How to create a beautiful timeline for your story11 min read

by Aug 2, 2017Plotist, Tutorials0 comments

At Plotist, visuals are important to us. Our timeline tool is intended to provide you with a useful reference guide to help you keep your plot consistent, but it can also be an important visual to help sell your novel/game/comic to an agent or publishing house, or encourage gamers to an RPG you are designing. For this purpose, you want it to look as stunning as possible. The artwork, colours and photography you choose will help breathe life into your story, and could be essential in establishing the mood and flavour of the tale you want to tell.

With that in mind, here are 5 tips on using our tool to create the most beautiful timeline possible. To make use of these tips, you’ll need to have an understanding of the basic timeline functionality, so if you’re unclear on any point, check out our tutorial first.

1. Make use of palettes

When the new version of Plotist hit our screens in early November, the feature I was most excited about was the expanded colour picker. Using the right range of shades can hint at the atmosphere, character and even entire genre of your story. Using an established palette will help you harmonise the look of the elements you set on the tracks. Moody and violent palettes could set the ground for your detective novel. A lush, pastoral palette might spark ideas for a sweeping fantasy epic. Or, if design isn’t your strong point and you’re stuck for ideas, why not borrow from established works? Draw from a James Bond palette for your spy thriller, or a Downton Abbey palette for your period piece.

All the above can of course apply to those of you using the timeline tool for comics, webcomics and video games – however, I will assume that writers in these categories know about colour palettes all too well, and, in which case, probably already have an established colour system that they’d like to use – which makes Plotist a potential good reference bank for storing your colour swatches!

Let us throw out a few resources to this end. Colour Lovers is a good starting point, with lots of bespoke palettes based on moods, themes, and pop culture. Colour Hex is another decent resource for individually constructed palettes. Coolors has a nice, smooth browsing function and this page has a nice example of how to choose a palette based on an image.

Example: The above Steven Universe timeline was a dream to colour. The pastel palette is instantly recognisable from Rebecca Sugar’s gentle, wistful artwork, and even the characters have a clear colour to their on-screen look and personality (Amethyst’s bold purple, Pearl’s soft aqua and Garnet’s confident pink).

2. Colour code your Events

Decide what kind of colour coding you’re going to use for events, and stick with it. Yellow for transitional moments? Blue for major twists? Red for red herrings? There are any number of interpretations, but whatever you decide, keep it consistent. Not only does this work better visually for the reasons above, but it can add a whole new level to your timeline: in using colour in this way, you will involuntarily create a ‘mood’ map, plotting the highs and lows of your story. At a glance you will be able to see where the most intense action of your story takes place, which could help you rearrange the narrative later if required – especially if you’re working on the story with an editor.

We surveyed users on our Forums for their particular colour-coding methods and some brilliant ideas came to the fore. Some users colour events according to which chapter they will be revealed in, some to distinguish the scale of importance of each event, and others to indicate whether the event will have positive or negative consequences, turning it into a sort of future-predicting timeline!

Example: For my Saga timeline above, I used red for violent or high tension events, blue for joyful or loving events, grey for clinical and administrative events and purple for acts of friendship and conciliation.

3. Keep your key Element images as consistent as possible

Whichever key element you choose to display in your left hand track bar, give a thought to keeping it in harmony with the rest. A photograph for one image, drawing for the next, long distance digital portrait for another can make for a messy overall look. This is unavoidable in some cases – perhaps you have an actor in mind for your protagonist, but the essence of another character can only be captured in a favourite painted portrait of yours. However, aiming for a line-up of well-matching images is a good place to start. For those of you who are less interested in character/setting images and don’t like to waste time by sourcing them, this dilemma is something we plan on helping you out with in future, so watch this space!

Caveat: Some of my team members deeply disagree with me about keeping key element images uniform, and think I am a snob who just wants to visually standardise human life as we know it. They are correct.

Example: One of our users, Okhadraws, is an artist who uses Plotist to create the story outlines for her comics. You can see above how the gorgeous, familiar artwork for each of her characters not only makes the timeline lovely to look at, but also creates a unique and recognisable personality for her story.

4. Get creative with Event icons

Our Event icon picker is currently limited to 5 pages, though we’ve tried to provide our users with a varied enough selection to cover many different types of potential plot points. However, there are inevitably going to be cases where you will have to flex your imagination to make one of the icons match the event you have in mind. But hey, isn’t flexing the imagination what writers do best? Also try to keep a good range of different icons to keep your timeline looking as fun and interesting as possible.

When I was looking for a ‘death’ or ‘injury’ icon, the heart flatline naturally jumped out at me. I asked our Forum users what their favourite solutions were for matching icons to events: the speech bubble was the most popular use for everyday interactions between characters, the bomb or lightning bolt for battles, and even this little cheerleader-type icon for birth! Others are more relaxed about the process – one member of our team just picks icons based on her mood that particular day.

Example: Our Community Storyteller Josey loves a bit of tabletop – in this timeline she created for an upcoming game she is running, the waving figure marks introductions and the flag essential moments in the story, such as when characters gain their abilities.

5. Keep it brief

The notes function in Plotist is designed specifically for adding detail. All your elements will have a dedicated page which include a free text box to hold as much description as you require on character personalities, physical characteristics, setting descriptions and particulars of each event. However, for the timeline itself, you will need brief descriptions and even briefer headings to keep the timeline functioning as a quick-glance resource – headings that are too long may be hidden by other tracks. Try to cut your headings down to only the key material you need in order to recognise the event or element.

Example: Taking another look at Josey’s RPG timeline above, each title must be short and to the point to be a useful at-a-glance resource for the storyrunner during the game.

If you have further questions, or simply want to share your own innovations for creating the most attractive timeline, come and join us in the Community Forums!

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Saga Comic Interactive TimelineInteractive Timeline for Saga Comic by our Sian!

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