Planning a Novel: A New Use for Spreadsheets

Everyone’s got their own idea on how to write a novel.

Some writers say they just let their muse take them down whatever path it desires. They let their imagination roam, creativity soar, and permit their masterpiece of prose to flow.

Others plot out every detail, down to the color of minor characters’ eyes and the shape of their toenails. They know every scene, every beat, every dramatic development before they write.

Then there are the rest of us, who inhabit the space somewhere in the middle.

And are trying to find ways to be more efficient without cutting off the muse.

The Search for a Better System for Planning Novels

I’ve tried lots of systems. In my opinion, filling out detailed character descriptions before starting to write is a waste of time, and frankly, boring. It works better for me to get some of the main points of a character figured out, like age, sex, and some dominant traits. Then as the story unfolds and I work with the character a bit, I can decide if she is lanky or muscular, has green eyes or black. Or if she twirls her hair when she’s nervous.

But these kinds of summaries are necessary, especially when editing. A decision must be made if the heroine’s eyes are round or almond shaped, and this should be recorded in some organized manner. Otherwise, editing becomes a nightmare. I’ve wasted much time skimming chapter after chapter, trying to find out how I initially described a character (was he tall and dark?) and if I suddenly changed him into a short redhead.

Finally: A Novel Planning System I Can Use

Then I stumbled on this handy post that explains how to use spreadsheets to organize a summary of all this information. Why didn’t I think of that?

One is for character information:

For the current series I’m writing, it’s been helpful to have a spreadsheet to help me remember character details. On the vertical axis of the sheet, I have character names listed. On the horizontal axis, I have important details like: birthdate, basic appearance, biggest weakness, greatest strength, quirky details, and fatal flaw. Then I’ll have multiple columns for “backstory.”

When I go to use a character I haven’t used in awhile, I’ll do a quick check of the sheet to make sure I have the character in my mind.

Another spreadsheets charts character change:

The result was a spreadsheet that has a row for each character. Across the top are dates. Each cell is filled with a sentence or two describing what is happening in the character’s life at that time.

The result of creating this spreadsheet was a deep understanding of the series I’m writing. Although the narrative is flux, I can tell you how my protagonists will grow and change over the next seven books I plan to write.

The post also describes spreadsheets for plotting the beats of a story and a scene checklist. Hop over to The Write Practice to read the entire post.

I’m sold. I’ll be using these ideas when I start my next novel.

And please let me know in the comments what you think. Do you think a system like this will be helpful to you?



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *