How to create a generational timeline in 4 steps

Lately, I’ve been really interested in generational stories as well as stories told from multiple points of view. Naturally, I decided to create a generational story told from multiple points of view, which is what I’m working on for NaNoWriMo. I’ve never done this before, but I felt the story form inside of me and I knew I had to write it down before I exploded.

I’m a plantser – a mixture of a pantser and a planner – so I knew I needed to figure out how to create a timeline for all three of my main characters, but especially the two I wanted to focus on.

I started with my characters. I know not all writers do this, but I usually do. I create an MC or multiple MCs, and I need to tell their story. For this particular story, I started with a grandma, mother, and granddaughter. Three generations of the same family. But I knew I wanted to focus on the grandma and granddaughter to pull the three together in the end for a resolution.

Here’s how I created a generational timeline for my characters:

Step 1: Figure out your general time frame.

I chose the present day for the granddaughter’s story because she is a modern young woman. So, I had to go back in time just before three generations to tell the grandma’s story, which is about 75 years or so because each generation equals about 25 years (how many of your 25-year-old friends have babies?).

I started by drawing a line in my notebook. I added the start and end dates for my timeline, 1945 and 2018. Then I added tick marks for about every five years.

Step 2: Look up historical events during your time frame.

Perform mild research for your time frame and around your time frame. The grandma in my story is born a few years after WWII ends and the mother is born during the Vietnam War. Since part of my story touches after WWII and the grandma is originally from Germany, I had to research the plausibility for a German family to move to the U.S. after the war. Otherwise, my readers wouldn’t believe her story. Historical accuracy is very important.

I added these events to the top of my timeline, creating brackets for the years each war took.

Step 3: Add big story events to your timeline.

I knew I wanted the granddaughter to be turning 18 in 2018, so I went backward to 2000 for her birth year and I added it to the timeline. Then I did the same thing for the grandmother and mother. How old were they when they each gave birth? This is key to my story, so it was necessary that I figure it out before I started writing.

Add in other big story events to your timeline, as necessary, such as a daughter leaving her mother’s home for the last time or when a character will die.

Step 4: Shorten the timeline.

You can’t fit in the main points of your story on a timeline that covers about 75 years, so pick the most important years and draw new lines. Since I want the granddaughter’s story to parallel the grandmother’s, I literally drew two parallel lines in my notebook. (Of course, as I filled in the timelines, I realized they’re not as parallel as I originally thought, but that’s okay. This is why I plot.)

I added their birth years and other important events from the first timeline to their respective new timelines, but I primarily focused on the time frame when they would tell their stories. I decided the grandmother’s story will span three years while the granddaughter’s story will span four months, but both characters would tell their stories starting around the age of 18.

From there, I dove deeper into the plot. I added more plot details accordingly, making the story progress naturally over time.

I keep an elaborate calendar for my characters detailing on which dates everything happens. I’m constantly revising this as I go along. It gives me the freedom to intricately plot my story, knowing it will at least hold up on a timeline.
~Maria Semple

I hope these steps inspire you to attempt your own generational story. I can’t wait to read it.

If you liked this blog post, please buy me a cup of coffee.

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