Building a Chronology

Andrea (CC/Flickr)

By now, we know roughly who and what the story is going to be about, and where it’s going to take place. Now we need to work out who is going to do what, and in what order. It’s important to distinguish a chronology, which lists of events in chronological order, from an outline, which puts the events in the order they will appear in the story. The story often starts late in the chronology, with earlier events told in flashback. Now is not the time to worry about this. Now is the time to see where the tripod goes when it starts walking.

Let thought run free

Building a chronology is an exercise in brainstorming, not calligraphy. It won’t be right first time. It may not be right the tenth time. No one is going to see the chronology except you, so don’t waste time making it neat and tidy. Be gloriously messy, and you’ll find each version only takes a few minutes. My approach to building chronologies involves a pen and paper, a mug of coffee and a place where I won’t be disturbed or disturb anyone else with my frantic scribbling and muttering things like, “no, no, no, you silly fool, where would the rabbit come from?” at myself.

Ideally, I’d show the chronologies for the four of my stories available to look at, but my notes have been lost in various house moves. Anyway, my handwriting is illegible so they wouldn’t be very informative. To give an example, the final chronology for Steel in the Morning must have looked something like this:

  • Villain date rapes girl, she is forced to marry him.
  • Brother takes fencing lessons in order to kill villain.
  • Pupil asks fencing master to second him, and explains why.
  • Brother killed in duel with villain.
  • Fencing master challenges villain.
  • Fencing master’s friend collects him on morning of duel, travel to Hyde Park.
  • Fencing master kills villain in duel.
Alice Popkorn (CC/Flickr)

Alice Popkorn (CC/Flickr)

A chronology really is that basic. The idea is to work out who is going to do what to whom, and in what order. The aim is to give the tripod a set of directions, so when it starts walking, it is heading toward a satisfactory resolution to the story. It tells the tripod how to get there, but says very little about what it will see on the way. I probably had some ideas about how all this might unfold in the back of my mind, but putting too much detail in at this point is likely to become constraining later.

Grammar and syntax go out of the window. I know what I’m talking about, which is all that matters. Steel in the Morning was set in Regency London where terms like ‘date rape’ would have no meaning, but that was a note to myself and I understood the shorthand. The characters are simply mentioned and don’t even have names. The ‘fencing master’ was a leg of the tripod so I knew I’d need him, but I didn’t have a clear idea of what other characters would be involved until I’d written the chronology.

Iterate, iterate, iterate

I described this as the final chronology. There were several iterations that came before this, dashed off and discarded as I moved on from them. The point of writing them out was that the process allowed me to see the shape of the story in a way I simply couldn’t if it was all in my head, and thus I could see the gaps in my thinking and close them in subsequent versions. I can’t remember the process very clearly, but I’m pretty sure I came up with the idea of the fencing master avenging his pupil first, and then had to come up with the reason for the pupil to be fighting in the first place.

There is no better technology for developing a chronology than a pen and paper. My chronologies are peppered with scribbled ‘WHY?’, ‘HOW?’ and ‘WHO?’, notes down the side and lists of what is missing at the bottom. Done with a pen and paper, jotting down this sort of thing is part of my thinking process. I know of no computer software that allows the same degree of spontaneity.


I have no rule for how many drafts of the chronology it will take, or how long it will take to get one I’m happy with. I often find myself getting to a point where I know it isn’t right, but I can’t see why. There’s no point in forcing it beyond that point. I may come back to it in a couple of days, and I can always work on the chronology for another story in the meantime. There’s a lot to be said for putting something aside, letting it ferment in the subconscious for a while and then going back to it. Ex-python John Cleese puts it much better than I ever could:

Often, what’s needed to fill the gaps in a stalled chronology is a better idea of who the characters are, which I’ll cover in the next post. I need to know I’ve pushed the chronology as far as I can go before moving on but it doesn’t need to be completely finalised because I’ll be coming back to it later.

Orin Zebest (CC/Flickr)

Orin Zebest (CC/Flickr)

Steel in the Morning practically wrote itself and I probably didn’t get through more than two or three chronologies. The Endocrine Tyranny took ages. My various attempts to get the chronology right were interspersed with other stories that got to the point where I could write them faster.

If you were wondering why the first exercise involved three tripods instead of just one, now you know. Until they start walking, there’s no way to tell whether they will walk a straight line or stagger round in circles and fall on their face.


Pick one of the three tripods from the first exercise and map out a chronology for it. Get through as many pieces of paper as you need to do it. If you feel it’s finished or you get stuck, put it aside and move on to another one. Then the third one.

When you have taken all three as far as you can, finish the session and put the three final chronologies. Do not look at them at least until the next day. When you do, look at the ones that got you stuck and see if you can take them further. Look at the ones you thought were finished and ask yourself if they can be improved. Be ruthless. Start from scratch if you need to. Don’t be afraid to replace one of the legs of your tripods.

Repeat the process until you have at least one chronology that takes the events to a satisfying conclusion. Two is better. Three is fantastic. But the aim of exercise is to produce one, so if you feel you’re beating your head against a brick wall with one or two of them, remember it’s much nicer when you stop. Push them as far as you can and hang on to the last version. We’ll return to them later.

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Posted in Story development, Writing

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