Monday, July 12, 2010

Spreadsheet Plotting

Spreadsheet plotting, believe it or not, is plotting via spreadsheet.

No, seriously, I kid you not.

Before you start cowering in the corner and eating your hair, you should know that it's actually a very simple concept, and don't tune out pantsers because it can work for you too.  Spreadsheets can have as little or as much detail as you like.  You can start off with a basic outline add to them as you go which makes them ideal for hybrid pantsers.  The spreadsheet is a great editing tool, especially with regards to pacing, and fully-fledged pantsers can also benefit just by filling it out as they write.  There is no best way to use the spreadsheet, it is simply a tool to make a writer's life easier and more time efficient.

You can create your spreadsheets in Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Word or basically any program that lets you access a table. I use Word because of residual trauma from university finance courses and because you can alter colours or borders (it just doesn't get any better).

Obviously a spreadsheet will change from genre to genre and single titles will require a more complex and detailed spreadsheet structure than category romances. J.K. Rowling's spreadsheets are understandably quite complicated. I would have loved to have posted an image of Rowling's revised plan for the Order of the Phoenix but I am wary of graphics copyright issues so instead I have a partially recreated table for you to get a quick idea (see below) and you can view a copy of Rowling's handwritten original here.

Image:  adaptation of the revised plan for Order of the Phoenix (The Harry Potter Lexicon 2007) split into two because blogger insists on making it teeny tiny.

J.K Rowling's approach to spreadsheet plotting is to divide the columns by chapter number, story timeline, chapter title, main plots and subplots. You will find that depending on the length of the book your spreadsheet will quite drastically, for example in category romance, where romance is key and multiple subplots are unnecessary. The following is a list of suggestions for spreadsheet elements:

  • chapter number
  • chapter title
  • time (day/month/year)
  • setting
  • weather (if relevant)
  • point of view
  • external conflict (of hero and heroine)
  • internal conflict (of hero and heroine)
  • main plot summary.
  • romance summary: deals only with the romance of the story e.g. hero not committing himself to heroine but being unwilling to let her go/date (this can take care of that wee problem some of us are experiencing in forgetting to strengthen the romantic element of our WIPs)
  • pacing/content (see explanation below)
  • word count (note: you may wish to include a sum total word count at the bottom)
As you can see a spreadsheet will allow you to keep track of your story with a flick of your eyes to a greater extent than the document map. At a glance you are able to determine what day your hero/heroine was in a particular setting and how they were interacting, so no more extraneous scrolling.  There's a lot of elements there and it's really about picking and choosing to design your own.

You can also include a pacing/content column in which you can use symbols or words to keep track of your characters, for example a chapter that emphasizes dialogue may be represented by (").  Similarly, action could be denoted by (!), character thinking by ('), and sex scenes by (*), or whatever symbols/words you wish. These symbols/words can make it easier (especially during editing) to balance the peaks and troughs of your plot and ensure that your readers have rollercoaster of a ride, rather than plodding along with Bob (and very possibly abandoning Bob out of boredom).

If you are working in Microsoft Word a good trick is to vary the line colours, to reduce the strain on your eyes, for example:

And that's spreadsheet plotting. Now that wasn't so painful, was it?


gaelikaa said...

I was over yesterday, and just now your post appeared in my reading list. Wow! What a change! It's fantastic, well done.

Now as to the post, that's plotting down to a fine art. Great stuff, I've really learnt something. Thank you dear Lacey.

Teresa Ashby said...

I love your gorgeous new look, Lacey!
Spreadsheets scare me - I don't know why. But I'm rubbish at plotting so perhaps I should give it a try. Very interesting and thought provoking post!

Caroline said...

Ohh I bet Kate Hardy will love this - but then I think she is the queen of plotting! Caroline x

Diane said...

Gosh, I'd never heard of this. Thank you. I'll try it out.

Anonymous said...

Great blog background, Lacey! Loved it! xxx

Jackie Ashenden said...

Wow, Lacey, that's incredibly detailed. And something to keep in mind. I'm not too bad with category since there are no subplots or secondaries (much) and all you need to keep track of is the emotional relationships, but this sounds incredibly useful for when you're writing something else. Cool! And thanks for sharing.
(like the new look btw).

Lacey Devlin said...

Thanks Gaelikaa! I hope it helps. Unfortunately I didn't use this for my current wip because I was only working with the bare bones of it at that stage.

Lacey Devlin said...

Teresa - Thanks! I'm still getting my head around plotting too.

Caroline - Kate Hardy is the queen of plotting! Her productivity is insane, I'm always amazed by how quickly she writes!

Diane - Let me know how you go!

MelRoXx - Thanks Mel! I have to say that with the new blogger editors and designer programs it did my head in. Getting it to fit most screen resolutions was a nightmare!

Lacey Devlin said...

Thanks Jackie! I think it's most useful for single titles and those pesky seven book series that take over the world and end with you having your own theme park ;).

Catherine J said...

Wow! I just write. And so much of the time I don't even do that. I blog surf and lurk and convince myself that I'm learning useful stuff. My first visit to your blog is an eyeopener, Lacey. I know a bit of planning wouldn't go amiss, and you've just given me a reason to be thankful that I spent a year obtaining a European Computer Driving License. Learning spreadsheets wasn't a waste of time after all. Hurrah! You've shown me the perfect use for them. Thanks!

Kaily Hart said...

Hey Lacey! First off, I LOVE the new look. It's gorgeous.

Ah, spreadsheets. I love them. My family jokes that I have one for everything. I...ah, might even have one that lists every book I've ever read, by author, by release date. LOL. OCD, much? Great post

Suzanne Jones said...

This looks fantastic - definitely giving that a go.


Lacey Devlin said...

Hi Catherine! I'm a bit obessessed with plotting at the moment while I try to fix a MS disaster but I'm not a good girl all the time. Sometimes I just write. I think that's important so it doesn't become all work and no play.

Lacey Devlin said...

Kaily - Thanks re my blog facelift! I have a spreadsheet for my M&B books to make sure I don't double up when I'm buying in bulk on ebay lol. I also have one for library books that I want to remember in case I want to get them back out... Go OCD! ;)

Thanks Suzanne!

Felicity Roger said...

Would love a copy of spreadsheet plotting. Email is


Lacey Devlin said...

It's on it's way Felicity :)

Small Town Shelly Brown said...

That was cool Lacey, thanks! I know this is an old post but still really helpful.
Might have to go and make myself a spreadsheet...

Lacey Devlin said...

Hi Shelly! I'm so glad that you found it helpful. Happy writing :-)

Ted said...

Looking for ways of spreadsheet plotting and I found this. learned something new. Thank you!

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