A look at outlining in Excel

With the release of The Venusian Gambit, I’ve been doing a fair amount of stuff, including a guest post on the writing process at Chuck Wendig’s Terribleminds, as well as a Reddit AMA on r/Fantasy. And a question came up in both places: What’s with this Excel outlining you keep talking about?

Well, it’s a long answer, but I figured I’d give it a go. I use Excel to outline my novels in a far more complete, intensive way — more like a storyboard, really. I can include not just what happens, but to whom it happens, why, their reactions, the effect on the setting, etc. I found Excel useful because my books tend to have some complexity to them — different dimensions, multiple POV characters, lots of moving parts — and it helps me keep things straight. Plus, I like being able to storyboard a scene before writing it because I’ve spent two decades writing to spec, and that’s what works for me — even if I create the spec.

OK, let’s see what one of these outlines looks like. Below is a screencap of the Excel outline of my second novel, The Enceladus Crisis.


Click to embiggen.

Yep. It’s that big, and that’s just the first eight scenes out of 45 that went into the book. I chose to show you Enceladus because it was in this book that I really refined how I use Excel. Looking back, the first outlines of The Daedalus Incident took me by surprise, frankly, in that they were very underdeveloped compared to this. And, really, I didn’t want to offer any spoilers for Gambit!

So let’s look at these fields, shall we? We’ll use the fourth scene of Enceladus.


Click to zoominate.


The first field is just a scene number to help me keep track, while the second is the year — which serves to help me figure out whether I’m in the late 18th century or the early 22nd. The third is the month and day, which is especially important in timing out historical events, such as the historic Battle of the Nile and its aftermath. The fourth is said battle, and yes, HMS Fortitude does indeed swoop down from the Void to insert herself into the fray. After that comes the characters involved in the scene, so I know who’s supposed to be there.


Click to gargantuize.


Next, we have Plot Development. This is the beginning of the novel for Weatherby, so I wanted him to essentially have his hero shot while setting up the Battle of the Nile, a key to Napoleon’s long stay in Egypt. After that is Character Development, which again is pretty introductory at this juncture; later on, it describes how characters feel/react to what’s going on, and perhaps how it changes their stance on things.

Click to enlarginate.

Click to enlarginate.

These final two cells are of my own creation. “Wonder” is essentially a gee-whiz-bang thing about the setting. I wanted to be sure I was worldbuilding in each scene, whenever possible. I wanted to show how the tech or the future society works in the 22nd century, or how sailing ships or alien cultures work in the late 18th. It didn’t have to be much, though in some places it’s practically the whole scene — such as when Fortitude visited the ring-cities of Saturn for the first time later on in the novel.

Finally, the last cell is the “Kicker.” I like to end my scenes with a little something to make you want to keep reading. Sometimes it’s an out-and-out cliffhanger. Sometimes, like here, it’s more of a poignant thing — Weatherby opts to take Franklin as a prize, instead of blowing her out of the water, in honor of his friend Benjamin Franklin (from The Daedalus Incident).

I’ve found a lot of flexibility in how these cells can be formatted. For a current project already outlined, I added a “Focus Character” cell, which is essentially POV, as well as “Location.” I could see cells for each character’s arc, perhaps, or for managing what’s happening off-screen so that elements of those outside events could be included. Really, whatever helps you keep it straight.

So there you go. Basically, I know how the story’s going to go down before I open the draft. Now, bear in mind that I’m not a slave to the outline — if I get a brilliant idea halfway through, I’ll just make a comment in the margins and head off down that other path, leaving it to revisions to sort it all out. Sometimes, I’ll find that the outline is just in error — this happens most frequently in character arcs, when I realize that a character just wouldn’t do what I thought they would. Again, happy to diverge. But for me, I need that map before I can go off-roading with confidence.

Outlining in Excel certainly isn’t for everyone — and especially for folks who prefer to sit down and just write (“pantsers” in writing-geek parlance, as in “seat of”). I’ve honestly tried to write like that, mostly as an exercise, and found myself scribbling notes in the Word file as to what comes next. “Pantsing” just isn’t in my nature, I guess.

I hope you found this helpful. Happy writing, y’all.



Filed under Writing

6 responses to “A look at outlining in Excel

  1. Very interesting. I’m very fond of outlines, myself, but I don’t usually get as detailed as you do. However, for work like yours, which is complicated by the existence of multiple time periods and plot threads, making a chart like this in Excel is a great way of keeping all of the subplots and settings in your story straight in your mind.

  2. moteridgerider

    I’m finding that having a ‘safety net’ in the form of a detailed outline like this ensures that you keep the momentum going. Especially in the ‘swampy middle’. I recently read a book by James McCreet called ‘Before you write a word’ who also writes historical fiction. He spends about three months writing and rearranging his plot in this way. When he’s finally ready, he ‘blitzes’ his first draft and produces something that requires significantly less editing. Personally, I use Scrivener’s corkboard for this process but excel can be a useful tool also. A fellow teacher friend of mine uses excel to plan his schemes of work to great effect. I liked some of your custom cell ideas like the ‘whizz bang’ and ‘kicker’ cells. I’ll certainly be using these in future. I’m already thinking that you could create a specific template for the ever-important first chapter, ensuring that all the right elements are in there to get the reader hooked. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Looks great. I’m going to try it on a future project. I’m tweaking it a bit, of course. I’m going to add a column for the various story structure elements to hit at the right times (i.e. plot points, pinch points, etc.)

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