How to Create a Timeline

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Timelines are a great way to introduce a prominent figure, a historical event, or a natural process.

Like many similar learning tools and approaches, a timeline appears simple, but it’s not as easy to create one that is memorable and effective, as it may seem. It takes more than placing years on a line – a good timeline tells a story.  

How do you create a timeline that doesn’t simply present facts, but conveys a message?

I don’t claim to be an expert on timelines, but I achieve rather good results whenever I follow the steps below.

1. Do your research

Even if you already have the core information you need to build the timeline, it’s still a good idea to do some additional research. You need to fully understand the context of the data you are working with. Start with the very basics, like reading a Wikipedia page. This will help you formulate your next questions and guide your further research.

In this example, I chose to introduce French philosopher, writer, and feminist Simone de Beauvoir, in twelve events of her life.

I first went to her Wikipedia page to get an overall sense of the structure of her life’s events. I then visited a few additional websites, that provided a deeper dive into her life and work. Different sources will tell the same story from a slightly different angle. This helps add more layers to the narrative, which takes me to the next step.

2. Think about the story you want to tell

Facts are facts and history is history, but when you focus on different facts, you create different narratives.

The story you choose to tell, would depend on your goals and audience. In the Simone de Beauvoir example, some questions that can help me decide would be: Do I want to present her in the context of the history of feminism or 20th century philosophy? Are learners familiar with Simone de Beauvoir or is this the first time they hear her name?

In this case, my goal was to introduce her life and work as briefly as possible, while covering her literary achievements, political and social activism. My imaginary audience knows who she is but is not well acquainted with what she did in her lifetime.

3. Choose events that help tell the story

Let’s go back to the Simone de Beauvoir example. She was an existentialist philosopher, a political activist, a writer, and a feminist, but she was also famous for her controversial personal life. One person, so many stories.

I wanted to give a well-rounded presentation of De Beauvoir and depict her as someone who has had equally high impact on modern literature and politics. Still, I couldn’t entirely omit her relationship with Sartre from the narrative since they greatly influenced each other. To achieve this balanced message, I chose to add:

  • Two events that showcase her prominence in literature: The publication of her first major work of fiction “She Came to Stay” and her winning the Prix Goncourt for “The Mandarins”.
  • Two events that demonstrate her impact on feminist politics: The publication of the “Second Sex” and her role in the launch of the French Women’s Liberation Movement.
  • Two events that hint at her political inclinations: Being removed from her teaching post by a pro-Nazi government and taking part in the establishment of a leftist periodical.
  • Two events that framed her relationship to Sartre: The start of their relationship and his death.

I also included the start and end of her studies and teaching career, because that adds to the context of her work.

4. Make sure the visuals support the narrative

For the events that I wanted to draw more attention to, I chose bigger ovals with images, associated with the event. For the ones I thought less important to the narrative, I chose simple monochrome ovals.

Note: The example timeline in this post was created as a personal project for entirely non-commercial purposes.

Image sources in order of appearance: