Saturday, June 23, 2012

Jellybean, Licorice, Vonnegut, Line

Time for the next installment of the Visual Storyboarding series! 
(Previous entries have been bookmarked for you at the end of this post.)


Now that we’ve discussed (a) why we storyboard and not merely “plot”, (b) how to visualize our hooks, and (c) how to pull together the factual AND visual details for our respective novels --- the next step, then, is to craft a timeline of events that your characters must endure for the sake of the story.

The good news? 
Timelines don’t need to be ultra-specific - only enough to keep you on track with where your tale needs to go.

The challenge? 
Since this is visual storyboarding, you'll likely need at least two different kinds of timelines, and possibly all four.

Which four kinds of timelines do I mean? The ones mentioned in the blog title, of course: Jellybean, Licorice, Vonnegut, Line.

But in true Angela fashion, I’ve given you the list of timeline forms in reverse order. Let’s start with the last one, shall we?


This is the form of timeline that every schoolchild knows. A basic, straightforward timeline that gives the general idea of which event happened first – you know, to show that Napoleon lived before Ronald Reagan, or that the sinking of the Titanic did NOT happen during the Third Crusade.

A basic line timeline looks something like this:

Simple enough, yes?

So when you first sit down to work the timelines for your novel, this is usually your first step. Go ahead and get the obvious out on paper – not in paragraph form, but in this simple line form, so that you can have a quick reference to make sure your novel doesn’t jump the tracks and diverge into the opium fields somewhere.

You may have already done this part, of course. If you have, you’re ready for the next kind of timeline:


This is the timeline idea that revolutionized the way I plot my stories – and, as you might have guessed from the name, the idea was given to me by the old wisecracking surrealist writer, Kurt Vonnegut himself.

More specifically, I learned about this style of time-line-ing when I first sat down to read Vonnegut’s best-known novel, Slaughterhouse Five.

I refer, of course, to the first chapter of that book, which explains how he came up with his hypnotically fractured story about time-sliding Billy Pilgrim. More specifically, he explains what aliens and a disillusioned middle-aged man have to do with Vonnegut’s own experiences during the bombing of Dresden (WWII), which he and his comrades narrowly survived by hiding out in a concrete slaughterhouse (from which the book derives its name). 

The part that changed the way I saw story-plotting was Vonnegut’s own confession on how he started to draw out the idea for Slaughterhouse Five:
I had outlined the Dresden story many times. The best outline I ever made, or anyway, the prettiest one, was on the back of a roll of wallpaper. I used my daughter’s crayons, a different color for each main character. One end of the wallpaper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all that middle part, which was the middle. And the blue line met the red line and then the yellow line, and yellow line stopped because the character represented by the yellow line was dead. And so on. The destruction of Dresden was represented by a vertical band of orange cross-hatching, and all the lines that were still alive passed through it, came out the other side.
Now – I don’t know if that description makes any sense to you, but it sent off massive amounts of light bulbs in my head. Holy crow, I thought. That makes so much sense! I could see at one whack where all the major characters are, where they fall in and out of the story, who crosses into the climactic conflicts, and so on. I could totally do this.

And when I did the serious storyboarding for Castle 8, that’s just what I did. I taped together several sheets of typing paper end to end – fourteen feet of it – and spent five solid days during a January ice storm laying out my Dresdens and colored lines and battlefields.

The result looked like this:

"The beginning of the story." First half of the behemoth 14 foot timeline, spread across 
my desperately-needs-vacuuming floor. This is how I spent the five days I was stuck 
at home during the ice storm of early 2011.

"All that middle part, which was the middle." What you see here has 
changed somewhat now; I’ve dropped some characters and shifted the timeline. 
That happens when you write, at least to a point. 

"And the other end was the end." The other end of the 14 foot timeline. The broad yellow stripe 
indicates the huge climactic scene of the series. I gave myself another foot 
or so of space afterward, to allow for adequately handling the denouement of the tale.

Some of the timeline has changed, but most of it is still structurally sound. I refer to it frequently, because this shows me at one glance where each character is in relation to the major events happening in my tale. Moreover, because my series will become increasingly complex in the overlap of characters’ lives, I will refer to it still more as the tale progresses. My fourteen foot timeline may look like overkill, but for me – it’s a lifesaver.


So you’ve got your Vonnegut Timeline ready (or we’re pretending that you have). Now you realize that even within the overall harp of colored lifelines, there are some finer points that need their own timeline. Maybe there is a very busy three month period in your tale where a lot is going on – OR maybe your story doesn’t cross years (like mine), but a series of weeks, and a narrower range of time-line-ing is in order.

That’s where laying out a licorice timeline will help.

An incomplete licorice timeline. With very short, squat licorice strips. 
(But not quite a jellybean timeline, even so.)

I call it a “licorice” timeline because it looks like someone’s laid out those long, thin rectangular strands of Twizzlers and given them funny labels, and took away the color. I did a licorice timeline for a nine month stretch of Castle 8, and while it’s not completely finished (or accurate), the current format still helps me understand the necessary structure of those nine important months in my characters' lives.


But what if you need to break events down even further? What if there are a few days in your narrative where everything is happening at once, and in several different places?

That’s where a jellybean timeline will help. It works essentially like the licorice timeline, but with shorter, fatter dollops of information on a Vonnegut trajectory. I recently had to create a jellybean timeline to get a better grasp of the opening five days of my story, and the result was this:

 See the cute little jellybean shapes? Or maybe they're more like gumdrops. 
But "gumdrop" doesn't quite catch the rhythm of the "jellybean, licorice, Vonnegut, line" jingle. 


·      I am severely OCD when it comes to timelines. Yours doesn’t need to be so neat, or so anal-retentive.
·      Not all of these timeline types will apply to your story. Most of you will need only one or two, and which ones you need may vary, depending on the project.
·      It’s always advisable to do the standard line timeline at least, just so you know where your major events fall, and what those major events are.
·      EXPERIMENT. I’m sure there’s another way of handing the timing aspect of things that I haven’t covered here. Use what works right for you.


If you missed the earlier Visual Storyboarding episodes, you can follow the following links to catch up:

     PART ONE: Storyboarding vs Mere Plotting

     PART TWO: Building on Your Hook

     PART THREE: Chasing Down the Details

Questions? Comments? Let me know in the comment section below!


  1. It's fascinating to see how other writers plot and plan! I have a habit of using a standard line timeline, and then enhancing areas that contain a bulk of storyline into a number of pages still using line timeline, but broken down even more. You're fourteen foot line makes more sense in the long run!
    I'm editing a trilogy, so the lines are complete...but in the future when I go back to my half finished dragon fantasy, I think it'll be great to do the Vonnegut line...after all the story covers 700 years (which is currently plotted out, in teeny tiny font, in bullet point pages, about seven of them!)!
    Thanks for these ideas Angela!

    1. I know - there seems to be as many tips and techniques for storyboarding as there are writers! I'm always up for learning more ideas from others - this is just what has worked for me so far.

      Glad to know there's someone out there that thinks the 14 foot timeline isn't downright absurd! Mine is a series, and while I"m not sure how many books will be in it, I know that it will require some complex storytelling across many characters and terrains, and I want to make sure I don't lose any threads.

      Sounds like you've got some timeline work cut out for you as well! Let me know how it goes!!

  2. Wow that licorice and jellybean charts really got me thinking about timing, just seems to lay out the plot more understandably, I usually write as it comes but often get stuck.

    1. Timing is the one thing that really gets me - I tend to tell (or try to tell) very elaborate stories with lots of character overlap, so this was the only way I knew to cut through the tangle. There might be a simpler way, but I've not found it yet. Getting stuck in the middle of a plot tangle is a BEAR.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Because I am creating transmedia stories (story that arches across at least three media, I HAVE to timeline to keep the narrative in order. Due to the flux of the storytelling process, I highly suggest going digital and using Tiki-Tokis online timeline (HTML or Flash), (Private or Public). You get one Free timeline.

    1. That looks like an interesting tool to use - have been looking through the FAQs and might give it a try. Thanks for the tip!!

  4. Am late to this, so apologies if this has already been said, but do love Vonnegut's splendid (and very funny) story shape lecture here: here.

    1. O my goodness. My other readers might have seen that one, but I had not. Absolutely loved it. Looks frighteningly like the "classic story structure" that I'm always showing my students....only not quite that shape, and I"m not nearly that funny as I tell it. :)

      Thanks for sharing!!