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The Promise and the Peril of the Timeline format

By Colin Salt


One of the most common writing formats for internet alternate history is the timeline format, or “TL” for short. TL will be used for the rest of this article. Compared to a conventional narrative, a TL is more like an alternate version of a history book. It simply lists the events in chronological order.


There is not an absolute line between “conventional narrative” and “TL”. In the middle are works that frequently use sequences of vignettes (often in the form of fake newspaper articles and the like) mixed in with what I call the infodumps. There are also stories that have a basic narrative overall but still have more than their share of exposition, a practice as old as the “and ____ brought _____ ships” passage in the Iliad.


I personally prefer conventional narrative stories. This is a taste of mine and I will readily acknowledge that people have different literary preferences. In spite of this, I can see some advantages the TL format offers. What it serves best is the kind of writing where ordinary characters and plot would get in the way. Trying to tell this through conventional writing would involve having divergence after divergence from the thin storyline or characters set up to infodump or be present during various events the author wants to tell. A lot of less-than ideal stories are indeed like this.


The TL offers a way to not have to resort to these things. The events and researched details can simply be stated in as much depth as the author wants. There’s no need to worry about them holding back the story, because they are the ‘story’.


However, it also has some inherent disadvantages.


The first is a lower suspension of disbelief threshold. Because the events are the entirety of the work, there’s extra pressure on them to hold up the way they wouldn’t have to in a conventional story. Not necessarily insurmountable pressure, but it’s there. An inaccuracy in a normal book can be waved aside far more easily (to me) than one in a TL. So something written in the TL format should feel plausible-not necessarily be plausible thanks to the ‘reality has to make sense, fiction doesn’t’ effect, but feel like there’s a cause-and-effect from event A to event B. It’s tricky to do, and even good writers frequently don’t get it entirely right.


The second is a need to emphasize what’s useful for the TL format. Lots of detail and a story type/structure that puts this large amount of detail first is necessary to make a good TL. Something written in the ‘pure events’ format that lacks detail can easily feel like just a skeletal outline of a story, having all the weaknesses of a TL but none of the strengths.


Because of all this, I would recommend an alternate history author think through what story format would be appropriate for them to write in before they start going. It can make a big difference in terms of quality.


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