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HELP: How to Write a Timeline (A Guide)

This page has been mostly constructed from the contents of this discussion thread.

Factual Foundation

- maverick's advice:

Write about what you know: You know a lot of French history? Do you have freakingly enormous amounts of knowledge about Roman Generals? Do you know what was Churchill's favorite dish? Excellent! Write about that and make it alternate! Don't feel the need to do a TL about something you don't know or care about just because it's popular…

Do your homework: This is an Alternate history site with lots of people with history degrees and even more free time than you to research, and just for fun, they will pick at your TL and say it sucks…I know because I do it too! Try to avoid obvious mistakes and if someone notices some small ones, they are either nitpicking or have even more insanely big amounts of useless trivia than you…

- Grey Wolf's addendum:

I would dispute Point 1.) on the basis of Point 2.), viz : “Write about what you are willing to research.” I don't know about half the stuff that ends up in a timeline, but it is fun researching things I've never needed to know before and working them in.

Causality and Consistency

- maverick's advice:

Plausibility is Key: No, the Wehrmacht cannot invade Britain with a POD in 1940.

Butterflies rule, but are not absolute: People will put Napoleon as Emperor of Japan with a POD in 1767 and say “the Butterflies did it!”…it just doesn't work that way, kid! You need to use the cause and effect practice and not the 'Chaos theory' school of thought…every event has a cause and an effect that you need to think about…if you kill Roosevelt on December 6th, Pearl Harbour is still gonna happen on the 7th…

- Zyzzyva's addendum:

I'd argue about #4, personally. Yes, you can't butterfly Napoleon into being Emperor of Japan given 30 years head start. (Moric Benowsky, on the other hand…) But you can make a good argument that every single person born after the POD would be different, and frankly I think history is far more of a chaotic system in a mathematical sense of the word - small changes have big differences, and sooner than you'd think.

- Nicomacheus' addendum:

They do have big differences, but I think that Maverick's point is that there are really two takes on the idea of “butterfly-ing”.

1.) If you consider yourself to writing the TL of a truly alternate universe, then you essentially have to start “rolling all the dice again”. All the decisions, people, and interactions will be different.

2.) Because of a lot of small-scale chains of cause and effect, the POD and other changes will have subsequent effects. Sometimes these are track-able: one persons' parent is dead, they never exist. Sometimes they are not: you're 10-15 years post-POD, writing say the first post on a new area of the world. Depending on the level of technology and the level of global inter-connectivity, the situation will probably be different to some extent.

The difference here isn't absolute, but stylistic, and it changes over time. I personally prefer to try to ground my initial butterflying in some plausible chain of cause and effect. However, after a certain point, that's not really possible.

Additionally, one has to counterbalance the need to honor the butterfly theory with the demands of writing a story. Even if a TL is not a dramatic work of characters, but is instead driven by events, it will still have something of a story (as much as OTL history does). Furthermore, often times AH is interesting simply because it allows us to consider WIs. If by making one change early on, you quickly free yourself of any need to ground your TL in actual history (even with general trends), then it begins to lose some authenticity. This is due IMO to the opposite of the butterfly effect: what I'd call the insignificant change. What if Lincoln wore a different suit to Ford's Theater? Not much that you could reliably predict will be knowably different about such a TL. [Note that not all details are insignificant: if the play at the Theater had been different, John Wilkes Booth wouldn't have had the same chance to use the applause to mask his gunshot.]

The same thing goes for events that have complex causes, like, say the French Revolution. Obviously, a TL that has a POD in the 1500s might plausbily avoid any sort of cataclysm in the 1780s; on with a POD in the early 1700s, however, might have some sort of event, but it should be what I'd call an analogue event. Thande' ATL French Revolution is a good example here. Such analogues have two purposes: 1.) to acknowledge the nature of complex causes and 2.) to keep one POD from creating a world we wouldn't recognize. The second deserves some explanation: often, an author does want to explore a world markedly different from our own. Just as often, though, one wants to keep certain key points the same in order to compare their interaction with other altered events. Again, a rough, suspensions-of-disbelief test has to be kept in mind.

Work in Progress

- Dr. Strangelove's advice:

Plan ahead: Don't ever try to write a timeline - much less a detailed timeline - without knowing what will happen later. Your characters can afford that, you can't. This is specially true in timelines centered about a war. If you just start writing hoping that ideas will come as you write, you will reach a dead end sooner or later, and your timeline will start looking sloppy. When I write I always have three text files: one for writing the actual updates that will be posted here, another one for random ideas and fragments that I want to use later and would probably forget [even though my current TL is stalled in 1941, I've got fragments set in the 80's there], and another one with a bare script of what I want to happen. I've got a script of how I want *WWII to unfold, and more detailed scripts for each theater. I even have scripts for important campaigns that I want to cover in detail [it sounds imposing, but it's as simple as writing “May-August 194x: this shit happens. and this. and this. In the posting file, these three notes become 4 our 5 pages of text]. It is the only way I've found to be able to write a timeline with detail.

- Grey Wolf's addendum:

I would completely dispute this. The whole fun of writing a timeline is in seeing how the world develops - if I already know, I won't be enthused to bother writing it. People seem to enjoy this approach; at least, I have a fair few readers for the decades of the 'Eleventh Hour' timeline.

- Dr. Strangelove's reply:

Me too - but once you see how the world develops, you need some ahead planning to write coherently. Maybe not that much using your format, but definitely using mine.

- Scarecrow's advice:

Always have at least have the next one or two chapters written when you post a chapter. That way you know where you are going. It's what I should have done with Song of Roland and it's what I'm doing with Clavis Angliae.

Keep a Dramatis Personae, updated after each chapter. It's all so that you don't end up chasing your arse. Family Trees are also good.

Topic Selection

- maverick's advice:

No one cares about your political opinions. Timelines are supposed to be alternate history and history is supposed to be neutral…Chances are that you have an unnatural hate for the Ottoman Empire and an insane love for the United States…please, don't let us know…try to write a fair and balanced Timeline…if you're a really, really devout evangelical, don't write a TL about the entire world being evangelical if it's not realistic…same goes for jews, catholics, communists, conservatives, pro-abortion and anti-abortion types, feminists and just plain crazy people…

- General_Zod's addendum:

Just notice that it is generally fine to write timelines that let countries, statesmen, religions, ideologies, and political movements, succeed (or fail) much more than in our timeline, as long as the point(s) of divergence and the following developments are plausible. Such TLs, often nicknamed ”-wanks“ on this forum, are some of the most abundant kinds of TLs ever produced (especially due to the appeal of making famous “lost causes” of history succeed); some forumites are going to dislike them, especially if they look too clichè, but most don't mind, or are going to enjoy them, as long as they are realistic and well-written.


- Berra's advice:

Order events in chronological order.

- Jasen777's advice:

Join a contest and force yourself to update often.

- Nekromans' advice:

Don't force yourself to write huge chunks at once. If you're doing a chronological AH, write a few years every night - say, three to five. If you're doing an Excerpt AH, write a paragraph or two.

- Dr. Strangelove's advice:

…but force yourself to write something each day, or it will stall sooner or later. Don't worry about how it sounds, you can always correct it later before posting it. But write. I try to force myself to a daily page. (Unless you have an exam coming Monday…)

- Petike's advice:

Choose the name of your timeline or story carefully. There's nothing more annoying than picking up a generic-sounding or cliché-sounding name for your writing project. You do want your readers to be able to differentiate your story from other stories immediately, and not spend a whole minute pondering whether this story is the same or different than a very similarly named story. Therefore, one particular area I'd like to advise against are “push-button titles”. These are titles based on tired paraphrases of a popular idiom or an existing name template. They occur both in AH fiction and more general fiction. Some notorious examples of lazy push-button titles on, out of many:
- “Fear, Loathing and… [something, something]” (Hunter S. Thompson reference)
- the use of the word “Camelot” in Kennedy-related US political/biographical timelines
- “Lands of [something] and [something]” (basically, copycating Jared's Lands of Red and Gold for other agriculture-themed TLs)
- “For Want of A [something, something]” (paraphrase of the famous idiom “For want of a nail” and Sobel's eponymous novel)
Please avoid these. By this point, they are beyond cliché…

- Petike's advice:

Keep chapters briefer and concise enough. Even if your timeline uses a textbook-like format (instead of narrative) and is excellently researched and super-detailed, if the individual chapters are far too long, with long-winded unbroken paragraphs, you're in risk of putting off even a dilligent reader. You don't have to dumb down chapters to two or three short paragraphs, but it's a similar extreme if you decide to make a single chapter as long as half a Tolstoy novel. Shorter chapters (especially ones with additional and appropriate visual material in between paragraphs) increase readability. Even the least patient readers are far more willing to follow a timeline if you keep the chapters moderately long and offer interesting developments in each chapter.


- maverick's advice:

Have fun. This is supposed to be a hobby, not a job !

- Berra's advice:

No life depends on TL writing. Just do it, don't fear critisism. Just learn from it.

- Dr. Strangelove's advice:

Become obsessed. I've found out that thinking about plot issues and small details to add to the timeline is great for fighting boredom in boring classes, going to church and traffic jams.

- Slamet's advice:

For those who are students, allocate appropriate times. Becoming obsessed is fine, but the problem remains that you have to stick with the OTL world with all its homeworks, essays and exams. Otherwise you'll have half-baked grades (and possibly) a half-baked timeline.

- DominusNovus' advice:

- The perfect is the enemy of the good. Don't try to get all the details perfectly correct for your timeline, just write. If you get something wrong, great! Actually writing a timeline and accepting feedback on it is a great way to guide your research. If you only have good research for the first year or decade or century of your timeline, write that much, and see how things look from there.
- The beautiful thing about alternate history is, at a certain point, other than the broad outlines, all research on actual history is of little use. So don't worry if you're not as well versed on the details of history awhile after your timeline starts; it likely won't matter as much anyway.
- Stay focused on your topic. Its too easy to get bogged down in the rest of the world, particularly insofar as you have to leave your area of (relative) expertise.
- Just stay out of political chat, if you're here for the alternate history. Its just easier that way, and, odds are, you'll have an easier time maintaining some level of respect for your peers on the site.

Discussions on writing timelines

Problems You Have As A Writer (And Solutions To Them) - Advice thread.

How to write more, quicker and how much ? - Advice thread.

Any tips on finishing stories faster ? - Advice thread.

Making stories with characterization - Advice thread.

How do you prepare for a TL ? - Advice thread.

How do you plan a timeline without getting lost in the detail ? - Advice thread.

How do you organize research data for a timeline? - Advice thread. Organising notes.

I wanna write a TL, but... - Advice thread. Dealing with writer's block.

How to write a timeline... - Advice thread. General advice.

Neglected Areas of Alternate History - Ideas thread.

The Worldbuilding Thread - A thread for discussions about worldbuilding. Specialists 1 - Board members who might be able to help you with various historical questions while you're writing your timeline. Specialists 2 - Board members who might be able to help you with various historical questions while you're writing your timeline.

Which of the forums should one start his timeline in ?

See Also

alternate_history/how_to_write_a_timeline.txt · Last modified: 2020/07/06 06:15 by petike

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