The Layers of the Timeline

One of the topics I’ve been thinking more about as we move forward is timelines and the way they fit into thinking of events and teaching literature. After looking at many timelines across many different interfaces, I’ve come to the decision that the visualization of linear time is complicated. The layers become even more complicated and problematic when a narrative or event is put into one compact timeline interface.

Take, for example, the timeline that details the events that happened at the Aurora theater shooting. The timeline is in extreme detail, has a minute by minute breakdown of what was happening at the theater and with police. There is audio, pictures, videos, and many other forms of media. But clicking through the timeline does not give the experience or even the illusion of actually being there. And while the timeline is in depth, it still doesn’t show the full extend of what happen. It lacks humanity. It lacks emotion and feeling. I’m conflicted at this point. Part of me wants to say that the lack of humanity and competing narrative is okay because the event does not need to be compelling or tell a good story. The facts are what matter because the facts tell the story. But another part of me looks at the timeline and thinks that if it were told in a different order, it would be more compelling. And facts leave room for interpretation, which is fine in some situations. Others, not so much.

These two different sides of how timelines can be good or bad is reflected on a broader scale with all timelines that attempt to represent real time and real events. At one point in time, in one second or one minute, there are countless things happening at once. And, beyond that, behind every action there is a series of thoughts, decisions, ideas, theories, and actions that all add up to that one action. But on the timeline, it is only shown as one action. Of course, some timelines do go into depth in that scope. Then, though, there is the question of how effective that timeline can be.

In addition to timelines of real events, timelines of fictional texts also exist. In teaching, and in life, we feel the need to pin down what happens when (and where. See: my post about maps). There are two problems with this: first, fiction doesn’t always follow a linear timeline; second, putting stories into the box reduces the integrity of the text and takes away from the experience of the text.

Hardly any texts follow a strict linear timeline, whether they are movies, books, or TV shows. We sometimes start stories with the end, or at the climax, and then go back and explain how they got there. Putting this in a timeline and restructuring the events to make them be linear does an injustice to the text. The experience of the story should follow the way the author wanted it to go. Forcing the story into a timeline changes the experience of the story in a way that takes away from the text.

Sometimes timelines are taught because they can be helpful for decoding and understanding the text. However, sometimes there can be a beauty and argument for not trying to understand the time and just letting it be what it is.


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