Excuse the pun and let’s get down to business. A lot of people have asked me about my monstrous spreadsheet outlines and how I use them. If you haven’t seen one of them before, here’s a small section of my current one.
That shows the first nine scenes of my new WIP (a YA fantasy) but it continues to 64 scenes in total. It may seem overwhelming at first but actually, this method of plotting is simple and effective, even if, like me, you have no IT skills. Although I prefer to use Excel, I’ll be demonstrating this method using Google Sheets because I think that’s more accessible to most people. It works fine for either.
Let’s begin by breaking down the headings. You can safely ignore the first four as they relate to the Dramatica theory of storytelling I’m experimenting with. Essentially, there are four arcs in my book and those columns relate to the themes of those arcs. If you’re interested in learning more about Dramatica theory then I’d really recommend spending a few hours working your way through the free book on the website. If you’re not interested, no matter and I’ll carry on with my explanation.
Ignoring the thematic columns, there are then thirteen more columns. This is still quite a lot, but it’s really not as bad as it sounds. They’re really quite simple when you break it down.
The first column is simply the Scene Number. This is just to help keep track of what you’re doing. All you have to do is add the column heading, then a 1 in the box below that and a 2 below that. Then, select the boxes with 1 and 2 in and drag the little cross in the corner all the way down as far as you need. The boxes will automatically be numbered without you needing to type every number manually.
Next is the Summary. Note down all important events in this scene. It can be as vague or specific as you like – you know your own style of plotting.
I like to break down my scenes further into Plot and Emotion. In these two columns, I note what occurs to drive the plot forward and also what is happening to my MC emotionally, or what the emotional impact of the scene on the reader is intended to be. I find this approach helps me keep every scene on track and ensures they all have a purpose.
This is the first time I’m using a column for Backstory and I’m finding it very helpful so far. By backstory, I don’t mean flashbacks necessarily, but rather what pieces of information is revealed to the MC, or what they learn. If there’s a vital piece of backstory that helps everything fall into place then it’s really helpful to keep track of when and where it’s introduced.
My next column could be summarised as Relationship. In The Guard’s Heart, the core of the story is the evolving relationship between the naive royal guard Brookes and the cold courtier Lilias. Therefore, I wanted to make sure that every scene plays into this strand of narrative and having a column to note any important details I’d want include to make sure that the relationship is constantly in the reader’s mind. You might not have a romantic relationship at the heart of your story but most stories do revolve around the MC and someone who influences them. If your story is strongly character-driven then this could be a useful tool for you.
Characters is probably self-explanatory. Keep track of who is in which scene to help ensure nobody drops out of the picture. For A Grey Valentine’s I only had 6 characters and so everyone had their own mini column I coloured in which helped keep track visually, but The Guard’s Heart has a much larger cast so at the moment I’m simply listing names in a box.
Location is similarly simple. Where are they? It doesn’t matter too much if you can’t fill this in when you’re first plotting but it’s a useful detail to have on hand for continuity purposes later.
Time is what time of day the scene takes place at if this is likely to be relevant. Time elapsed is how long it’s been since the previous scene. You don’t need to know exactly but it can be helpful to have a vague timeline of events.
Words is simple, but also hard to gauge. I like to give a rough estimate of how long the scene will be. It helps me look at overall pacing before I even begin. The main problem is that sometimes your guesses can be way off.
The next column tells me how long each arc of the story is as I like to keep an eye on the pacing. To have the spreadsheet work this out for you, select a cell and type =SUM(
From there, select all the cells in the Words column for the arc you want to measure by dragging down from the first one. Then type a ) and press enter. This can also be used to calculate the total estimated length of your book by selecting all of the Words column.
Those are the basics of my spreadsheets and how I lay out my plotting. I also find it can help to work backwards from the end when planning out scenes as if you know where you end up then the scene before it can often feel a logical step.
Not everyone is a plotter and not everyone will find this method helpful. The reason I wanted to share it is that it’s so adaptable I think anyone can find it helpful. Whatever you need to keep track of in your scenes, it’s simply a matter of adding another column heading. If you get fancy, you can also add in word count trackers and graphs and colour coding which I usually end up doing out of procrastination.
The best thing about this method is that although it’s computer-based, you don’t need any IT skills at all. Even the few basics I mentioned can be done without. It’s easily adaptable to whatever you need because it’s not a prescribed plan for you to try fit yourself to, it’s a tool for you to use however you think best.