Organising Multiple Timelines

Hi there,

I am a very new user to Scrivener - like, two days old, bless - I made the switch to the software as an experiment to organise my notes and ideas for my new novel. So far, it’s great…a query for anyone to answer, if they may (and apologies if this is super basic question, like I say, I am new to this)

My novel takes place over three different time periods in the protagonist’s life and the story flits between the three - think ‘Once Upon A Time In America’. I want to organise three reference folders with each time period’s story (in scenes or chapters) in chronological order to start with.

Then I would like to move/link these scenes into the main manuscript (colour labelled for each period) From here, I would like an overview of the whole novel (again colour coded) and have the ability to start moving scenes around and juggling the timelines to fashion the dramatic narrative but without it affecting the chronology in the time period’s route folder (which is used for reference)

I used to do this method with previous novels and screenplays physically with index cards on the floor. I really enjoy the shuffling of scenes process and I am looking to replicate this workflow in Scrivener.

I am pretty sure there is a way to do this, I just can’t figure out the most effective way to organise the project.

Any advice you can give an absolute beginner would be great!

Thanks so much


I’ve done something like this with collections. Keep the timelines/sub-plots in their folders and use a collection to put the scenes/chapters in the order I want.

The nice thing is you can then either compile the collection or the original order, thus testing both what the final book would read like and still easily check if each timeline is consistent in itself.

If you’re not already using the “label” metadata field for anything, you might want to consider using it to tag each document as belonging to one of your 3 timelines. Then use the View->Use Label Color In… menu to see the associated color of each timeline in various parts of the Scrivener interface. You’ll then be able to use the project search to search just the Label for “past”, save that as a search collection, and then repeat for your “present” and “future” timelines. These saved searches will update every time you visit them, showing you all of the documents with that label applied to them.

From the description of what you are looking to do, I think the Collections feature is going to be your best bet as well, and there is little harm in trying it as collections are kind of like “meta lists” in Scrivener, they exist only unto themselves. They are in fact a close metaphor for how you worked in the past: they are your index cards, while the scene is in the stack of paper. With Scrivener it’s all a bit more tightly bound, because the card is the scene, and the card can exist in multiple places at once—but such is the magic we can do with digital bits instead of sliced paper.

Here is how you could get started with the idea:

  1. Use the View ▸ Show Collections command. It’s not necessary, but you’ll probably want these to be more accessible than the average user would. You can drag the divider down a bit to give yourself some more space.
  2. You probably already have some files created for the first timeline, go ahead and select all of those in the binder. If not, skip ahead, this is optional.
  3. Click the + button at the top to create a new collection, and call it “First Timeline” (to be terribly generic). As you’ll note, what you select in the binder ends up in the list when you create a new collection. You can prune this list now and start organising things with drag and drop. To remove something from a Collection list, just select it and press the delete key, or click the little - button in the “First Timeline” header bar.
  4. Feeling a bit constricted in the sidebar view? No problem, click the hook arrow button to the left of the “First Timeline” header text. This loads the contents of the collection into the main editor, as though it were a folder or group in the binder. So for example you could switch to Corkboard view and start developing the timeline with synopses. Or maybe you prefer Outliner, where you can create an add an Event Date column. Meanwhile, you can go back to using the sidebar for the Binder.
  5. Whether you work in the editor or sidebar, you’re probably going to want to add items at some point, and this is no problem. Use any of the normal shortcuts, buttons or menu commands to do so. The first time you do, you’ll be informed of how this works—since the collection isn’t bound to any place in the binder, it’ll just make an “inbox” for you, where you can later put these items where they should be, in the Draft folder.

So that’s the basic idea… your scenes and such all concretely exist in the Draft in narrative order—but their relationships, how they exist within a timeline of a major plot arc or what have you, is clarified by these Collection meta lists, where they can even co-exist in multiple lists if need be. It’s going to be a lot more flexible to take that approach, than trying to do all of this in the binder. I like to think of the binder as the master list of resources, but Collections are where the real thinking, visualisation and organising is often done.

As I mentioned above, you can treat Collections a lot like folders, too. Just because they aren’t listed in the binder doesn’t mean they are out of reach. The hook button is nice, but there are in my opinion better ways of jumping between them. For example, try this:

  1. Hit the ⇧⌘' / Ctrl+' shortcut to split the editor vertically (or click/opt-click the little button on the far right of the editor header bar).

  2. Right-click in the right split’s header bar, and select Go To Collection ▸ First Timeline.

    • You can also get there from Navigate ▸ Go To ▸ Collections ▸ First Timeline, which will mainly be of interest to Mac users, if you’re a fan of creating custom shortcuts, and would like to hit F1, F2 and F3, or whatever, to flip between timeline lists.
    • Another approach is to load all three in succession, and then use the ⌘[ & ] / Ctrl+[ & ] shortcuts to flip through them in History.
  3. You could optionally at this point use the Navigate ▸ Binder Selection Affects ▸ Left Editor Only. What that will do is make it so no matter which split is currently active, stuff you click on in the left sidebar will only ever load on the left, keeping this listing on the right semi-permanent.

Having the timeline list readily available like that makes it a lot easier to drag stuff in and out of the list. And keep in mind that when dragging something out of a Collection list, you aren’t moving or copying it from the list—it is a meta list—you’re telling Scrivener where to put that item from its original location in the binder. So this is an easy way to organise the Draft folder, as you don’t have to really even know where the item was originally.

Then I would like to move/link these scenes into the main manuscript (colour labelled for each period) From here, I would like an overview of the whole novel (again colour coded) and have the ability to start moving scenes around and juggling the timelines to fashion the dramatic narrative but without it affecting the chronology in the time period’s route folder (which is used for reference)

Entirely unrelated to Collections, Labels are the best way to track of this kind of primary axis in a work (although they can make it easy to keep things colour-coded, as you can just hit ⌘A / Ctrl+A to select the whole list, and then right-click on the selection and set the Label for them all at once):

  • As rdale notes, you can click the Arrange by Label corkboard mode button in the footer bar (looks like two cards on lines), while looking at a chapter in your book, and see how all of the different subsections play out in the three main arcs.
  • The Label is also the most readily accessible piece of metadata in the software. You can review the various means in the user manual, under §10.4.3, Labels & Status, pg. 241.

And while you’re in the PDF, a few pages back is §10.2, Using Collections, which will be a handy reference for learning about these lists. You’ll note you can have them automatically assembled by saved searches as well—you might think to run a search for the Label and save yourself the effort of doing the same thing twice—but unfortunately saved searches, being volatile and all, aren’t as good for freeform organisation.

That said, if you do create a date field with custom metadata (§10.4.4, Custom Metadata), consider you can sort the Outliner view by columns. So if your primary objective in organising a list of scenes within a timeline is chronological, it may suffice to simply keep the view sorted by that date column, and allow it to populate automatically from a label search otherwise. The main downside to that approach would be that you no longer have the ability to create new cards from within the collection. Creating new cards to it will become a matter of doing so in the main binder (probably wherever they should fall in the narrative, or into gathering areas if you don’t know yet), and then assigning the label.

There is no one right way, each has their pros and cons—but like I say, there is little harm in experimenting and finding which approach works best for you.

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This is fantastic, exactly what I was looking for - thank you all so much for your input and assistance!