Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Using Excel to Outline

By Michael J. Martinez

JH: Please join me in welcoming Michael J. Martinez to the blog today to chat with us about a different way to outline. I'm fascinated by the myriad of techniques people use to plan and write their novels, so it's always fun to hear a new process. And if you've been looking for a new way to outline, this might be the right tip for you.

Michael has spent 20 years in journalism and communications writing other people's stories. A few years ago, in a moment of blinding hubris, he thought he'd try to write one of his own. The Daedalus Incident is the result. Mike currently lives in northern New Jersey with his wonderful wife, amazing daughter and The Best Cat in the World. He's an avid traveler and homebrewer, and since nobody has told him to stop yet, he continues to write fiction. He is a proud member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Take it away Michael...

When I began doing interviews to promote my first novel, The Daedalus Incident (out in stores this week!), I was asked whether I was a “plotter” or a “pantser.” First, I needed clarification as to what a pantser was. Then, I affirmed my devoted adherence to the plotter camp.

I have a dear writer friend who believes in Stephen King’s old saw, that outlining is the last refuge of a hack. I’m a 15-year veteran of journalism, along with another five-plus years in corporate communications, so I feel I’ve earned the right to be called a hack, and I take outlining to an entirely new level.

I am no mere plotter. I use Excel.

That’s right–spreadsheets. Now, bear in mind, these aren’t the kind of spreadsheets that wrangle equations or some such; I haven’t managed to turn Excel into a Magic Plot Machine (yet). My use of Excel is merely a way to organize the scenes in my books so that I know exactly what needs to occur and when.

First off, I organize my writing by chunks, or scenes. These are roughly 1,500- to 3,500-word pieces of novel that, if all goes well, can be drafted in a single sitting. It’s no accident that these scenes are also the approximate length of a long newspaper feature (or average magazine piece). As a former AP reporter and magazine writer, that tends to be my happy place in terms of word count. And in a novel, you can get a lot done in that amount of space.

By the time I’ve opened Excel, I have a sense of the overarching plot. The next step is to break it down into corresponding scenes. In The Daedalus Incident, I have two separate storylines in two (mostly) separate dimensions–one in a future Mars mining colony, and one in a historical fantasy setting in which the Age of Sail takes place among the planets of the Solar System. So the trick in this book was to pace the action in the two different settings so that (minor spoiler alert) they converged when the plotlines and character arcs called for it.

Excel is broken down into horizontal rows and vertical columns. The rows became the scenes, so I could scroll down and proceed through the book. The columns became the different elements needed for each scene. I used the following columns to help me through:
  • Scene number: This helped calculate rough word count.
  • Year: 2132 or 1779, to denote which dimension I was working in.
  • Action: This was the main activity in the scene or section, whether it was an earthquake on Mars, a frigate engagement over Mercury or simply two characters talking about something.
  • Setting: As a genre writer, I put a lot of thought into my settings, and good settings inform both plot and character. So I made a note here to include relevant setting details, especially if I planned to use them for hooks later on in the book.
  • Plot: How does the action (and possibly the setting elements) further the plot? What does this scene mean? What is it used for? If I don’t have a great answer for that, is the scene even necessary?
  • Characters: Each major character gets a column, and not all characters are used in each scene. You want scenes to mean things to individuals as well as to the plot. This is a great way to plot out arcs, or simply jot down notes on possible character reactions.
  • “Hook”: This is my personal preference, but I rather like scene endings that hook the reader into the next bit, especially when I’m hopping between character groupings and settings (or, in this case, dimensions). Not every scene has to end in an explosion or a cliffhanger, but I like having that element of “wow, what happens next?” when I wrap up a scene.
And there you have it. You can add more columns if you like, especially if you have multiple subplots, for example. But that’s what got me started, and continues to work well.

Each row, representing a scene, gets a sentence or two in each column. Some columns get whole paragraphs for a scene. Others get three words. Regardless, when I read a scene line from left to right, I know exactly what happens, where it happens, why it happens and who’s involved. That’s the target that I write toward when I tackle that scene.

Now…once you have all that for each scene in your book, you can also check your work, so to speak, by reading each column from top to bottom. That should give you a sense of the action through the book, how the setting develops over each scene, how the overall plot shapes up, each individual character arc, etc. You can find holes in your plot, faults in your character arcs, etc., and either work with your existing scenes to rectify that, or write in new scenes to carry that missing weight.

In my current work-in-progress, there are four major plotlines I’m weaving throughout the novel. In order to keep them straight, I’ve started adding tabs–those folder-like tabs on the bottom-left of a typical Excel layout that let you tab between worksheets. By using these, and applying the above columns to each scene, I can keep track of the progress of these four plotlines and, when appropriate, guide them toward each other. It’s another level of complexity, perhaps, but it can allow for a more complex and, hopefully, better integrated story.

And there you have it. I hope it helps you think about how you plot out your work. And to all you pantsers out there…I truly admire you, because you’re doing something I just can’t manage. Thankfully, I have Excel.

About The Daedalus Incident

Mars is supposed to be dead…a fact Lt. Shaila Jain of the Joint Space Command is beginning to doubt in a bad way.

Freak quakes are rumbling over the long-dormant tectonic plates of the planet, disrupting its lucrative mining operations and driving scientists past the edges of theory and reason. However, when rocks shake off their ancient dust and begin to roll—seemingly of their own volition—carving canals as they converge to form a towering structure amid the ruddy terrain, Lt. Jain and her JSC team realize that their routine geological survey of a Martian cave system is anything but. The only clues they have stem from the emissions of a mysterious blue radiation—and, inexplicably, a 300-year-old journal.

Lt. Thomas Weatherby of His Majesty’s Royal Navy is an honest 18th-century man of modest beginnings, doing his part for King and Country aboard HMS Daedalus, a frigate sailing the high seas between continents…and the immense Void between the Known Worlds. Across the Solar System and among its colonies—rife with plunder and alien slave trade—through dire battles fraught with strange alchemy, nothing much can shake his resolve. But events are transpiring to change all that.

With the aid of his fierce captain, a drug-addled alchemist, and a servant girl with a remarkable past, Weatherby must track a great and powerful mystic, who has embarked upon a sinister quest to upset the balance of the planets—the consequences of which may reach far beyond the Solar System, threatening the very fabric of space itself.

Set sail among the stars with this uncanny tale, where adventure awaits, and dimensions collide!


  1. That's a useful way to use Excel. I sometimes use Numbers (the "Excel" of the iWork package) to check a story against a spreadsheet listing plot points. :)

    As a FYI: Scrivener's Outliner function could be used in the same way, because the user can create custom meta deta, which can then be activated in the Outliner. And that would be easier to rearrange scenes in.

  2. I've heard the name "Excel" before, but I didn't actually know what it does. As a confirmed pantser, I have to confess that sounds like a dreadful amount of busywork for crafting a story :P But hey, that's the beauty of writing: to each his own!

    I'm intrigued by your plot; I'll have to put Daedalus on my wish-list.

  3. I used Excel to outline my novel, but I didn't have as many columns as you do. I think I'd like to try breaking out the characters as you mentioned to see those all-important character arcs, and to keep track of what the scene means. I wrote my novel before I understood the various tasks each scene can accomplish--I just made things happen.

    My story took place on two planets--the home planet and one of its colonies. I used one column for each planet, and each row represented a scene. In that way I could keep the chronology straight: what was happening on the colony planet when X was happening at home?

    Then I color-coded the cells according to the main character in each scene. That way I could see at a glance if I was neglecting one of the characters for too long, and make sure I had a good balance.

    I love Excel! I can't imagine NOT using it to keep track of a story. : )

  4. What a neat technique! My current method of outlining is "Write down what I think will happen, write an outline of each scene in more detail as I get to it, and halfway through sit down for a few days and rearrange the last half of the story because it no longer fits the first half."

  5. I'd never heard of Excel being used as an outlining tool before Michael. Word counts and goal counts, absolutely. Outlining...not so much.

    Thanks, Mike!

  6. Thank God, thank God, thank God, I'm not insane! This is exactly how I plot my stories, with color-coding added for fun. My pantser friends look at me with pity and thinly veiled disgust. It's nice to know that this *is* a legitimate way of doing things. :)

    'The Daedalus Incident' sounds intriguing. Adding it to my Goodreads 'Want to read' list.

  7. An Excel spreadsheet. Eureka! I'll have to steal this great idea and try it. Thanks, Michael!

  8. I'm a panster (recognizing there might be a time I might have to think about possibly changing - have I hedged that enough?) I love Excel, use it to track agents to query, my horse activities and several other wackier things. If I make the switch to even a partial plotter, I would use Excel too.

    Thanks for this!

  9. For decades, I was a pantser. Only in the past few novels have I started to plot out at least the first part of the book; and for the last two novels, a general outline of the whole book (scene by scene for the first part or two, leaving the wrap-up scenes to be plotted later on). I do my brainstorming in a mindmapping program, and then outline scenes in Excel.

  10. Great post, thanks! Not much of a plotter. I use Excel to record word counts :)

  11. I'm kind of half panster and half plotter. Using Excel might be great when I can't get out of my business mind and into my creative one.
    Thanks for the idea!

  12. That's great way to use Excel to plot! I've already tried to use it once, but in very different way and it didn't work for me back then... maybe it's time to try it once more ;)

  13. What a great idea!! I might try it!

  14. Tabs... Brilliant. I am definitely going to start using them.

  15. I love excel. I didn't get far the previous time I tried plotting in it, but I think that was more from not knowing where the story was going than anything else. I'm currently replotting a novel that started out as the first half of a longer story, so this would be a good way to make sure that it works as a stand alone book.

  16. How about showing us instead of telling us? How do you do it in practice? What does using Excel for plotting look like in practice?