requiring hospitalization locally, thus forcing a trip extension.
  • Extend the political events of the main story timeline, such that some of the visiting students (or at least the primary student, who ends up romantically involved with one of the Caribbean characters) return to the island at the end of the school year, reengaging with the storyline at the key moment.
  • Change the motive for the students being in the country from a Spring vacation to being on a student exchange program or college-funded research project, which eliminates the one-week-norm problem. 

So far, this last idea is my favorite solution for a couple reasons:

  1. It’s highly plausible—no stretch for the audience to buy into.
  2. It opens up some excellent opportunities for visual and cultural variety in the story.  For example, let’s say I make it an archeological exploration instead of a Spring break trip; then, we have a wonderful excuse to explore Trinidad’s La Brea tar pits and the pitch lake. Or perhaps it’s a sociological thesis expedition, in which case we can weave some of the indigenous Amerindian Arawak tribal remnants and practices into the story, or the fascinating intermixing of Christian and pagan customs, which are practiced in certain regions of the country, or the Canboulay festival practices, including violent stick fighting and hypnotic drumming. Or, if I make it an ecological expedition, there’s limitless location opportunities open to us, given Trinidad & Tobago’s extraordinarily diverse ecosystem (swamps, rain forests, plains, coastal regions, coral reefs, and more).

Suddenly, with the help of the story timeline and the brainstorming that it evoked, what initially looked like an insurmountable story obstacle has become an enriching new story element.

Although I’m not fully decided which solution to invoke, I know I will sleep easily tonight, confident that the story will be stronger as a result of this exercise.

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