Planning Fiction from Scratch

Aeon Timeline offers a lot of flexibility, which can be great when you are knee-deep in a project and keen to untangle your latest plot hole, but not so useful when you are just starting out and a little lost about where to begin.

The key is to decide where you want to start based on your own workflow, and then focus on one task (and often one feature!) at a time. Only move on to a new step when you have achieved all you want to achieve in an earlier step.

This guide suggests one such path, assuming you are starting a brand new project, but there are several alternative starting points listed at the end of the article that may suit your workflow better.


  1. Create your project and follow the bouncing ball
  2. Get down the basics
  3. Introduce some dates (optional)
  4. Meet your characters
  5. Tell a story
  6. Sync to your favourite writing app
  7. And beyond: write, edit, and iterate
  8. Alternative starting points

Step 1: Create your first project

To get started, click on the Create New button and choose from one of our Fiction templates.

If you are writing Science Fiction or Fantasy and require a different calendar system, now is the time to set that up.

For everyone else, the default settings should be fine.

Follow the bouncing ball

The path suggested in this article also happens to be the same path as is suggested in our in-built tutorial system, so the easiest way to get going is to start the tutorial and work through the steps.

The tutorial will teach you how to use parts of the interface, but it is also designed to help you complete actual work. You will get best results if you take your time with each step, enter real data and plan your actual project as you work.

Step 2: Get down the basics

At this stage, you may only have a few loose ideas for what your story is about: a few characters, a couple of key events, and nothing much in between. Unless you are writing historical fiction centered around a key moment in history, the last thing you want to be thinking about right now is dates.

And that's okay.

The best place to start is Spreadsheet View, which is designed to help you get your ideas down fast, and allows you to create events without thinking about dates yet.

Create a few events to represent those key story points you already know. From there, you can begin to fill some of the gaps in between. Although they don't have dates yet, Spreadsheet View still keeps events in a "chronological order" of your choosing, so you can drag events around to sort them into the rough order in which they should occur.

At this point, you ae introducing events that occur in your story world. It is safe to include items that may only become back story, or events that you might wish to tell in a different order when you write the story. We will arrange them into a narrative order in a later step.

As your story grows, you can use nested events to organise events into groups, or break larger events down into smaller items... but it is a tool, not a compulsion. As with everything, only do this if you feel it will help your planning.

Step 3: Introduce some dates

The tutorial introduces dates at this point. We are a timeline app after all, and so people will be expecting to see a timeline sooner or later. But if you are not ready to think about dates yet, that is fine. You can move on to later steps and come back when you are ready.

You can add dates by typing them into the Spreadsheet or the Item Inspector, or by splitting your workspace and dragging events into the timeline.

Alternatively, if you want to think about the relative duration and spacing of events without locking yourself into real-world dates, switch to a relative Weekly or Daily calendar in Timeline Settings, and you can work with dates like "Tuesday Week 3" or "1:00pm Day 1" instead.

Once you add dates and durations, you will start to see a more graphical sense of time emerge from your story.

Step 4: Meet your characters

Events on a timeline don't mean much until you build a richer picture of everything involved: the characters and settings that drive your scenes, and the story arcs that guide your narrative.

Once you have your basic ideas laid out, it is a good time to introduce some characters. Click on the person icon in the Sidebar to open the Characters panel, and use the Add button to create a few characters.

Then, switch into Relationship View, which shows visually how those characters relate to events in your story. Click on an intersection between an event and a character to set a relationship between the items: you might mark a character as a Participant in or Witness to an event.

Repeat until you have associated characters with all of your events. You can then switch back to Timeline View, and use the filter icons in the entity panel to view only events associated with a single character.

You can repeat these steps for other entity types like Locations and Story Arcs if you wish, or you could move on for now and return to them later.

Step 5: Tell a story

So far, we have been creating everything in "Chronological order": events in the Spreadsheet are listed in the order in which they occur in the real world.

But there is another order that is perhaps more important to consider: the order in which they will be included in your story. As alluded to previously, the narrative is a completely independent order of events that lets you:

  • Omit backstory items that are present in your Spreadsheet
  • Include exposition passages (internal thoughts and monologues etc.) that do not belong in your timeline or chronological order at all
  • Order events differently to incorporate flashbacks or non-linear storytelling
  • Organise events into a different hierarchical structure, based on Parts and Chapters that match your story presentation

To start building your narrative, create a Split View with Spreadsheet View in the top, and Narrative View underneath.

In Spreadsheet View, select the events you want to include in your narrative (hold down Cmd or Ctrl and click on the drag handle of each row you want to select), and drag them into the Narrative View underneath. This will add all of those items into the narrative.

Once added, you can rearrang items or add further  items as you wish:

  • If you add Narrative Folders or Exposition items, they will exist in your Narrative and nowhere else.
  • Other item types such as Scenes, Events and Flashbacks, are automatically added to your chronological order (Spreadsheet View) as well, since they represent items that occur in the real world.

The aim of this step is to organise your thoughts into the order you actually intend to tell them in your story. Depending on how deep you like to go in your planning, this may evolve into an intricate chapter-by-chapter plan, or it might remain as a few loose ideas of the story you want to tell.

Either is fine. You should adapt your use of Aeon Timeline to fit into your existing workflow, not the other way around.

Step 6: Sync to your favourite writing app

If you write in Scrivener or Ulysses: good news! All that planning work is not wasted, and you are not going to have to create it all over again.

Now is the time to setup your timeline to sync with a new writing project:

  1. Create a new writing project
  2. In Scrivener: Create a brand new project and save it alongside your timeline file. Delete any placeholders folders or documents inside the Draft folder: we are about to replace those with your own work
  3. In Ulysses: Create a new folder in your Ulysses library to contain your project
  4. In Aeon Timeline, open Sync Settings, and select the project or folder you have just created
  5. You can leave the settings as they are, but to get the most out of syncing, you may want to sync additional fields such as Start and End Dates, and associated characters (See Sync Settings).

Click on the sync icon in the Sidebar to view your current syncing status. The contents of the Sync Panel shows a unified view of your writing project and timeline. As you have not yet synced, everything will be marked with a green + icon to indicate the content is new.

Check to ensure everything looks as it should, and then hit the Sync Now button. This will create new documents and folders in your writing project that match the structure you created in your narrative.

Once you have synced for the first time, you can begin writing, or continue to edit your timeline. Aeon Timeline will keep watch on both projects, and will show a small dot on the sync icon in the Sidebar whenever a change is made that should be synced between applications.

And beyond: write, edit, and iterate

From here, it is all about iteration: write some of your draft, sync it back to your timeline, refine your ideas, and write a little more of your draft.

The most important advice at this stage is to sync things regularly: if you want to spend a week with your head down writing prose, that is fine, but make sure you sync your data every time you switch between apps. That way, both your timeline and your writing project will stay up to date, and you will be able to enjoy the strengths  that each app brings.

There are more tricks to Aeon Timeline that might help down the track, but only use them when you are ready, and there is something specific you want to achieve.

Alternative starting points

If starting off in Spreadsheet View doesn't suit you, there are a few other options you could try:

  • Prefer to start working in story order without worrying about the chronological order at all?
  • Outline View is just like Spreadsheet View, but shows the Narrative order instead
  • Or you could work directly in Narrative View instead
  • Do you like to start with a brainstorming session?
  • Use Mindmap View to jot down your characters and story ideas, and start forming links... the data carries across from Mindmap View to your other views automatically.
  • Prefer a more visual approach?
  • You could start in Timeline View to get a graphical picture from the outset
  • Are characters central to everything you do?
  • Create them first, so that you can start adding relationships to events as soon as they are created.

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