• Hi Guest!

    The costs of running this forum are covered by Sea Lion Press. If you'd like to help support the company and the forum, visit patreon.com/sealionpress

The Promise and Peril of the Timeline

David Flin

A home of love and laughter.
#2
It's a valid difference, and pointing out the basic difference is valuable.

I'm very definitely in one camp when it comes to my writing AH. I guess I find that OTL history can be astonishingly implausible in places, and someone writing OTL as though it were an Alternate History TL would get torn to shreds.
 

Thande

But whatever you do, do not, under any circumstanc
Published by SLP
#3
It's a valid difference, and pointing out the basic difference is valuable.

I'm very definitely in one camp when it comes to my writing AH. I guess I find that OTL history can be astonishingly implausible in places, and someone writing OTL as though it were an Alternate History TL would get torn to shreds.
And if you did try to write OTL as a timeline, you obviously couldn't cover everything - so you'd have to pick and choose what strands of events and people to focus on, which means even when recounting real events, authorial bias would come in. Two different people asked to make timelines out of OTL would not produce identical or even that similar pieces of work.
 

Kato

nec minute
Patreon supporter
Published by SLP
Location
Birmingham
Pronouns
she/her
#4
The 'pure' timeline format is very much a rarity these days, isn't it? Thinking back say 15 years I can recall a lot, if not the majority of online AH being in the format of very simple timelines. Literally:

1994: Event happens
1997: Person X dies
2001: Third Party Majority

This may of course be a website sampling bias on my part.

What this article refers to is the longer developed form of the above - primarily the in-universe textbook style (singular or scrap-book) which is nowadays the go-to for anyone doing a 'non-narrative' TL. Its interesting how the style has evolved - though of course some of the older classic works used textbook (Gordon Banks, from memory).
 

Coiler

Connoisseur of the Miscellaneous
Published by SLP
Location
Nu Yawk
#5
What this article refers to is the longer developed form of the above - primarily the in-universe textbook style (singular or scrap-book) which is nowadays the go-to for anyone doing a 'non-narrative' TL. Its interesting how the style has evolved - though of course some of the older classic works used textbook (Gordon Banks, from memory).
When I got into internet alternate history (mid-late 2000s), this "in-universe textbook" style had become the overwhelmingly dominant style for posting TLs, so I think of that when I think of "TL".
 

Thande

But whatever you do, do not, under any circumstanc
Published by SLP
#6
The 'pure' timeline format is very much a rarity these days, isn't it? Thinking back say 15 years I can recall a lot, if not the majority of online AH being in the format of very simple timelines. Literally:

1994: Event happens
1997: Person X dies
2001: Third Party Majority

This may of course be a website sampling bias on my part.

What this article refers to is the longer developed form of the above - primarily the in-universe textbook style (singular or scrap-book) which is nowadays the go-to for anyone doing a 'non-narrative' TL. Its interesting how the style has evolved - though of course some of the older classic works used textbook (Gordon Banks, from memory).
When I got into internet alternate history (mid-late 2000s), this "in-universe textbook" style had become the overwhelmingly dominant style for posting TLs, so I think of that when I think of "TL".
Indeed, I saw a Date: Stuff Happens TL recently and was surprised by how unnatural it now seemed.

There are hybrid forms, of course; Tony Jones' TLs are strictly Date: Stuff Happens but they have all sorts of asides which elevate and deepen it into a narrative.
 

OwenM

The patronising flippancy of youth
Location
Colwyn Bay/Manchester
Pronouns
He/him
#7
I think there are also quite a few TLs that will either do a roundup of the events in each year (as the only thing in the TL I mean, not as a looking back) which strikes me as in between but more to the Date: Stuff Happens format. Fletch's A New Britain would be an older example of this, Space Oddity's Now Blooms the Tudor Rose a more recent one.
Also some that will essentially do repeated scrapbook format TLs with each such TL covering a round number of years - Male Rising and I think That Wacky Redhead were examples of this - which is again in between but leaning more to the latter.
 

Uhura's Mazda

Based in Uruguay, but
Published by SLP
Location
Tamaki Makaurau
#8
Good article. Just want to jump off here and add a refinement of the ‘conventional narrative’ side.

I’ve noticed that the format of the narrative TL is really more of its own thing than that of, say, a novel – partly because TL-writers often write by the seat of their pants, but also because the serialised nature of the posting schedule encourages a different structure to that of a novel which is written and then published. When writing a narrative TL update, you’re encouraged by the format to put in a certain amount of worldbuilding into each update, a certain number of references to OTL, a certain quantity of plot, and a hook or cliffhanger at the end to bait the reader into coming back next week.

You also feel like you have to keep each update to within a certain tolerance of an ideal word count (say, 2,000 words), even if the scene or chapter you’re writing might be better served by being 500 or 12,000 words long. And even if you bow to artistic integrity and make the sections that long, you feel like you have to cobble things together or split them up to keep the reader’s attention. Too long an update and they might stop reading, too short and you feel like you’re taking the piss. And then the cobbled-together update ends up following the structure of the Update, even though it ought to just be two or three scenes in a longer sequence.

The point is that the narrative TL is a slightly different thing to the narrative novel. To take an extreme analogy, an update-driven TL can be compared to a Twitter thread, in which each individual Tweet (roughly analogous to a sentence) has to be individually cogent, impactful, and of an appropriate length for the format, in order to retain the interest of the reader. But if you copy-pasted that Twitter rant and published it as a blog post or article, it wouldn’t really work – it would be formless and awkward, because longer-form argumentative writing uses the structures and rhythms of the Paragraph to sweep the reader along and modulate tension, while the Twitter thread doesn’t have that structure and generally keeps to a single register.

So I think the best way of thinking about narrative TLs is that they’re the modern form of the Dickensian serial novel, where the pressure is to bash out as many chapters of a set word count as you can manage without losing too many readers. If Dickens had bashed his novels out and then sent them to a publisher without the intervening step of serialisation, I think they’d have been very different – for one thing, they’d be shorter and less prosaically ornate. The thing is, Dickens was so talented that he was able to obscure and overcome the fact that his pacing was often all amiss. That’s the reason he’s still read today. A lot of serial novelists of the time are now forgotten, even if they were hugely popular while their stories were being serialised, because they failed to make their works readable in the novel format.

You can also compare narrative TLs to thrillers or mystery novels, which also have a central purpose of making the reader want to read the next chapter, but I think that’s a less apt comparison. Thriller writers are better able to modulate tension and pacing because they’re also thinking in terms of the whole book. And the other thing is that serial novelists were competing for attention with all the other articles in the journal, just like TL-writers now compete with all the other threads on the forum and all the other sites on the Internet. Fall-off in readership is a fact of life for both, but not so much for the thriller writer – who at least has already been paid the royalty on the whole book, even if the reader has given up at the end of Chapter Five.

This is all to say that the serialised format of the TL makes it subtly different in terms of structure, pacing, etc. etc. from the standard novel. It’s not to say that one format is better than the other – as a matter of personal taste, I’d say that serialised fiction is often more enjoyable in the moment, while narrative fiction is more rewarding when you step back and look at what’s being said. But each to their own.

(Also, full disclosure, I’m currently working on the second draft of an AH novel which I think works better as a novel than as a TL: for starters, the chapters demand to vary from 5,000 to 15,000 words.)

BRB, I’m off to repost this as a Twitter thread.
 

David Flin

A home of love and laughter.
#9
Good article. Just want to jump off here and add a refinement of the ‘conventional narrative’ side.

I’ve noticed that the format of the narrative TL is really more of its own thing than that of, say, a novel – partly because TL-writers often write by the seat of their pants, but also because the serialised nature of the posting schedule encourages a different structure to that of a novel which is written and then published. When writing a narrative TL update, you’re encouraged by the format to put in a certain amount of worldbuilding into each update, a certain number of references to OTL, a certain quantity of plot, and a hook or cliffhanger at the end to bait the reader into coming back next week.

You also feel like you have to keep each update to within a certain tolerance of an ideal word count (say, 2,000 words), even if the scene or chapter you’re writing might be better served by being 500 or 12,000 words long. And even if you bow to artistic integrity and make the sections that long, you feel like you have to cobble things together or split them up to keep the reader’s attention. Too long an update and they might stop reading, too short and you feel like you’re taking the piss. And then the cobbled-together update ends up following the structure of the Update, even though it ought to just be two or three scenes in a longer sequence.
(and snips)

As one who follows this exact route of posting a narrative TL, I feel I need to comment.

First off, I regard the narrative TLs I do as a first draft; I get to see what works and what doesn't, where I'm going down a blind alley, where I'm going with various introduced characters (who may or may not make the cut), and so on. The narrative TL works in its own right (for me, at any rate. I can't speak for any of those who read them) as well.

The point about a scene being better served by being either longer or shorter than the update length is, I feel, a red herring. If a scene is too short for an update, an update contains several scenes. If a scene is too long for a single update, it gets cut off at a convenient point within the scene. It's a trivial exercise to get a flow. I simply write each scene to the length that the scene feels as though it needs.

And even if you bow to artistic integrity and make the sections that long, you feel like you have to cobble things together or split them up to keep the reader’s attention.

Here I have to disagree. There's a rhythm to scene development, just like there's a rhythm to speech patterns or plot arcs or anything in writing. I've never found any problems in this regard, and that's how Six East End Boys, Tales From Section D (1 and 2), Apostles, Reports from Independent London, Bring Me My Bow, and currently Nor Shall My Sword (which may end up with a title change when I do the rewrite) has worked. It's quite possible that these prove your point, and that they would have been better off had they been written without use of updates; that's for the reader to decide.

However, in particular, the format I had in mind for Tales From Section D was that it was a series of ten tales that each would fit into a one hour TV show, with each story have the pacing appropriate for that format, complete with estimated timings of events throughout to make each story the correct length. The updates came wherever they happened to fall. Apostles was similar, but the template used was a series of half-hour children's TV (along the lines of MI High). Bow and Sword are written with the format of the serial novels you describe in mind. While Dickens was a major user of that format, I'm a bit disappointed you didn't reference Conan Doyle or Kipling, nor the Cinema Serial, which was an absolute integral part of Saturday Children's Cinema from between the Wars.

I make no bones about the fact that my narrative TL writing technique involves putting a bunch of characters in a specific setting, devising an over-arching theme (with Six East End Boys, the twin themes were: Justice is only Justice if it applies to all; and Redemption carries a Price Tag). Writing in such a style unquestionably leads to dead-ends, and rewrites need to be ruthless in cutting these away. It's also possible that the story itself is a dead-end, and I've got any number of partly-done narrative TLs that have ended up in the circular file because of that.

The last point I'd make is that of the attention span of the reader. I've noticed that the average reader reads in chunks of about the length of a typical update. Once they get to that point, regardless of how engrossed they are in the story, their attention starts to wander. Providing a convenient break point at about the time that happens means that the author is catering to that. Whether that's a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing is beyond me. I personally find it hard to understand how anyone can read in such lengths, but that's probably my age showing.
 

Tabac Iberez

Impetious
Published by SLP
#10
I’ve noticed that the format of the narrative TL is really more of its own thing than that of, say, a novel – partly because TL-writers often write by the seat of their pants, but also because the serialised nature of the posting schedule encourages a different structure to that of a novel which is written and then published. When writing a narrative TL update, you’re encouraged by the format to put in a certain amount of worldbuilding into each update, a certain number of references to OTL, a certain quantity of plot, and a hook or cliffhanger at the end to bait the reader into coming back next week.
And, at this point, I had to wonder where exactly you were going with this. Novels aren't a massive, terrible block of material you manufacture and deposit all at once, nor are timelines and other serial publications strictly seat of the pants work. There's elements of revision and modification in both (with a novel it even has a term many of our authors could stand a close brush with; editing) which means no matter how the work comes out, it happens as it happens.

This is all to say that the serialised format of the TL makes it subtly different in terms of structure, pacing, etc. etc. from the standard novel.
Coming from a serial fiction background myself, I'd like to nominate this for a Red Star of Missing the Point. "Well of course the structure in a serial is different, the blasted thing's not done yet!" Goes the public perception, but throughout that comes the question of what your endgame is. A story that has an end should, by necessity, have that end finished first and foremost so the author can lead into it and tie everything together.
 

Uhura's Mazda

Based in Uruguay, but
Published by SLP
Location
Tamaki Makaurau
#11
The point about a scene being better served by being either longer or shorter than the update length is, I feel, a red herring. If a scene is too short for an update, an update contains several scenes. If a scene is too long for a single update, it gets cut off at a convenient point within the scene. It's a trivial exercise to get a flow. I simply write each scene to the length that the scene feels as though it needs.
No, you miss my point. In writing an update containing several scenes, or splitting a scene into chunks, the writer subconsciously alters the pacing and format of the update to fit their preconceived notions of what an update ought to consist of. If the reader were then to read a chunk of a TL without post breaks, they (or at least, I) would be able to put those breaks in again fairly easily. This is much less true of a novel which is edited as a whole before it is published.

On the attention span thing - if the attention span of the reader doesn't match that of the writer, that can make things a bit awkward. See also, complaints that a comedy sketch 'goes on too long' or that the climax of a film feels 'rushed'.
 

David Flin

A home of love and laughter.
#12
In writing an update containing several scenes, or splitting a scene into chunks, the writer subconsciously alters the pacing and format of the update to fit their preconceived notions of what an update ought to consist of. If the reader were then to read a chunk of a TL without post breaks, they (or at least, I) would be able to put those breaks in again fairly easily.
I'm glad to learn how I adjust my pacing and format between writing serial fiction compared to writing "proper" novels.

As for a reader being able to read a chunk of a TL without post breaks, and being able to put those breaks in easily, I'll happily send you something from Apostles or Tales of Section D (2), where I had a specific structure format in mind; we'll see how closely your guesses at where the breaks occurred.

There's elements of revision and modification in both (with a novel it even has a term many of our authors could stand a close brush with; editing) which means no matter how the work comes out, it happens as it happens.
This. So much this.

When I write romance novels, they are heavily pre-planned. There is a structural format to them that has to be seen to be believed. There are certain milestones in the plot that one can predict to the page number exactly where these milestones occur (if you plan to test this out, page 165-175 will see the first full sex between heroine and hero). That's why I write on here the way I do, for the fun of not having these damn milestones. It's also why it takes me longer to turn a TL into something publishable than to write the TL in the first place. Editing is time consuming.
 

Tabac Iberez

Impetious
Published by SLP
#13
Editing is time consuming.
Preaching to the choir here. I've had my next book, Night over the Bosporus, done for... I'll say a month now since I finished up in late January. It's been in editing hell since then, and there's always more problems to fix. For example, chaperones and table manners. There's always more stuff you need to modify and shift around, and actually admitting your work is good enough to ship is hard. It's why I always send in a rough draft after the first round of edits- if I'm not careful, I'll get stuck in a revision loop.

No, you miss my point. In writing an update containing several scenes, or splitting a scene into chunks, the writer subconsciously alters the pacing and format of the update to fit their preconceived notions of what an update ought to consist of. If the reader were then to read a chunk of a TL without post breaks, they (or at least, I) would be able to put those breaks in again fairly easily. This is much less true of a novel which is edited as a whole before it is published.
Well tell ya what, buy a copy of A Century Turns and tell me where you think the original breaks were. When I changed it from serialization to novel, I adjusted the number of breaks and how they were laid out, so if you think you can find the original separation from the finished text that'll be a feather in your cap. I'll even post the links to the original, unedited version if you want some impartial observation- the only edits I've made since publishing were to put everything in spoilers and add adverts for the actual, money-making book.
 

Thande

But whatever you do, do not, under any circumstanc
Published by SLP
#14
Good article. Just want to jump off here and add a refinement of the ‘conventional narrative’ side.

I’ve noticed that the format of the narrative TL is really more of its own thing than that of, say, a novel – partly because TL-writers often write by the seat of their pants, but also because the serialised nature of the posting schedule encourages a different structure to that of a novel which is written and then published. When writing a narrative TL update, you’re encouraged by the format to put in a certain amount of worldbuilding into each update, a certain number of references to OTL, a certain quantity of plot, and a hook or cliffhanger at the end to bait the reader into coming back next week.

You also feel like you have to keep each update to within a certain tolerance of an ideal word count (say, 2,000 words), even if the scene or chapter you’re writing might be better served by being 500 or 12,000 words long. And even if you bow to artistic integrity and make the sections that long, you feel like you have to cobble things together or split them up to keep the reader’s attention. Too long an update and they might stop reading, too short and you feel like you’re taking the piss. And then the cobbled-together update ends up following the structure of the Update, even though it ought to just be two or three scenes in a longer sequence.

The point is that the narrative TL is a slightly different thing to the narrative novel. To take an extreme analogy, an update-driven TL can be compared to a Twitter thread, in which each individual Tweet (roughly analogous to a sentence) has to be individually cogent, impactful, and of an appropriate length for the format, in order to retain the interest of the reader. But if you copy-pasted that Twitter rant and published it as a blog post or article, it wouldn’t really work – it would be formless and awkward, because longer-form argumentative writing uses the structures and rhythms of the Paragraph to sweep the reader along and modulate tension, while the Twitter thread doesn’t have that structure and generally keeps to a single register.

So I think the best way of thinking about narrative TLs is that they’re the modern form of the Dickensian serial novel, where the pressure is to bash out as many chapters of a set word count as you can manage without losing too many readers. If Dickens had bashed his novels out and then sent them to a publisher without the intervening step of serialisation, I think they’d have been very different – for one thing, they’d be shorter and less prosaically ornate. The thing is, Dickens was so talented that he was able to obscure and overcome the fact that his pacing was often all amiss. That’s the reason he’s still read today. A lot of serial novelists of the time are now forgotten, even if they were hugely popular while their stories were being serialised, because they failed to make their works readable in the novel format.

You can also compare narrative TLs to thrillers or mystery novels, which also have a central purpose of making the reader want to read the next chapter, but I think that’s a less apt comparison. Thriller writers are better able to modulate tension and pacing because they’re also thinking in terms of the whole book. And the other thing is that serial novelists were competing for attention with all the other articles in the journal, just like TL-writers now compete with all the other threads on the forum and all the other sites on the Internet. Fall-off in readership is a fact of life for both, but not so much for the thriller writer – who at least has already been paid the royalty on the whole book, even if the reader has given up at the end of Chapter Five.

This is all to say that the serialised format of the TL makes it subtly different in terms of structure, pacing, etc. etc. from the standard novel. It’s not to say that one format is better than the other – as a matter of personal taste, I’d say that serialised fiction is often more enjoyable in the moment, while narrative fiction is more rewarding when you step back and look at what’s being said. But each to their own.

(Also, full disclosure, I’m currently working on the second draft of an AH novel which I think works better as a novel than as a TL: for starters, the chapters demand to vary from 5,000 to 15,000 words.)

BRB, I’m off to repost this as a Twitter thread.
I would agree that there is a tendency for writers to arbitrarily stick to a particular length for chapters or TL updates. For me it always feels 'right' for it to be 2,500-4,000 words. However I have deliberately abandoned this more often of late when writing, most often due to an action-packed chapter overrunning rather than interrupt the narrative halfway.