Narrative vs. Timeline: Do you need both?

+22 votes

I use Timelines a lot on my ancestral profiles. I feel like it makes their life easier to understand, and it also helps to identify periods of time for which I have no information. It also makes it easier to make additions to a profile that's not complete yet, and inline citations are a snap.

What's your opinion? Do you think a narrative is needed in addition to a timeline, or is a timeline alone enough?

The Style Guide gives some options for the Biography, but it also states:

Subheaders might include, but not be limited to ... 

(see page for examples)

in Policy and Style by Julie Ricketts G2G6 Pilot (503k points)
edited by Julie Ricketts
It's interesting hearing how everyone handles this! Thanks for all the comments!

11 Answers

+14 votes
Best answer
Biographies are what brought me to Wikitree.   I wanted a place to tell the stories.   Everyone is researched and sources found are added to my computer software which puts things in chronological order.  I don't add profiles if I don't have enough information to add the basic information with sources.   I often add research notes on parents ' profiles  if I have a list of children and no time to research and do adequate biographies for them.

I  don't have a problem with timelines.   I just think that is the common format on most other sites and the biography style sets ua apart.  It gives a family member who is not s "genealogist" the story in a hopefully easy to read format.   It also then provides the sources if they want to dig deeper.
by Cherry Duve G2G6 Mach 7 (71.6k points)
selected by Kenneth Evans
Thanks for the "Best answer ".  Cherry
+13 votes
IMO both ways are good.

I just set the Source References in Date order as this is all I know about him.
by Anonymous Vickery G2G6 Pilot (264k points)
+17 votes


Like many other things I think it depends.  I prefer a narrative and think it is best for simple profiles, those with a limited amount of material.

For complex profiles, lots of material and perhaps questions about what was happening and why a timeline seems valuable.

If you find a timeline as the best method for your work - that seems like the right answer.

For one profile I worked on where there are still a lot of questions I have used a biography, a timeline and a notes section.
Emmit Alexander Roach 

by Philip Smith G2G6 Pilot (350k points)
+14 votes
I have used both. As a general rule I do a narrative. But there are at least two instances where I find a timeline very helpful

If I'm working from someone else's (usually lengthy) biography, I want to make sure that I stick to the facts and don't want to sound like I'm "nearly" copy/pasting. Stating just the facts in a timeline helps immensely.

If I'm working from the town/colony records for the old New Haveners then - list the date, list what happened - works particularly well in a timeline.
by Anne B G2G Astronaut (1.3m points)
+12 votes
When I work on a profile I start off with it in a timeline type of format but as I add the sources I change it into a narrative with the inline source style. I do not have a problem with either way of doing this. As others have said use whatever way works best for you. The important thing is to find sources for the facts into the profile
by Dale Byers G2G Astronaut (1.7m points)
+10 votes
I think it depends on the person and how much you are able to find to flesh out a profile. For many we may only know their birth, marriage,children and death information; sometimes not even that much. For them a timeline works well. If though you have a lot of information and some of it make take some explanation then a narrative account would be better

 One of my ancestors was frequently before the magistrate for petty crimes. In 1867, he  was prosecuted for lowbelling,  that required some explanation and I also gave some suggestions about who he may have been lowbelling. You couldn't do that on a time line.

Similarly I've become interested in some more prominent  families through the sourcerer's project. Their histories need to be related alongside national history.  It's not that useful/interesting just  having a time line saying that in 1546 someone was a Royalist and and had their lands sequestered as a recusant  or that  in the 1760s someone destroyed a thriving town to create a deer park. (just wish that I was better at writing the narrative !)
by Helen Ford G2G6 Pilot (487k points)

Helen --

I politely disagree. :-)

When I create a timeline, I'm basically creating a paragraph for each time period or event in a person's life, and each of those "entries" can be as long and explanatory as necessary. 

Personally, if I find a biography for someone I'm interested in, I want to be able to skim through the information quickly, and I find that a timeline helps with that. But that's just my preference and opinion!!! ;-)

 I think perhaps we have a  different understanding of a timeline .I think of a timeline as a way of ordering facts, like this one here which is the timeline of a village  It  includes my villain who destroyed the original village but without a narrative you wouldn't spot the significance of his acts 

I  create timelines like that when I'm researching.  I think of a narrative as an expansion of  it  and on a genealogy site would normally expect it to be in chronological order ,other than perhaps a summary in the opening paragraph.

I guess in terms of Wikitree, I think of timelines as a hybrid between what you have and a narrative. An incomplete example of how I use them is on my grandfather's profile:

Frank Fiscus

This profile is far from complete, so please forgive my clunky descriptions. :-)

I do see how the format of the timeline you linked to would make it difficult to expand on each event. 

Love the profile Julie :) Great all these pictures , so this is a timeline I would love, but there are others that don't look so great of course, so like everything .. it depends ..;)
I enjoyed reading your profile of Frank, Julie.  The use of bolded years and embedded photographs in appropriate places along the timeline made it an especially beautiful profile.  I use a similar approach in many/most of the profiles I complete - although I don't call it a timeline.  I think arranging the facts in order with explanations and - for recent ancestors - family memories, allows one to "travel" through a life.  I like to include little nuggets of historical insight and context along the way.  If the profile becomes long, I will sometimes start with the profile with a one-paragraph summary of the ancestor's life before diving into the timeline.   Your profile of Frank is lovely.
Thank you! I *still* need to go revisit it!! :-)

I agree with you about the "timelines" or "hybrids" like I have ... when I start writing things out like that, it helps me to see what I'm missing and if something doesn't fit right -- i.e., if I've picked up a missing family member on a census, or maybe have the wrong record for a family, etc.

Usually, once I've done the layout like this, I'll go back and make it a little more narrative, but poor Grandpa has been neglected!!
Don't beat yourself up.  I think I can count only one profile in the hundreds I've written that I consider finished.  There are only so many hours in the day, and there is always more to find and more to add!
That is so true! :-)
+5 votes


Isnt a timeline just a view of the events sorted on date.... maybe we should start input events in a persons life so that it can be presented as a timeline or on a map.... instead of just text.... I heard that a wiki has something called templates for structured data... 

by Living Sälgö G2G6 Pilot (305k points)
edited by Living Sälgö
+6 votes
Sometimes when I've written a bio I like to make a timeline so I can quickly scan and see if there are any large gaps of time unaccounted for.
by Jamie Nelson G2G6 Pilot (659k points)
I do that, too, Jamie, but I put them in a spreadsheet which has conditional formatting to show me where I need source citations, etc.

Your profile is very nicely documented!
+4 votes
I have just spent an age making a timelines in excel from a video on family search. I am pretty pleased with the result
by Andy Lear G2G6 Mach 1 (12.7k points)
That's really cool, Andy! Are you familiar with free-space pages?? You could create one for your Lear family, add that graphic, and then link to the free-space page from some of your family's profiles.
I am not really familiar with it. I did start to make one and it gave me the option for a 'to do list' and I have been using that for sort of hosting pictures which I know is not what it is meant for but it does seem to work. I could use this method to put it on some family profiles. In fact I have put it on my own profile. I do not really understand what these free spaces are all about though.

I would also like to make a presentable Lear family tree that contains all the uncles and cousins and suchlike, but I have not yet found a program that can do it neatly

Free-space profiles (FSPs) can be used for a variety of things, Andy. Take a look at the help page. There are some examples linked there as well as an index & search form for all the FSPs on WikiTree.

I have made one here and linked to it in my profile (in a way that does not seem to work in the G2G forum)

Does anyone have any ideas for other stuff I could put there ?
That's great, Andy!

You could just add to that as you go long if, for example, you find information about a family residence. Or you could share information about the town they lived in, etc. That way, you could link to this page from any profiles that were connected to the information.

I'm sure others will have creative suggestions, too. :-) Actually, if you want more feedback on how to use the FSP that you created, you could post a separate question in the forum specifically asking for that. It's more likely people would read that than a thread they're not involved in already.

re: linking in G2G vs. linking on a profile or FSP ... G2G and the part of WikiTree where profiles live are actually two different pieces of software. So, G2G doesn't work at all like the free-text areas on profiles. G2G works more like a traditional website or forum and doesn't use wiki markup.
I just tried to make a family tree and add it to the freespace, which was a bit silly really because I did it in the demo version of Genopro so although I can export it I can not save it in an editable way. Does anyone know of a free program that does the same sort of thing? I think there are lots of programs intended for mind mapping or flowcharts that I might be able to use.
We have some little widgets here that make graphical representations of your tree. I wonder if that's what you're looking for. Try this link:

If you need to find that later, it's on your profile under the Family Tree & Tools tab, and then click WikiTree Tools.
+5 votes
The key word in your question, Julie, is 'need'. Do we need both? Probably not as either could manage in given situations. Do we want both? Probably yes as each format has its place.  For me, what makes Wikitree stand above every other genealogy site is that we offer opportunity to record more than a mere timeline.
by Kenneth Evans G2G6 Pilot (258k points)
+4 votes
Timelines are helpful and so is narrative.  I address it by putting a date in the subheading, followed by the narrative, i.e.


===1637 Birth and Parents===

George was born January 17th 1637 to Edna and Robert in St. Mary's, Maryland.  <ref> Birth source </ref>

===1658 Militia===

On his 21st birthday George joined the local militia to protect Maryland from Virginia raiders.  <ref> Source of information </ref>

===1660 First Marriage to Sarah===

George married Sarah Lowndes on February 14th, 1660 according to Parish records.

When you structure a biography this way, you have all the space you need for the narrative, but the table of contents automatically generates a timeline at the beginning.  When you glance at the profile that may be all the information you need, but clicking on the heading in the table of contents takes you to the relevant narrative section that gives you more detail and the source.
by Jack Day G2G6 Pilot (478k points)

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