Timeline Cards: for Backstory, Worldbuilding, and Complication

A few weeks ago, I visited one of my Philadelphia Young Playwrights classrooms as a guest teaching artist. The students finished writing scene one of their plays, and it was time for them to outline their full story arcs. It was a perfect moment to introduce timeline as a way to challenge them to think about how elements from the past or future could enrich, influence, or complicate the lives of their characters and the world of their plays.

Featured Image One Season AgoMany writers activate the benefits of timeline through flashback. When executed well, flashbacks can be powerful; however, it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to leveraging a story’s timeline. For example, I challenged my class of 8th graders to apply the One Century Ago timeline card to a sample scene about a strained relationship between a mother and daughter. One student suggested that how an ancestor treated his daughter one hundred years ago dictated all the parent-child relationships that followed, which is why the mother had trouble authentically connecting to her daughter in the present moment. What an incredible suggestion – even if the audience never sees or knows about that particular detail, a playwright keeping that circumstance in mind can make some rich, specific choices for the mother and daughter as a result.

In addition to using these cards as a tool to outline a story arc, the cards below can also be used as an aid to world building, to help a writer to dig into a character’s backstory or future consequences, or to explore how timing can impact interactions between characters.

They can be used as prompts for journaling or memoir writing, too. I’ve included a few ways below that you use them for this purpose.

If you’d like to print a full set of Timeline Cards for individual or group use, you can access the full set here as a printable .pdf. Or, if you’re an individual seeking the luck of the draw, know that the slideshow below is set to randomize, which means it’ll begin with a different timeline card each time you load the page.

Now, it’s time for timeline cards!

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Genres: Writing, Theatre, Memoir or Journaling

Creative Process: Idea Generation, Worldbuilding, Story Arc, Plot, Complications

Age Level: 13+

     For Individuals:

     Part I – Choose Your Time. Choose an excerpt from your work-in-progress that you’d like to expand upon, or choose a single aspect of your fictional world that you’d like to flesh out more for worldbuilding purposes. Scroll through the timeline cards, selecting three that resonate with you. Make sure you pick three vastly different points in the timeline – take at least one risk, too, by choosing one to explore that’s unexpected for the story you’re seeking to tell!

     Part II – Pitch Yourself. For each card, write a one-sentence pitch for an idea that incorporates that moment in the timeline. Consider ideas that are set at that specific time, but also ideas that incorporate an influence (in the form of a person, place, or thing) from that moment in the timeline to the present moment of your work-in-progress. Pick the pitch that you like the most, and continue to expand on that idea through further outlining or writing.

     For Groups:

     Part I – The Group Warm-Up. Pass out a 1 – 2 page excerpt from a story or play, and ask volunteers to read it aloud. Afterwards, ask volunteers to identify the who (characters), where/when (setting), what (plot), and why (conflict/circumstances) of the excerpt.

Then, do three rounds of Timeline Brainstorm! Based on each timeline card, selected at random by a volunteer, ask participants to offer ideas that either:

  • Create a scene that takes place during that moment in the timeline, defining a who, where, what or why that connects to the excerpt and enriches the overall story as a result.
  • Add an influence from that part of the timeline (in the form of a person, place, or thing) to the present excerpt. This suggested revision should add an element of backstory, foreshadowing, or complication, providing a layer to the excerpt that wasn’t present before.

     Part II – Individual Decisions. Using tables or walls, make a gallery of the Timeline Cards. Participants shop the gallery, choosing 1 or 2 timeline cards that connect with their current idea but that also help them expand or imagine something new. Encourage participants to take a risk, and choose at least one timeline card to explore that’s out of their norm! Participants can then explore how to incorporate these new moments in their timeline by crafting an outline or by writing a scene.

For Journaling and Memoir Writing:

It’s not hard to imagine the benefits of exploring your personal timeline. Here are just some of the ways you can use these cards as a prompt for personal writing:

  • Explore the past of one of your key relationships, or imagine the possibilities and growth of that relationship in the future.
  • Track your history at a location that’s had a great impact on your life, or imagine different locations you’d like access at different points in your future.
  • Explore the influences (people, places, things, events, fears, desires) of your past and how they relate to your present moment.
  • Explore the influences (people, places, things, events, fears, desires) of your future and how it relates to the choices you are making right now, or the next steps you need to take to make that future a reality.

The time clock is ticking! Feel free to suggest other moments in the timeline or post about your experience in the comments. Remember, whenever I post an activity, prompt (like this one), or a guided writing exercise in the Support For Writers section of my site, I will always write a blog post about the activity as well. That way, if you follow my blog you’ll always know when new exercises become available.


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