Advice & Tips On Developing Fictional Timelines & Histories

Developing a world timeline is a tricky process, and it's very easy to overlook critical aspects of how things work or would have to work to make it plausible. This article aims to discuss some of the things that often don't get enough thought or attention put into them, and shed some light on them in a way that's useful to worldbuilders.

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There are points when technological development by leaps and bounds is inevitable.

Some people don't really understand the hows and whys behind humanity's abrupt revolutions at various points in history. As a result, they speculate that aliens must have done it, or that the speed at which humans advanced must have otherwise been unnaturally fast and therefore aliens should have taken much longer than us to reach a certain point. In reality, when you look into it there's nothing strange at all - in fact, these sudden leaps and bounds usually turn out to be inevitable, given the circumstances.

For example, humanity's been around for some 200,000 years, but it's only around 12,000 years ago that we invented agriculture. So what took us so long? It isn't as if our pre-agricultural ancestors were any less intelligent than us.

Around 12,000 years ago, something major happened: the Ice Age ended. To the best that we can tell, this created a shift in climactic conditions that in some cases favored or even necessitated an agricultural lifestyle. Because people were staying in one space, they started building permanent settlements and thus formed the first civilizations. And although civilization was very nice (after all, it resulted in increased food security and gave people more time to pursue interests unrelated to securing food), it created a new set of problems: How do you keep track of what belongs to whom, or of what who owes whom? How do you deal with matters of sanitation? How do you create buildings that are more resistant to damage? How do you handle people who make trouble for others? In our quest for solutions to these problems, we developed math, writing, engineering, and law systems.

Thus there is nothing especially strange or unusual about the agricultural revolution and the rise of civilizations as we know them; it was all a simple matter of cause and effect, of humans applying the problem-solving skills they always had to new conditions and challenges.

Another situation that baffles many people is the sudden leap of technology in the 20th century. How did we go from a society of trains and horses to a society of rockets and smartphones so fast? Some people have even ascribed this shift to aliens - it must have been extraterrestrials who gave us what we needed to advance, because surely we couldn't have done it ourselves! It was just too fast!

But in fact, it really wasn't. Once you understand what actually happened, it quickly becomes apparent that the whole process was very natural, even inevitable. Once it became possible to reliably generate electricity, and once it was discovered how electricity could be harnessed to move motors and generate light, people lost no time creating devices that could be powered by electricity and refining their designs to make them better. The invention of a very simple component - the transistor - in the mid-20th century made it possible to create devices that performed even more complex functions. From there, the development of electronic technology has largely been a matter of finding more durable and conductive materials and working out how to make components ever smaller. As mysterious as electronic technology might seem to the average person, literally all of it is the result of people applying basic principles discovered back in the 19th and 20th centuries to furnishing contemporary needs and desires. The truly unnatural scenario would have been for this revolution to have not taken place despite this knowledge suddenly being available and despite people having the full ability to take advantage of it.

In a nutshell, there are two points where progress by leaps and bounds is to be fully expected. They are are when a solution to a problem creates a whole new set of problems that require many new innovations to solve, and when a single discovery can be applied to solving many different problems.

So what can hold back development or change?

Necessity is the mother of invention, so one way to keep a society from advancing is to make sure they don't have any pressing needs. There's no need to invent and develop agriculture if you're constantly surrounded by more than enough food, after all. If you don't often have anyone trying to fight you for resources, you don't need to develop your weapons and warfare tactics, nor do you need to develop armor or fortresses. And if the weather is sufficiently stable and comfortable, you don't really need to develop much of anything to protect yourself from the heat or cold.

Although ideological opposition can hinder progress somewhat, its actual ability to do so is often overestimated. For example, it's completely false that the Catholic Church completely held back scientific progression in the Middle Ages. Sure, they didn't get on board with ideas like heliocentrism, but in their defense it wasn't as if this idea could be readily verified. In the meantime, plenty of other advancements were made - just look at how architecture and weapons technology advanced!

Sometimes a lack of resources can hold people back in some ways, though it's important to remember that people can still get clever with the resources they do have and find alternate solutions. Without gunpowder, people might get really clever with pneumatics. If metal is largely removed from the picture, there's still a lot that can be done with cardboard, ceramics, and materials like wood and bamboo. Assuming coal is scant or nonexistent, something like wind turbines could still be built to produce electricity.

If magic exists, then it could help society advance, too. If you have lightning spells, then people can already harness and control electricity. If you can magically harden and strengthen your metals, then you can skip a lot of metallurgical development and go right ahead to building weapons, machinery, and buildings that require such materials. If you can magically lighten your materials, it becomes possible to build taller buildings and send bigger shipments of goods. Magical lighting might mean that fewer people (if anyone) have to rely on candles anymore, causing candles to be relegated primarily to aesthetic or ceremonial purposes just as they are in the real world.

Something else that can hold development back is for something to be part of cultural identity. People have a need to set themselves apart from the perceived crowd while identifying themselves with their perceived kin in some way, and very nearly anything can become a cultural marker thus. It might be how they dress themselves, the language they use, the foods they eat (or don't eat), how they design their buildings - anything. That said, there will always be a certain number of non-conformists, so the group might eventually splinter into factions of progressives and traditionalists.

Similar goes for religious belief - if people believe that doing something a certain way is a divine mandate, they'll be less likely to discard it for something else. But again, you're going to have your nonconformists and very likely run into the same scenario as above.

If you want to plausibly slow progress down, it helps to use a confluence of factors - have it be a little of this and a little of that rather than it all coming down to one single cause. Don't ignore or dismiss areas where people would be pressured to develop or change, either - if people are constantly at war, then their weapons and armor should be changing and progressing in some way. But perhaps instead of trying to justify things remaining the same for ages, you should consider shortening your timeline. If it won't make any difference to your main plot or create any plotholes if you change 20,000 years to 200 years, then there's no reason why you shouldn't just do that.

Important events and developments should not be happening in only one part of the world at a time.

It's just not how things work! The way history is often taught, you could be forgiven for coming away with the impression that while your people were doing important things and getting into all sorts of drama, people elsewhere weren't really doing anything at all. But in reality, people all over the world had things going on - wars, political upheavals, natural disasters, technological advancements, philosophical movements, and so on.

While you probably don't need to go into exhaustive detail over what was going on in places that are largely irrelevant to your story, you shouldn't suppose that they were all just sitting around and twiddling their thumbs. Instead, assume that they had lots of their own things going on, and that their own histories are just as rich and colorful as the histories of the places your story focuses on. Whether the distance is across the world, across the country, or simply across class boundaries, assume that everybody has something going on. And don't forget that everything is connected, and that these connections play a role in shaping history. For example, the Black Death likely originated in China (and took a huge toll on its own population), the Irish Potato Famine happened because of contaminated potatoes shipped from America. And European excursions into the Americas were motivated by economic issues, which were often exacerbated by wars they were fighting on the home fronts and by increasing industrialization putting farmers out of business, thus diminishing tax revenue. Christopher Columbus sailed west in the hopes of finding a new route to the East Indies not for its own sake, but because eastward routes were controlled by unfriendly forces.

So don't just have all the important things only happen in one place or make them all happen in a vacuum. Let important events happen in different places concurrently, and let them create ripples that impact the rest of the world.

The forces of nature need to be factored in, too.

Assuming your world has moving tectonic plates (and unless its magnetosphere is artificially generated or it just isn't beholden to the regular laws of physics for some reason, it probably should), the continents will move and shift over time. Even just a hundred million years ago, Earth's continents were markedly different from how they are now - they were much closer together, and many areas were that are now dry land were covered in water. Around 225 million years ago, the Earth had only one major landmass, known as Pangaea. The way things are going now, in another seventy five million years, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia will all join up together, and in 250 years the Earth will once again have a single landmass. If your setting's timeline needs to be developed over millions of years, then you'll probably want to factor in continental drift.

The forces of nature play important roles on shorter timescales, too. Just 15,000 years ago, there was no sea separating what's now Britain from the rest of Europe, nor Alaska from Russia. A massive lake covered a large portion of what is now Utah - today's Great Salt Lake covers only a fraction of the space. Today's Great Lakes were dwarfed by Lake Agassiz to the northwest. And a mere eight thousand years ago, what's now the Sahara Desert was green and fertile. Many fantasy settings span far more than ten thousand years, but don't take into account just how much things can change!

Many cities (or parts of cities) built on coastlines have been submerged underwater, often by earthquakes. Cities can be eventually buried under sand or dust if no one clears it away. Volcanoes can bury an area under ash in a matter of days - the city of Pompeii being a good example.

Erosion and decay are also something to be taken into consideration. Stone and soil alike can be worn away by wind and water, and soil is especially vulnerable if there's no plant life to hold it down and absorb any excess water that might otherwise wash it away. Waterfalls will slowly, but surely work their way upstream as the force of the water washes stones and soil from higher elevations downstream. Any building will decay or erode given enough time - the ancient city of Petra (which dates back to around the 3rd century BC) already has considerable damage, and it was carved out of stone.

So what does this mean for your world? For one, it means that your characters probably shouldn't just walk into a city that's been abandoned for ten thousand years and find it in pristine condition. It also means that not every place that was hospitable several thousand years should still be, and that some places that are still hospitable should have still experienced significant change. And it means that the longer the timeline, the more different things should look over time. The world might look mostly the same 5000 years ago, but go back five hundred million years ago and it should look entirely different.

If you're taking your history/timeline back hundreds of thousands of years (or more), you'll probably want to understand evolutionary biology.

The basic principles of evolution aren't terribly difficult: Those that that are are less likely to die before they can reproduce are going to be the ones most likely to produce the next generation of the species, while the ones that are more likely to die will very likely do so before they can produce many, if any offspring. Thus, it's the members in the first group whose descendants will ultimately proliferate. During the process of conception, where half the genes of each parent are combined to form a full genome for a new one, small mutations can occur that can give the resulting offspring an edge over the others. Maybe it's got a better sense of smell that helps it find food, maybe it's got a better sense of vision that helps it avoid predators, or maybe it's better at telling when it's being annoying to the ladies and when it needs to chill out before they get so angry they leave for another potential mate. Over the generations, these small mutations add up to greater and greater change, until its descendants are an entirely different species. Thus a theropod can become the distant ancestor of a bird, and that bird can become the distant ancestor of every bird species that currently exists.

It can happen fast, slow, or almost not at all. Some organisms, such as sharks, have changed very little over the years because their forms are already well-suited for their environments and the roles they play in them. The land-dwelling ancestors of today's cetaceans lived about 50 million years ago; by 43 million years ago their more amphibious descendants turn up on the fossil record, and by forty million years ago, their descendants were fully aquatic. Some significant changes have been noticed within human lifetimes.

If cetaceans were to ever die out completely, it's not impossible that today's sea otters could become the descendants of a species that fills the ecological niche cetaceans currently fill. Or perhaps that honor might go to seals or even penguins.

There are also a lot of misconceptions about evolution that are floating around; many of the most common ones are addressed over here. TalkOrigins addresses even more misconceptions, and goes into deeper detail.

So how does this apply to you? Well, if you're going for realism, you don't want to have evolution producing powerful telepathy in one generation (if at all; what dangers or hazards could possibly make telepathy such a necessity for survival?), nor do you want to fall into blunders like having a species vanish or spontaneously change because it hit some expiration date. Nor do you want to fall into the mistake of assuming that life has definitive "stages" that it must progress through - EG, a fish stage, an amphibian stage, a reptilian stage, a mammalian stage, and so forth.

If you're going back billions of years, you'll probably want to understand some biochemistry and cosmology.

The more you understand about how our own planet formed, the easier it is to plot out how one similar to it could have formed, and to avoid making any egregious errors.

The early universe didn't have many of the elements that our world has - those were formed in the immense heat and pressure of early stars. When those stars went supernova and exploded, these elements were sent out into the universe. Some of them came together around other stars and were pulled together by gravity into the sun-orbiting spheres we know as planets. The early Earth wasn't just molten on the inside, but on the outside, too. It's estimated that the Earth formed 4.6 billion years ago, and life may have appeared as early as 4.1 billion years ago. Colonies of cyanobacteria known as stromatalites appear 3.7 billion years ago.

But how did life originate? It's been discovered that amino acids can arise through many different means. The Miller-Urey experiment, where electricity was produced in a bottle containing an assortment of chemicals believed to be present on early Earth, produced over twenty different amino acids. Another experiment designed to imitate volcanic conditions even more amino acids. Another study found that amino acids could form around hydrothermal vents. And one experiment produced amino acids from conditions designed to imitate deep space. And once you have amino acids, they can form proteins and join up with lipids.

Also, many of our planet's traits that we take for granted came about in very specific ways. Our oxygenated atmosphere and ozone layers are good examples. Because oxygen is highly reactive (which is the very quality that makes it so useful for our bodies), it tends to end up sequestered away in rocks and minerals until they've become far too saturated to hold any more. There also can't be an ozone layer without oxygen, and before the Earth had an ozone layer, radiation from the sun kept life from moving onto the land. As far as we can tell right now, it took several hundred millions of years for cyanobacteria to saturate Earth and its atmosphere with oxygen.

So what does this mean for you? It means understanding that some chemical and biochemical processes can take quite a bit of time, and that some things cannot happen or exist until something else has happened first. If you intend to use supernatural or science fiction elements, you might be able to create your own explanation for how things came to be that works just as well, but if you're aiming for a more naturalistic process, you'll want to know this stuff. In fact, you'll probably want to know this kind of thing even if your world does involve fantastic elements, because it helps to know exactly what will have to be explained with them to keep things plausible, and what you can just leave on its own.

In summary!

Also check out:

Copyable Year Lists (1-5999)
Things To Know When Writing Historical Fiction & Fictional History
Points To Remember When Worldbuilding
Tips To Create Richer & More Realistic Fantasy & Science Fiction Cultures & Civilizations
Moral & Ethical System Development Questions

Things To Know When Creating & Developing Fictional Governments
On Designing & Writing Oppressive Governments In Your Fiction
Factors That Contribute To Abusive & Dysfunctional Systems/Institutions

Tips & Ideas To Create More Believable Sword 'n Sorcery Worlds
Tips To Build Better Post-Apocalyptic And/Or Dystopian Settings
Tips To Write & Create Better & More Believable Futures

Tips to Create Better & More Believable Fantasy & Science Fiction Species
Points To Remember When Designing SF Creatures & Species
Fantasy & Science Fiction Creature Development Questions

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