Creating a Timeline for Your Story with Excel

screenshot of Excel timeline

When you have multiple characters and a lot of events going on in your story, it’s easy to lose sight of how those threads tie together. Creating a timeline of key events can help you track your plot lines and wrap everything up nicely.

My current work in progress (WIP) novel is the story of two career professionals with busy schedules. The story spans five months with most of the action occurring in the first two weeks and the rest spread out over the remaining timeline. Each character has a lot going on in their individual lives apart from the interaction they have with each other. I had to keep all of those juggling balls organized and visible for reference during the story.

Scrivener is my writing tool of choice, and I organize my Outline view to show dates and other relevant information for each scene. But this time, it wasn’t working for me. I needed a more visual representation. So I turned to my old friend Excel. Coming from a project management background, I love using Gantt charts to display timelines and it’s possible to do that in a spreadsheet.

Finding the Right Calendar

The first thing to figure out is which calendar year fits my storyline. I want my book to be relevant for future readers, so I don’t reference actual dates in the novel itself. But to understand when weekends and holidays fall, I need to reference a calendar.

The website timeanddate.com is a handy tool for viewing calendars and time zones. Note: Understanding time zone differences is important if your characters are traveling in the modern day. The link to the calendar page is https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/.

Organizing Excel

Column Labels

Once I have the year (and calendar) picked, I set up my spreadsheet. (You can use your preferred spreadsheet tool. Excel is the one for me.)

What you include in your columns will depend on how you may want to analyze your timeline. I want to filter by each plot/subplot and see the corresponding story beat for the event, so I include those as columns.

My column labels look like this:

Note: In this WIP, a lot happens in the first fourteen days, so my date increments are days. If your story is more spread out, weeks or months may work better. Use what works for you.

Color Key

Because I want to track where my characters are throughout the timeline, I assign colors to each character and create a key for how I will block out that time for that character. Often you will have events that involve multiple characters. Configure a separate color key for those.

Perhaps you need to track your story by setting rather than character. Using the same principle, you would set up your color key by setting rather than character.

Enter Key Events

Once I finish laying out the grid, I can add the major events in the story. I focus on the main plot first and enter each key event.

Each row will contain an event, the date it occurred, the related plot or subplot, the story beat it falls under and a graphic representation of that date (colored in cell). Once I fill in all of my events, I’ll have a Gantt chart that gives a visual depiction of the major story line.

You have a lot of flexibility here. You can include every scene in your timeline or you can only include the significant ones. Remember, this tool is help keep you on track within your novel. It should support the way you work.

Adding Subplot Events

After listing the major plot events, I add in the events related to any subplots that I may have in the story. Insert rows where you need them and make sure you are consistent with the subplot descriptions.

Filters

I know I will want to analyze by each subplot so once I’ve got some data in the grid, I set a filter across the top of the column headings. Filters allow you to show only rows that match the select criteria for that column.
To set the filter, highlight the column headers and click the Filter icon under the Data menu.

As an example, if I have multiple subplots, I can use the filter to see only events related to a specific subplot. This allows me to check the continuity of the subplot and verify everything is in order.

To use the filter, click the drop-down button on the column you want to filter and set up the filter criteria. (Uncheck items you don’t wish to see.)

Note: To find further instructions for how to filter data in Excel, search the Help for “filter a list of data” then follow the instructions under Filter for specific text.

Conclusion

Keeping track of your story can get tricky, especially if you need disparate storylines to come together. Setting up a timeline in a spreadsheet is an excellent way of tracking events and creating a visual representation of the timeline.

What tools do you use to track your story’s key events?


Happy Writing!

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Nic WG

    I’ve used Aeon Timeline most but I’m coming round to using Scrivener V3’s Outliner as the most efficient way to handle characters, plots and subplots.

    1. Lancy McCall

      I haven’t used Aeon so I can’t comment on that, but I do like having everything all together in Scrivener.

      I just needed something more visual for this particular WIP, thus the Gantt chart in Excel.

  2. Ed Skinner

    I used Aeon Timeline for a complex story with two POVs and multiple, concurrent locations. When I shifted my focus to Scrivener, I added a Time/Date metadata element on (manually) transcribed the information from Aeon. Then, as the writing progressed and surprise “essential” scenes appeared from the mists, I fitted them in accordingly.

    One of the problems I’ve encountered is the tendency for scenes to hop around on their own. (Undoubtedly, I’m fat-fingering them and causing the re-organization but, so far, I haven’t caught myself actually doing it.) The resulting problem, of course, is spotting the damage.

    So, in Scrivener’s Outline View, I added to Data/Time metadata as one of the columns to be displayed. With that, I can scroll into a second of scenes and click the sort arrow in the Data/Time column head and watch for a scene to jump about between “No sort” and “Ascending sort.” When I spotted one, it was then easy to examine the chronologically-nearby scenes and figure out where the bunny should be glued down. (I then set its date/time metadata accordingly.) Scrivener was surprisingly nice in this respect. I have Scenes (with date/time) inside Chapters that are inside Parts, neither of which have date/time. I feared Scrivener would disconnect Scenes from Chapters from Parts but, after the sort, it still retains my original structure. (I’m sorting the view, not the Binder.)

    I like your spreadsheet approach with the additional information. Maybe some/all of that could be incorporated into Scrivener metadata? (Fewer tools means fewer places for things to get out of date as the writing develops.)

    1. Lancy McCall

      Yes, this is one I’ve struggled with. Sounds like I need to check out Aeon Timeline.

      I have started adding more custom metadata fields to Scrivener that help me keep track of where I am. I’ve also been playing around with Plottr. (I haven’t quite figured out how to use it efficiently in my process, but I’m determined to do so because it’s such a cool tool.) Sometimes the visualization is just easier with other tools.

      I do like what you’re saying about sorting on the Date field in the Outliner View and watching for scenes that move.

      And yes, I’ve already found myself duplicating information between applications. But my process is already better than it was. I’m keeping Scrivener as my “source of truth” and using the other tools as needed to work out the kinks in my story line.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Adding “Check out Aeon Timeline” to my To Do list.

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