Spreadsheet plotting

Permalink

Note: This technique was recommended by several readers and after I’ve tried it, I’m a convert! Thanks for the suggestions!

Some writers like to keep a running inventory of their story by doing Spreadsheet Plotting. Choose your favorite spreadsheet program and open it. I totally ignore the line numbers at the left. Choose any line at the top and type in the novel’s title. Skip down a couple rows and set up columns. Typical columns include these:

  1. Act. This helps track the act to which this scene belongs.
  2. Chapter/scenes. This helps me divide the story into chapters/scenes.
  3. Headlines. This isn’t a summary of the scene’s events, but headlines of main events of the scene with emphasis on how it affects the main character(s).
  4. Time. Time of year, time of day. This helps me track passage of time and keep events in order, or deliberately out of order for flashbacks.
  5. POV or Characters present. This column helps ensure that each character has a proper amount of exposure. I use the colored initials for each character for at-a-glance evaluations.
  6. Setting. This lets me track movement. I know I want to reuse setting for narrative patterning (explained later), and I want characters to move around.
  7. Action. Similar to Headlines, but with a different function. The Headlines puts the event in context of the main character, while the Action can be more specific or give a context. For example, one Headline reads, “Jamie sees Road Whiz for the first time.” The Action column reads, “The Greyhound Adoption Services presents information at the summer fair.”
  8. Pulse. This highlights the emotional tension driving this scene.
  9. Words. If you want to track the length of the manuscript, you can add a column for the number of words/chapter and set up the spreadsheet to keep a running total
  10. .

The beauty of a spreadsheet is the ability to sort. If, for example, I want to know how many times, I’ve had my characters visit Baby Beach, I click the top of the Setting column. It sorts the entries into alphabetical order and I see that they’ve only been to Baby Beach twice, once in Act I and once in Act III. It tells me that I need to send them there sometime in Act II.
A big advantage is that you can customize it by adding columns to look at whatever issues you need. For example, if you know that setting is your particular weakness, then you definitely use this column. But if it comes naturally to you, maybe you want to skip that column. Or you can obsess over emotions with these columns, going from general to specific: Overall emotion of chapter, main emotion of scene, emotional beats of scenes, emotional reactions of various characters, etc. The flexibility of this approach is a real advantage.

Overall the Spreadsheet Plotting gives you an ongoing Inventory for a look at the Big Picture of your story.

Fiction Notes by Email

When a new post appears on Fiction Notes, we'll send it to you by email.
We love to make it easy for you!

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Related Post

5 Comments
  • LR
    October 30, 2007

    Thanks for passing on such a great idea.
    I’ve been mulling over my current WIP and thinking
    of ways I can plot it. This sounds like something
    fun to try out.

  • Peter Reece
    October 31, 2007

    I can’t think of any other way to keep track of a complicated story except by using a spreadsheet. I also set up columns for each character and sub plot so I can track their story arcs throughout the novel. In fact, I now use the plotting spreadsheet to create the initial story brief before I start writing the extended brief/first draft.

  • Emily
    August 30, 2011

    Thanks for this! Currently revising, and this is great stuff. Also the shrunken ms technique. Thanks for sharing.

  • NoOtherWriter
    January 1, 2012

    hello,

    Do you mind posting an example of this spreadsheet plotting? Its hard for me to visualize.

    thanks

  • febe
    May 29, 2012

    This sounds really interesting. Can you post an example of what spreadsheet might look like?