Excel…a writer’s best friend?

Find this icon in your Start menu and get your plot in shape.

Got an e-mail from a friend in the great Pacific Northwest recently. He had seen my previous blog post, and mentioned the time he went to see Ridley Pearson, author of both adult crime novels and YA adventure books, at Third Place Books. I’d like to think I’m a disciplined writer, but apparently Ridley works on three novels at a time, going from one to the other and back with seeming impunity.

Now that takes organization. Possibly a certain level of insanity as well. But definitely organization.

I’m not going to write three novels at a pop. For one, I have a family and a day job. And I tend to be a very linear writer. I need to start at the beginning and finish up before going to something else. But it still takes organization — I need to know where the end is supposed to be so that I can finish in the right place, after all.

And for that, I use Excel.

I’d like to think I’m pretty good at character creation and setting; I’m a former role-playing game geek, after all. But plot takes a lot of forethought and organization, and Excel (or Numbers or the open-source equivalent) is pretty good at that.

The Excel file for my first Spacebuckler novel, broken up by scene, has multiple fields to help me keep track of things. Here’s a quick breakdown that worked for me:

  • Setting. Where’s the scene? On Venus? Aboard ship? Philadelphia? Will the setting change during the scene?
  • Characters. Who’s in the scene? And if necessary, where are the main characters who aren’t there? If you shift between character POV, you can note that here, too, or in a separate field.
  • Action. The characters need to have something to do in the setting. Maybe it’s a battle, or a quiet conversation, but there’s definitely something happening. And the Excel outline lets you ensure that the action flows between scenes, too.
  • Plot points. Each scene needs to further the main plot and/or a subplot. Maybe there’s a big reveal, or there’s a twist in there. But if the action doesn’t further the plot, well, it’s kind of pointless. If you’ve got a heap of subplots and a ton of threads, you could create separate fields for each.
  • Character arc. Personally, I’d like at least one main character to develop in the scene somehow. Sometimes it’s small, sometimes it’s a major personal epiphany. Sometimes everybody learns something. Heck, sometimes not learning something is part of the arc.
  • The kicker. I also like to end a scene or a chapter with something that’ll keep the reader coming back. A lot of my scenes end with a reversal of fortune, a sudden twist, a big realization or the classic hurtling-toward-doom. Occasionally, for quieter scenes, I’ll go with something a bit more subtle, usually involving character development. But I like having that hook at the end to keep the reader engaged.

So there you go. In a matter of six fields, I have the who-what-when-where-how-why of a scene, and by putting them all in one place, I can see how the story develops. That way, when I get down to writing the scene, I know exactly what the scene has to do in terms of the broader story.

Now if I could just get Excel to chart those character arcs and plotlines into a handy line graph….


Filed under Books, Writing

2 responses to “Excel…a writer’s best friend?

  1. This is really great! Everyone should be trained in Excel. This touches on Randy Ingermanson’s point that novels are designed, they don’t just happen.

  2. I use Excell to organize my novels too. I have multiple pages and a progress report that adds up the word counts from my scenes page and shows me percentages. Like you I have a page to keep track of scenes but it also has a word count field that the progress page pulls from automatically.

    I also have a page for the main characters so I can see their pertenant details, flaws and strengths at a glance, a to-do list page so I don’t get sidetracked while writing (I just make a quick note there and go back later), and a page for small but important details, like the names of minor characters, where people work, what restaurants they eat at, etc.,

    I can’t remember all that stuff and keep it straight but Excell can.

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