5 Timeline Structures for Storytellers

5 Timeline Structures for Storytellers

So here’s why I think timelines are
interesting and why you might want to add them to your note-taking and
presentation toolkit. What this simple diagram helps you to do is understand
the past, plan for the future, and contextualize the present. It helps you
to see trends that you might otherwise miss, spot gaps in the plans for your
upcoming project, and better understand and appreciate where you are right now.
But here’s the thing, though – when creating timelines you don’t have to
stick to this linear left-to-right structure here. And in this video I’m
going to share a set of timeline structures that you can pull into your
workflow when you’re capturing, processing, or sharing ideas. The first
structure that I’ll identify is the one that you’ve seen, this horizontal
structure here where time moves left to right and the elements that you add to
your timeline can either go above or below that line. This is the structure
that you are no doubt the most familiar with. Here’s an example from when I was
working on a resource called Build an Online Course with Sketchnotes. This is
a sketch that I created to communicate the release dates of each of the units
within that resource. In this case there’s not a single continuous arrow
through all of those events, but instead smaller ones in between each, with dates
clearly marked at the bottom. So if you’ve got an upcoming process that you
might want to communicate with others, the traditional horizontal timeline
approach might work well for you. For the second structure here, let’s flip that
line and make it vertical instead. A top-to-bottom approach to a timeline just
gives it a little bit different feel, and it might fit better for you depending on
where and how you’re sharing this timeline. One example of a vertical
timeline like this that I found to be pretty intriguing was this one from Eva-Lotta Lamm, who shared this in conjunction with a visual language /
diagramming project. I like how she built in some hierarchy
here, how the main steps of align and then plan are what move you from top to
bottom. But then extending horizontally out from each of those main sections, you
can dig into what each of them mean, the steps within them. And I feel
like this is a nice way to make use of all of the space within this square
image here. Since we write horizontally, I feel like having the timeline move top to bottom leaves more space for that writing, space for each of those six sub
steps that might be harder to fit in if your timeline moves left to right. So if
you’re sharing the timeline for the day’s events for something that you’re
hosting, maybe try out a vertical timeline. Next let’s move away from
purely linear structures and add some curves in. This structure here I’m giving
the name of tunnel because it kind of feels like you’re tunneling down into
the earth. And what I like about it is that it allows you to create a longer
timeline within a rectangular space, more so than the previous two structures,
without losing the clarity of the sequence of events that you’re sharing.
Here’s an example of this timeline format in action. This is a video in
which I shared the path that I went down that led to me becoming a sketchnote
educator. So in this case I’m sharing my educational and professional history to
give some context to the work that I do now. And here you can see the benefits as
the viewer of seeing the timeline go from being empty to filling, one element
at a time. If you’re just shown the final full timeline, it might seem a little
cluttered or daunting. But when you share it element by element, I think it’s
easier for folks to follow along, which is something to keep in mind if you’re
using a timeline as a presentation tool. You wouldn’t necessarily have to make a
video like this one. You could instead just share a sequence of images, one new
timeline event added to each image. For the next structure we’re again going to use
a curved line to fill the page, this one looking like more of a journey, which
I’ve given the title of a roadmap. This one could be an interesting and helpful
approach if you’d like to give meaning to each of those curves, because I think
that can help add some nuance, some feeling, to the experience that you’re
communicating. Here’s an example of some sketchnotes that I took that use this
type of timeline. Here I’m sharing some ideas from Elizabeth Gilbert during her
interview on The Chase Jarvis Live Show in which she talks about the idea of
learning in public, how when you’re going through life and experience something
that causes you to learn something new (maybe about yourself, maybe about the
world) – the benefit that can come from sharing that thing you learned. Because
in communicating it to others and putting that out there, that might
actually help you to stay on this path that’s closer to reality, as opposed to
going down more delusional pathways that are easy to go down when you’re just
ruminating about things in your own head and not talking to others about them. And
in that way, learning in public can help you achieve this compassionate alignment
with reality. I really enjoyed that phrase that Gilbert shared. And I think
what this example shows is how helpful it can also be to show what happens
outside of the timeline, if you veer from it – what that veering away from the
time line might mean for the example that you’re sharing. So keep in mind this
roadmap structure if the thing that you’re sharing is more of a journey. And
finally, the last structure here (which might be the most interesting to me
right now) is a circular timeline. This structure works well for any type of
cyclical process. That cycle could be a single day, maybe a month, or even a year.
And what I really like about this structure is how you can make use of the
full page by extending those divider lines out to the edges. Here’s an example
of how I used that structure to communicate my current daily routine. And
taking a close look at my daily routine is something that I do annually. But this was
the first time that I had used this particular format to think through it
myself and communicate in this way. And I appreciated the picture it gave to my
day, especially being able to identify these different sections of heavy
structure in the morning, then medium structure, then lighter at the end. So for
me this was a way to see how different ways of capturing a process helped me to
see something about that process that I might not have otherwise seen. And then
how that made it easier to communicate that to others. I decided to try out that
circular timeline to share my day the routine because of this image shared
by Heather Martinez, which shows some yearly planning, using a similar circular
approach to plan out an entire year, this following along with the work of Brandy
Agerbeck, who you can see on the screen in the background there. These are two
folks doing very interesting work in the field of visual thinking (along with Eva-Lotta Lamm, whose work I shared earlier). I will link to their stuff down below – do
go check it out. And keep in mind this circular timeline structure anytime
you’re capturing a process that repeats itself. So the next time that you’re
trying to wrap your head around something that happened in the past,
you’re planning for something in the future, or you’re trying to just better
understand what’s going on in the present – try sketching things out using
one of these timeline structures. Pick the one that feels like the best fit for
the situation you’re dealing with and give it a go. And if you’re interested in
building other visual thinking skills like this one, do check out the resources
available at www.verbaltovisual.com. I’ve got lots of other videos and courses
there. If you’re just getting started, I encourage you to check out An
Introduction to Visual Note-Taking. I’ve shared a link to that course and others
down below. Thank you so much for watching, good luck putting one or more
of these timeline structures to use yourself, and I’ll talk to you again in
the next video. Until then.


  1. Tarun Arora says:

    Fantastic stuff! I see you are using digital Sketchnoting for sometime now which I know it must be more comfortable and easy. However, I love your analog Sketchnoting classes a lot! Thank you for sharing

  2. XimerTracks - Sub To Me says:

    Awesome content. Don't stop. Let's be youtube Friends? :}

  3. Shelley Roy says:

    Doug- I can see a bunch of application possibilities for this especially in Social Studies & English who use a lot of timeline type thinking. I love all the possibilities and examples.

  4. Mark Spickett says:

    Thoughtful as always Doug. WRT circular timelines if you are not already familiar with them check out Spiraldex and Chronodex systems. Lots of YouTube videos on these subjects. Also look up the Slice Planner from evopaper. Happy sketchnoting.

  5. Rezilium says:


  6. TeachLikeaRavenclaw says:

    Love this! Thanks for explaining the “tunnel.” I’ve been confused by how to follow that one before and the arrows on the sides really helped!

  7. le CM du désert says:

    Amazing! How do you do this style of video ( from above + speed)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *