Ain't No Such Thing As Writer's Block, Part 4: Spreadsheets? I Thought They Were For Accountants

‘Ain’t No Such Thing as Writer’s Block’ is a series of blog posts following the complete process of writing my fourth novel, a Young Adult science-fiction story called ‘Alpha’. You can find the previous post on plot development here. Today’s post continues on the topic of plot development and discusses how I use a spreadsheet to help map out the plot.

The last post in this series covered what I called ‘thickening the plot’ or using a process of slowly adding more detail to progress from your initial logline to a full outline for the plot of a novel. I also discussed why I believe having a plot outline is important and that it doesn’t constrict your creativity and rather provides a structure within which your creativity can shine. In my mind creativity is not the fanciful idea of a leaf floating on the breeze, blown any which way by the muse, creativity is more like a flooding river, you need to build structure around it to get it to flow in the right direction. The spreadsheet method, or plot grid as it is also known, is another tool I used in the writing of Alpha to help plan and construct the plot before beginning the first draft.

Firstly, to review what I covered last time the steps to move from logline of initial idea to full plot are:

  1. Take your one paragraph outline and expand it to about one page, including the key points about the story’s beginning, middle and end.
  2. Spend some time developing and documenting the back-story to your characters and world.
  3. Expand the one page outline to a five to ten page outline by adding more detail about each of the major scenes beginning to include subplots and important character moments.

By this stage you’ve got a decent outline for the skeleton of your story hitting what you consider all the major plot points. What you may find though, and this is something I certainly found when going through this process with Alpha, is that a big slab of text five to ten pages long makes it difficult to really analyse the flow of the plot, the ups and downs the characters experience and how the subplots fit together with the main plot. That’s where the spreadsheet comes in (see, not just for accountants after all).

I like structure. Perhaps it’s a virtue of being both an engineer as well as a writer, an odd combination I suppose although I do know some others and perhaps it’s more common in those writers who lean towards science fiction and fantasy, but I like laying the plan for a novel out in a way that allows me to work on the details of each scene while also allowing me to zoom out and examine the plot on a macro scale. I’ve found a spreadsheet to be the best way to get a clear picture of how the main plot and each of the subplots unfold across the chapters of the book.

A planning spreadsheet is simple to construct. I use Excel but it can just as easily be drawn up on a sheet of paper. The image below shows a snap shot of the plot grid for Alpha, I’ve hidden all the text to avoid any spoilers but it’s easy to see the structure. The columns represent plot points I want to track and the rows represent chapters.

  • The first column is simply the chapter number.
  • The second column is the POV character used for that chapter, this isn’t always necessary but in Alpha there are two viewpoint characters so I wanted to keep track of whose head we’ll be in.
  • The third column is where I track what’s happening in the main plot.
  • The remainder of the columns are the subplots, in the case of Alpha you can see that I’m tracking eight subplots.
  • In each cell of the spreadsheet I simply write the details of what occurs in that chapter related to the main plot and each of the subplots as I move across the columns.
The spreadsheet used for Alpha...looking like a redacted court document.

The spreadsheet used for Alpha...looking like a redacted court document.

Although I’ve hidden the text one thing you can still note is that the main plot has something occurring in every chapter (you’d hope so otherwise what’s the reason for having the chapter huh?) but the subplots aren’t necessarily addressed in each chapter. The power of using this method to plan is that you can instantly see how the subplots unfold next to the main plot and over the length of the book, you can ensure that each is balanced so that one subplot doesn’t overshadow all the others and that each subplot has action occurring throughout the whole novel. You want to try and avoid too many long sparse patches in which you don’t have action around one of your subplots or the opposite where one subplot suddenly takes over and becomes the all-consuming spotlight hogging diva.

What you’re seeing here is only a small segment of the plot grid but the beauty is you can zoom in and flesh out details of the chapter, or zoom out (or take a step back if you’re rocking old school pen and paper) and see which subplots have action and how often. I’ve never really been into the whole colour-coding your grid according to character or type of action or what you had for breakfast or whatever but it seems to help some people so if that’s your thing then go nuts and make it all pretty.

As you translate your long form plot outline into this spreadsheet format you’ll quickly see if you need to move some scenes around or merge or split scenes so that not only does the main plot move in rising and falling action but that the subplots are spaced out throughout the book in a way that keeps each plot thread alive until the very end.

It was discussions I’d had with other writers in a writer’s group that prompted me to try out this method of planning and I’ve used it ever since. After I’d started using it I discovered this is the same method J.K. Rowling used to plan the Harry Potter novels. I’m not suggesting that planning this way is going to make you a billionaire but I found this image online showing part of her plot grid for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and thought it might be useful as another example.

If it's good enough for Harry...

If it's good enough for Harry...

As you can see the structure of Rowling’s plot grid is very similar to mine but she also includes a column to track the timeline of her story. As you can imagine the structure of your spreadsheet is clearly flexible and dependent on what you feel you need to track in that particular novel.

So now that my plot outline has been transferred to my spreadsheet and I’ve moved things around, adjusted things, and am reasonably happy with the way the plot unfolds it’s time to take a deep breath because next comes the hard part, time get to writing that first draft…gulp. We'll talk about that next time.