This image was found here.

Writing a timeline might seem like an easy thing. It’s just a list of events, right? Stick a date next to an event, and then stick another date next to another event, and before long you’ve got a time line. However, a good timeline, just like a good world, takes a lot more work. First of all, if you’re going to write a strong timeline you need to have the geography, governments, and peoples of your world at least fairly developed. It’s a lot harder to write a timeline when you have no idea what your world or cultures look like. Also, unlike writing a story, when writing a timeline you should never start from the beginning.

It will always seem like the easiest thing in the world to start at zero and work your way forward. It isn’t. While it might seem like a great idea you inevitably wind up stuck before reaching year 10, or year 100 if you’re counting by 10s, or year 1000 if you’re counting by 100s. Coming up with events in order from the beginning is a lot harder than it seems, especially when the beginning is something like: Year 1 – The gods create the world. Personally, I’m working on a 51,000 year timeline for Kalagrosh and it’s surrounding worlds right now and my Year 1-1000 is empty. When I’m working on the timeline I spend a lot of time just staring at the page trying to figure out what needs to happen next.

Start with an idea of where your world begins (usually 1) and where it ends (Present Day), and then determine the broad ages of the world:

This beautiful photo was found here.

Year 1-107: The gods create the world

Year 108-1076: The Demon Kings

Year 1077-3022: The Rule of the Fae Lords

Year 3023-6421: The Eternal Night of Azmarok

Year 6422-10789: The First Rule of Man

Year 10790-12455: The Return of the Demon Kings

Year 12456-14310: The Second Rule of Man

The gorgeous piece is by nkabuto, and other pieces can be found here.
The gorgeous piece is by nkabuto, and other pieces can be found here.

Your broad ages should be commensurate with the timeline of your world. If your world is 2,000 years old then a good age is 200-500 years, if your world is 50,000 years old then a good age might be 8,000 to 10,000 years. Also, don’t be afraid of 5s and 0s, but don’t overuse them either. Remember that history doesn’t happen in multiples of 5, but it does sometimes happen on multiples of 5. You should have a basic idea of what happens in your broad ages (for instance, The Demon Kings might refer to a period when one of the gods conquered and imprisoned the others so that he could do with their new world whatever he pleased).

Once you have your broad ages repeat this pattern for every broad age. For instance you might take The Demon Kings and break it down into ten to twelve smaller ages of eighty to one hundred years each. You could then break each of these centuries into decades of six to twelve years each. Also, as your breaking down your ages remember that you can always change things. For instance, the First Rule of Man currently lasts from 6422 to 10789, but as I’m breaking down The Eternal Night of Azmarok I might find that I need an extra hundred or two years, and I might move the beginning of the First Rule of Man to 6638 instead.

Also, as I pointed out last time, remember that you don’t need to have every year mapped out. It’s good if you do, but there are truly massive amounts of human history that we know relatively little about, and events that we can’t even come close to actually dating. For instance, the birth of Zarathustra and the founding of Zoroastrianism happened sometime between 6350 B.C.E. and 600 B.C.E., but proposed dates over the last two thousand years run the gamut within that time frame, and when it comes to Hinduism, we really have no idea when it was founded or by whom. You preferably shouldn’t have gaps this big in your history (at least not when it’s finished), but some gaps are okay.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to be messy. You’re not publishing your timeline (probably ever), and it doesn’t have to be pretty and perfect, especially when your writing it. If you’re  not sure how to break something down, then move on to another section of your timeline, or start from zero and go until you have an idea of what your first couple sections should look like. Timelines are often confused, messy work… until their done.

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4 thoughts on “How to Write a Timeline 101

  1. I apologize for commenting on a post this old. Still, I could not resist. I’ve been searching frantically for a timeline builder one could create on a computer. My stories cover quite a number of years and keeping track of all the edits, finding room on paper- well it is frustrating to say the least.

    So I was curious if you have ever heard or perhaps even used a timeline editor yourself? One that would allow your own custom ages.

    Again, sorry for resurrecting this post. I appreciate any help you can offer.
    Take care.

    1. Grisham, I’m sorry that I can’t help you. I’ve always used word files for mine. Its fairly simple. Just start out by setting out the epochs of the world (1000 to 10000 to 100000 etc years depending on how old it is) and then narrow down the ones that matter and flesh them out in increments: so, let says that my world is 50,000 years old. First I would separate it into 10,000ish year epochs (perhaps some 7,000 years and some 12,000 years etc), and the separate each of those into 1,000 year ages, and then separate those into 100 year reigns. This makes the whole thing manageable, and you can work on the part of the history that matters and you really want to focus on. Also, consider that we don’t know that much about ancient history on a year to year basis. There are some points where can fill in important events, but its relatively rare that we can identify the exact day or year that something happened with significant accuracy.

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