Chronologies are one of my favorite tools for storytelling, especially in the early stages of a film. I begin by going through the material that directly relates to my story and charting in sequence what happens and when. This helps me to see the story more clearly, without the overlay of someone else's narrative. Second, I add other columns to my notes that indicate what's happening in the world beyond my immediate story. (Various "Timetables of
History" are available in bookstores.) By putting these chronologies together, I can see new areas of research to be explored. For example, the first Miss America pageant was held in 1921. Prior to that, according to scholars, beauty contests were held in the pages of America's newspapers. But this wasn't possible until the photographic halftone was invented—in 1880, I find out when I look that up. What else was happening between then and 1921? A flood of immigration and migration was increasing the ethnic and racial diversity in America's growing cities, sparking differences of opinion about what constituted an American feminine "ideal." Add to all of this the emergence of mass media and a consumer culture, and the stage is set for the first official Miss America pageant in 1921. But note the date. A year earlier, in 1920, American women had finally won the right to vote. Is this relevant? The truthful answer is "Not necessarily." So while you can note the interesting dateline, you can't draw any conclusions about it. Cause and effect is a slippery slope; the fact that two things happen in succession does not mean there is a link. This is an excellent example of the kind of question you explore with your advisors, which is just what the production team of Miss America: A Documentary Film did.
The extent of the chronology depends entirely on the project. We did several chronologies for the series I'll Make Me A World: A Century of African-American Arts. The initial chronology was a grid, containing 10 columns, left to right (one for each decade of the century), and then six rows down (one each for literature, theater and dance, music, the visual arts, African-American political history, and American social and cultural events). As the series developed, separate chronologies were made for each story. The lives and vaudeville career of Bert Williams and George Walker, for example, were charted by month and year alongside events in American history. This may not work for everyone, but I find that a chronology helps me to keep track of a story, look for a structure within it, and find some telling details that might enrich it and prevent mistakes. A song commonly believed to have been popular among soldiers during the First World War may, in fact, have been written in 1919—which a good chronology will show you is after the war's end. In addition, by listing the major events in your story in chronological sequence, you can sometimes see possible points of attack—places to begin the story—and from there you can think about what moments you might drive toward and why, and which events can serve as backstory.
In my experience working with people doing films that involve any kind of time line, one of the biggest mistakes made early on is not to do a careful, detailed chronology right from the beginning. Even for a student assignment (for example, to write a treatment for a historical documentary), a chronology is your first best tool. Why not take good notes from the beginning? Instead, most people, students included, jot down a few details that are so vague they're essentially useless: 19th century, Ellis Island opens, thousands of immigrants arrive; 1950s, Ellis Island closes its doors. If your film is about immigrant arrivals at Ellis Island, even if you're trying to figure out a story from within that history, you'll need a time line that includes dates, numbers, countries of origin, and references to legislation governing immigration. If a few particular immigrants pop out at you, note the date (and ship) they arrive on. If you don't do it in the beginning, it's almost a certainty that you'll be going back to those same sources, over and over, and adding to the chronology in bits and pieces over the next several weeks (for a student project) and months, if not years, for projects where there's no semester deadline.
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