Elements of storytelling: Better timelines
I’m going to try something new today.
First, a little backstory. A few months ago, as part of my work at the CASE Editors Forum, I got to do magazine critiques.
Like me, she definitely has opinions on magazines.
One thing that struck me, even with all the ambitious and interesting storytelling and design I saw, was the reliance on straight narrative as a storytelling technique. This was true even in the front of the book and packaged features.
I get it.
It’s something we’re all pretty good at doing. We’re all busy. Spending time coming up with a unique concept—an infographic, a chart, a map—is time-consuming not just for you and your writers, but also your designers.
Yet magazines—really, all print publications—offer so many amazing opportunities for unique storytelling. Q&As. Timelines. Annotations. Flowcharts.
For years, I struggled with this problem, trying to dream up great sidebars or charts or matrices that I could add to my feature packages to make them more interesting.
But the best ideas always came to me after I saw the story in print, in the way that most of us think of the perfect retort to a bully’s mean comment a moment too late.
Eventually, I realized I could build my own “reference book” of the best magazine story elements with examples from the hundreds of magazines I read every year.
So I did.
Every time I saw cool story packaging in a magazine, I tore it out, categorized it, and catalogued it. (You guys, in case you are wondering, I am really fun at parties.)
I have an index of every type of story packaging element I can think of, plus a three-ring binder *packed* with examples of these elements. I refer to them often when I’m pitching editors, developing feature ideas, and writing stories, so I always have tons of ideas right when I need them.
Certainly, this is something you can do on your own, but I realized that there’s no reason to keep the work that I’ve already done entirely to myself. I want to begin to share this playbook I’ve developed over the course of more than a decade.
Let’s start with one of my favorite story packaging elements: timelines.
What happened when?
Most of us think of timelines as something we can use for highlighting important events during a president’s tenure or the school’s history.
But there are a million different ways to think about using timelines. They’re not just valuable for events in the past, but also for a more general passing of time and even future events.
Here are a few of my favorite examples:
- Visual timeline of boiling an egg — Words optional.
- Timeline for making a restaurant-style entree — Timelines that indicate the general passing of time, not history.
- Tiny timelines — You don’t need 20 entries to make a timeline.
- Takeoff till touchdown: airplane survival guide
- The creation of a Picasso masterpiece — I like the idea of timelines that showcase a process, not events.
- Year-in-review commentary timeline — (partial, with Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson) I love this two-part approach, which offers the events themselves plus commentary on them.
Finally, here’s a link to some more general timeline design themes.
I hope you’ll keep these at hand when you’re planning your story packages. And when you’re working with both your in-house and freelance writers, ask them to think in advance about the different ways that they can package their pieces in ways that tell your school’s stories in the most compelling ways.