Thursday, 17 September 2015

Outlining with Excel

Outline for the first arc of my current WIP

Until quite recently, I'd considered myself a loud and proud pantser. I had tried outlining in detail once before, it killed my muse, and I declared that I'd never do it again.

Then I started getting writer's block more often than not, and would stare at the page and not know what comes next.

I mixed and matched outlining methods and ways to structure story to find the one that suited me that best.

Right now, I've come up with the spreadsheet method that's shown on the right, but I promise it isn't as terrifying as it looks. This is by no means the best or only way to outline, but it's my way.

Quick things to note:
  • I sort of use the three arc structure.
  • I use the scene/sequel structure (if you don't know what that is, click here and here).
  • My current manuscript is told from a singular first person POV (I'll suggest alternatives for people working with dual/multiple POV further down) 
  • I'll be using Pride and Prejudice examples taken from K.M. Weiland's Structuring Your Novel to illustrate everything as I learnt a lot from it. 
  • Row = Horizontal, Column = Vertical
This post is a little long, so I'll put it underneath a cut.



Okay! So let's get started.

I open up Excel and start to fill in the top row. If I was outlining Pride and Prejudice, it would look something like this:


From left to right, my columns are set as such:
  • Arc - I use this column to track where my Key Points are (more on those later)
  • - I place a tick there when I finish writing that scene
  • Summary (Protagonist POV) - 1-2 sentence summary of the scene, 
  • Place - Where the scene happens
  • Time - When the scene happens 
  • One column each for significant supporting characters - A line about what they're doing either behind the scenes (if important) or in the scene. If they're not in the scene, whether doing something important behind the scenes or not, I block it out with grey
  • Scene/Sequel - See linked posts above
  • Goal/Reaction - See linked posts above
  • Conflict/Dilemma - See linked posts above 
  • Disaster/Decision - See linked posts above 
  • Short-term goal - Not the scene goal, but a very minor goal that takes more than one scene to complete (e.g. to steal enough money to pay the dressmaker) 
  • Long-term goal - Big Picture things that are needed to achieve the end goal (e.g. to disguise herself as a noblewoman to enter the palace)
  • Overarching goal - The end goal, what the protagonist wants (e.g. to kill the royal family)
While the sheet is still empty (apart from the column labels), I copy it twice so I have three sheets which are exactly the same. I name them Arc One, Arc Two and Arc Three. You could keep it all in one spreadsheet, but because I plot out every scene, it tends to get very long and I'd rather click between tabs than keep scrolling.

These are columns are completely flexible, I have some characters don't get their own columns until arc two, and some characters who were significant enough to get their own column in arcs one and two, but ends up dying during the third plot point and no longer needs a column.

If you don't think it's important to keep track of the location of the scene, you don't need a location column. If the weather is important, add a weather column.

One scene in one row. I fill in all the columns, and if major parts that make up the scene/sequel are .  missing, I know that I'll have to seriously rethink about whether or not I need that scene. Potential filler scene avoided before it even began. I can move the scenes around, insert new rows if I need a scene to go in-between, and easily get rid of scenes that I no longer want.

Then I add another sheet called "Key Points." Pride and Prejudice would have one that looked something like this:


In column A, I write down in each row:
  • Hook
  • Inciting Incident 
  • Key Event
  • First Plot Point
  • First Pinch Point
  • Midpoint
  • Second Pinch Point
  • Third Plot Point 
  • Climax
If you have no idea what any (or some) of these points here, click here.

In column B, I write down the scene(s) involved involved in that plot structure point. I edit and add to this as I outline-- usually it goes from a vague idea (e.g. Elizabeth rejects Mr Darcy), to an more concrete idea (e.g. Elizabeth rejects Mr Darcy in the rain after he acts like an asshole and insults her entire family before declaring his love). This really helps me keep track of where the story is going.

I usually set up empty spreadsheets for all of my significant characters, and everything and anything that suddenly comes to me goes there. Pictures, dialogue, "what-ifs," all the ideas I get during outlining that I'm not quite sure where to put. Same goes for a worldbuilding and locations.

Quick Tips:
  • Freeze the top row. 
  • Colour is your friend. Colour code everything. 
  • Wrapping the text will save you.
  • If something no longer works, change it. 
  • If you suddenly feel the need to revamp everything, click Save As and save it as a new file before going on a deleting spree. 
  • If you have more than one POV character then one way of adapting it would be to repeat the scene summary column for as many POV characters you have, and add a POV column. Indicate which POV is being used (through colour or column) and keep notes about what your other POV character is doing during that time in their columns. 
Hopefully, all of this made sense and didn't confuse anyone too much. If you have any questions or want me to expand on something, feel free to leave a comment!

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