authors / characters / editing / plot / writing

Plotting a Story–with a Spreadsheet

I wrote a post a while back about how I plot my story using Excel. I use the columns to keep track of days, locations, characters and action and the rows to move the story forward, keep track of plot lines that need to be followed through and collect pictures to help me visualize my scenes. I shared my secret to plotting with a writer I respect at a conference and she was aghast that I would use such a rigid approach to a creative endeavor like writing.

One of my loyal readers, Christian Payne, commented that JK Rowling uses the same approach and sent me her plotting spreadsheet. I thought I’d post them here for you to compare.

Here’s Rowling’s:

JK Rowling

Here’s mine:

plotting

I added color and pictures, but otherwise, pretty similar. How do you lay out a complicated plot?

 

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26 thoughts on “Plotting a Story–with a Spreadsheet

  1. I think plotting out your story is a fantastic approach to the creative process.

    Even in creative and artistic avenues we need to have structure. Many great artists from the past had a plan, whether it be in mind or on paper.

    Plotting out the timeline in particular is a great way to write compelling stories that flow with consistency, believability and yet contain enough conflict to be an enjoyable read.

    Good on you, Jacqui, for being dedicated enough to use Excel and yet knowledgable enough to know it doesn’t restrict your ability to make-stuff-up. This shows the process of a gal and her ability to write a good read.

    Each to his/her own, I guess.

    • Thanks, Zakgirl. I have some friends who write a scene here and there, not necessarily in order. They might write Ch. 5 and then Ch. 2. I have no idea how they do that, as they probably don’t get my approach. Creativity is individual, isn’t it. How do you do it?

      • Seat of my pants used to be the way I wrote but I’ve found that’s the best way to lose your story in massive Groot Gat. These days I’m learning more about the process of writing and my work is evolving into a more structured approach. I daresay it will change and evolve ever more as time goes on.

    • Well, I didn’t know about blog candy until recently.

      Blog candy is sweet yummy lollies except you get them on your blog and you really can’t eat them unless you have a vivid imagination. Luckily I can eat blog candy and I ate mine all up.

      Anyway to answer your real question which is the blog candy I received in this instance. I got a Liebster award recently which is reserved for people with blogs like mine that have less than 200 followers.

      How it happens is that someone else that blogs or surfs the web thinks your blog is worthy of having more followers so they nominate you and basically get the word out that you and your blog exist. It’s a form of encouragement (I guess) to help you keep blogging and not give up.

      Jacqui, your blog was my first choice to nominate for the Liebster award but when I checked out how many followers you had, my shock, you had so many followers already (over 600!) that the rules wouldn’t allow me to nominate your blog :(

      Luckily your blog is so popular and you keep so busy it wouldn’t worry you anyway :)

      Keep up the effort. I’m always reading your work.

      Zakgirl.

  2. Yours is definitely less scary, Jacqui! :-) And I’m still in awe of your technique.

    I start off with a timeline, with sub-lines for flashbacks. Once I’m comfortable that the timing is correct/consistent, I shift to outlines of each scene within each chapter–always keeping that timeline in view, though.

    This is all, of course, until the story begins to take over the controls. Then parts of what I originally mapped will change or get tweaked.

    I still can’t get over the idea of a book as long and complex as one in the Harry Potter series being mapped out per the example your reader sent you. That’s really amazing (and scary) to me.

    • I tried your approach, Cheri. It should work. Sure didn’t for me. I got so confused! Couldn’t find anything. I like your point about ‘the story begins to take over the controls’. That probably when I lost control of the timeline.

      Thanks for visiting. Hope your marketing plan is going well!

  3. Only on one book did I plot up some sort of schedule. Since the whole story was wrapped around the phases of the moon and the various druidic rituals, I simply had to keep track. I used a computer generated calendar for that and it works for me.

    Anyway, I thought I’d let you know, you asked about my day – I finally wrote it up. Check it out – http://AnnaOfAlaska.blogspot.com – enjoy

  4. Dot points work for me. A framework of headings on the word doc, with notes about each scene. I can shift them in outline view and once the scene is written, I delete all the notes leaving a simple heading. Then when I revise, I know where each scene is and what it is. It also allows me to write the scenes out of order – if inspiration hits I write – whilst knowing what comes before

    I used a spreadsheet to track the emotional development of characters in my WIP. That’s working out well.

  5. When writing is concerned, I think you have to approach it with a certain plan, otherwise it will fall apart mid-way.

    I think your idea is a very sensible way of going about the job. Also, I think many people don’t realise that creativity is only half of what goes into a novel. The other half is planning, planning, planning. And your spreadsheets are proof of that.

    The more I write, the more I feel the need to set things out in a straightforward manner. Before it was all castles in the sky, but now I realise that I have to be more serious if I ever want to get my story down on paper to publishing standard.

    Thanks so much for sharing your planning sheet with us. You are a ‘visual’ learner like me. :)

    • You made an important point–if we-all ever want to get published. Part of me wants to merely tell a good story, but the rest of me believes that publishing would validate my achievement of that goal. Dunno. We’ll see later.

    • Hi Rock

      It’s something I created myself using Excel. The columns are Section, Chapter, Purpose, Day, Time, Characters (major and minor), Setting (at the start and finish), character’s success or failure in each section, whether the section is action or reaction, Summary, Follow-up (to remind myself what lose ends need typing up).

      By filling out that much information on each scene, I force myself to know what’s happening and it’s consequences. Plus, it’s easy to search for a character or a location. I like the action/reaction columns because I have a tendency to plow through the activity and forget that in a novel, the reader wants to know how the characters they have come to know and love reacted.

      Does that help?

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  8. Hi Jacqui,
    Decided to look up some of your older posts, the ones written before I subscribed. So glad I found this one.
    I’m not a well organized person, not when I write or when I paint, and yet I always have a plan in mind, I always have the outcome decided. I wrote the Inlaid Table all over the place, Literally. Just started to write, the first 20 and then the next 50 or so pages pouring out of me. Partly a creative response to grief and fury. Then I started writing what I call NOTES, tons of background info about everyone and everything. Names and descriptions of characters, all the links that don’t even show up in the story. It was a very elaborate story with many characters who show up in different sections, sometimes with name changes. About 60 single line pages of notes.
    I was also still writing the story as it demanded, skipping all kinds of other obligations. I’d written it organically, so when I hit a wall, I just wrote another section, another person’s story, until I got to the end.
    Total confusion. I hadn’t even separated into chapters, so finding parts was a nightmare. Once the story was written, nearly 500 pages, I wrote a summary of each chapter, and noted the page numbers within the actual discombobulated story of each section. Next I took the summaries, 35 I think, and went to the chapel of our temple, which at the time had a huge semi-circular wall and no decorations. Just a blank wall. I pinned up the chapters all around the room, first in the order in which they currently occupied space in the book. Then I went around and began to re-pin, organizing the story into something that made sense. Took about 3 hours, but I loved it.
    Wrote down the new order, went home, and that’s when I ran into lots of trouble. Began by dissecting the original document so that I could order it. Was so hard to find the sections of this one huge story and put them into the correct order in the newly organized book. I “lost” sections, put them in twice and thrice, and made myself more crazy than usual. Finally, many tears later and much hair torn out, I wrote a few needed transitional sections, made a table of contents, and called my book done. It really wasn’t, but it was done enough. I vowed never to do that again. Nearly 7 years of work, much of it doing historical research, and I’m still tweaking it.
    So when I wrote Tree House, I again began with tons of notes, all the background info, much of which got folded into the story with few changes. But I made sure each chapter got locked into its own little file folder on my computer along with a detailed summary, and a table of contents that worked to help me find sections. I still wrote out of order sometimes, because when a section needed to be written, well it just did. Still, this book benefited from the errors made with Inlaid and took only 3 years, some of it concurrent with the first book.
    Book three, the one I’m writing now, began with an idea to do a story based on 24 hours plus 10 minutes in a particular place. It lent itself to order. I wrote a list of characters, including details about their personalities and the part they would play in the story. Next I figured out what was going to happen during this day, though I already knew most of it “in my head.” Then I wrote the 24-hour timeline, plugging in the specific action for each hour, along with which characters would be starring, and the POV for that chapter. Started this writing process in January and have completed 16 chapters, each also in its own folder. The final chapter was written very early and it is likely to stay as is.
    So, I’ve gotten better organized and it’s helped. Don’t know if I could do what you do, or what Rowling did, but I think some sort of organization or outline does help.
    Next book will not be a book – I must get the query and agent hunting process done or my legacy will be blips on a computer screen and nothing more. Thank you for all your help. You are really a wealth of organization. You are a School for Writers and you are gracious enough to teach for free.
    Shari *: )

  9. Many people do it just as you did Inlaid Table–tack sections to the walls and move them around. That’s the spreadsheet idea, albeit digital. I bet you had interested visitors come see what you were doing at the Temple.

    What you’re doing now–with the third book–is why Everyone says the third book’s the charm. You know what works, how to fix writing errors, and can put more of your time into creativity.

    BTW, it’s summer–Learn to Blog time. Next week, Shari. Get a title. Get your first post. Meet me at my house.

  10. Hello Jacqui,
    Just thought I’d mention Y-Writer 5. I find it handles many of the things you mentioned- characters, locations, scenes, etc. The program is written by a writer, for writers and it’s free. Mind you I’m still running xp and you can also check out his submission-tracking software, Sonar, which is also free. Thanx for your many tips, I enjoy your columns a lot.–Yours, Grant

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  13. Wow. I couldn’t remember what I did when I took a computer class, which included Excel, a few months ago. So I’m taking the course again later this month. If I could organize myself with a spreadsheet like yours, goodness, I would be sooooooo proud of myself. And relieved that I had added some positive order. One day I hope to achieve this, after my 2nd Excel class is over. Very interesting post!

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