Plotter’s Paradise: Outlining Using Microsoft Excel
THE CASE FOR OUTLINING
Let me start this post by saying that I know outlining isn’t for everyone. This isn’t meant to be some decree stating that outlining is the One True Path to writing a novel. Tons of incredibly famous authors are big-time “Pantsers” who let the story unravel as they write their first draft. But for me, drafting without a plan is the best way to leave me staring at a blinking cursor until I have an anxiety attack, and eventually curl up on the floor eating marshmallows straight from the bag. So, outlining it is!
Additionally, I am about as Type A as a person can get, so the method of outlining I’ll be discussing here is a bit, well, anal. It’s definitely not for everyone, but if you’re the type of person who’s subfolders have subfolders and who always likes to make a “game plan” for your day off… well, this method might be for you.
To start this process, we already have to have an idea of where our story is going. I usually get this by just doing some stream-of-consciousness note taking and brainstorming, using an actual piece of paper and an actual pen, because that’s just how my brain likes to conceptualize brand new things. But once I have that rough concept down it’s time to take things to the sheets. The spreadsheets, that is.
The first tab is for our broadest plot outline. I like to look at it in the “three-act overview” format (Introduction, Plot Point 1, Pinch Point 1, Midpoint, Pinch Point 2, Plot Point 3, Climax, Resolution), but whatever markers you want to use are fine. These will be your row labels. Your column labels will be your characters. Your main character and antagonist for sure, but also include any other characters who will be going through any sort of arc or transition throughout the story. I usually have at least six or seven characters listed here.
Next… you guessed it, we fill in the boxes. For each character, you want to know where they are, what they are doing, and (most importantly) how they are feeling at every major turning point in the story.
Do you really want to nail that character introduction, make sure you show us who each character is and what they’re about from their very first scene? Great, that info goes in the first box of each column.
Not all the characters will be in the same place for all the different points, sure, but they’re still doing something during that time. Like in The Hobbit when Gandalf fucks off for half the book while the dwarves and Bilbo stumble around Middle Earth. The reader might not know exactly what he’s up to while he’s gone (something about a necromancer… dun dun DUN), but if you were outlining The Hobbit using this method, you as the writer would know! And that’s important.
You can fill in the boxes in any order. I usually go chronologically through the plot, filling in horizontally as I go (what is my main character doing/feeling at Plot Point 1? Okay, how about my antagonist? etc.). You could definitely also go straight down for each character, or pop around and write in the parts you know for sure first, then fill in the holes later. Up to you!
This is a great way to suss out character arcs, turning points, and subplots. If you haven’t already decided, this is also a great time to decide how many points of view you’re going to write the story from, and which characters will get to be those POVs. Which brings us to….
This is where things get a little... intense. Like I said before, I hate trying to write without a road map. This is why my outline is really more of a zero-draft.
In this tab, our row labels are going to be chapters. That’s right, chapter-by-chapter outline. Will you stick to the outline 100% while drafting? Maybe, maybe not. In the throes of drafting you may realize you need to add a chapter here or strike one out there… but man, I have to say, it is so much easier to sit down and get a good day’s writing in if I know exactly what I’m supposed to be working on that day. (Some of the Pantsers in the room probably just vomited at the thought of that). If you’re doing multi-POV it’s a good idea to leave a space here to note which POV each chapter is from. If you’re not dividing POV’s by chapter, just list all the POV’s that appear in that chapter, maybe. Or maybe split up the chapters even further so each POV within the chapter has its own row. Do whatever makes sense to you - I don’t know your life.
What are my column headers for the second tab of my outline spreadsheet? Plots, arcs, and subplots (oh my!) I like to put my main plot in the left-hand column, and then move to smaller and smaller arcs and plots as I move to the right. Each character gets a column for their arc. Got a romantic subplot? That gets its own column too. I also include a column for worldbuilding. That way I know when I’m sneaking in which details about my world, so I can avoid info-dumping everything in one chapter.
Unlike our last grid, not every cell is going to be filled in when we’re done. Not every character will be making strides along their arc in every chapter because, well, in all likelihood, not every character will even be in every chapter.
I like to kick things off by writing out my main plot. I start in Row 2 Column B and just start typing what’s going to happen, jumping to a new row every time I feel a natural break in the flow of the plot, or a good spot for a little cliff-hanger. These are my fledgling chapter breaks (again, they can change in subsequent drafts, but usually most of them stay right on.) Once I reach the end of the main plot I’ll know how many chapters my outline will have. That helps me divvy up the rest of my subplots among them.
When you have filled out the rest of this massive grid (Note: This will take a week+, probably. Maybe more, maybe less, but we’re not talkin’ a couple of hours here, that’s for damn sure), we get to the best part.
Pick one color for each of your columns, then highlight every cell that has text in that column in that color. When all the filled cells are colored in, CTRL+scroll down to zooooooom way out so you can see the whole sheet (or at least most of it) on one page. You won’t be able to read the text at this point, unless you have some sort of super-vision (and supercomputer), all you’ll be able to see are the colored blocks.
Look for bare patches. Are there any big stretches of time where you go like, seven or eight chapters without addressing a particular subplot? Is your MC’s entire character arc clustered right around the beginning chapters, completely falling off for the second half of the outline? If so you need to move some things around, spread it out! I find that making sure all the plots are spread out over the course of the entire story really helps me with pacing. Plus, if one of my subplots isn’t working out, or one of my character arcs moves way too fast to be believable, I’d rather find out about it while everything is in neat, color-coded cells than when it’s all messy and tangled up in a draft
And that’s it! Once I have that outline set I keep it open in a window the entire time I’m drafting, making it easy to reference as I write and make sure I’m staying on track. My first drafts can still be a bit of a wreck, I’ll admit, but they’re a hell of a lot cleaner than they were before I started using this method. Give it a shot if you are looking for a more structured way to prepare for a first draft!