Monday, July 19, 2010

Spreadsheets for writers, part two--plotting

Spreadsheets for Plotting
As promised, here's my second main use for spreadsheets. I know I've discussed this somewhere before, but can't find where. (If I could I'd copy it.)

I use a spreadsheet to keep track of my characters and my plot and don't know what I'd do without it. Probably make a lot of mistakes, like having a person's eyes change from brown to blue, having clues talking about before they're discovered, having them discovered twice--that kind of thing.

After using several methods, I've settled on this one. I label the first worksheet "names & desc". I could call it "characters & settings" because that's what it is, but that's long for that little tab.

I dislike reading books whose character names confuse me, whose characters I can't tell apart. One reason for this is sometimes that too many begin with the same letter. This is SO easy to avoid. See those columns labeled A to Z? (And beyond, but we don't need them for this.) I type "character names" on the first line, skip a space and type "first names", skip several spaces and type "last names". Then I slap the first and last names into their columns. If left to my own devices without this tool, many of my names end up starting with M for some reason.

I'm constantly collecting names, of course, as all writers are. Off signs, TV, radio, and I even look at the fictitious people who send me spam, trying to sell me watches and drugs and, well, that other product that, as a female, I don't really need. I collect these in a spreadsheet so I can alphabetize them and, when I see that I have names beginning with A, B, C, but no Rs or Ts, I can see if there's one on that list I can use.

Below those rows I have columns headed: complete name, description, age, role, vehicle, and other columns for more description if I need it. It's surprising how soon I can forget what vehicle I had a character driving, even though I carefully picked it to make a statement about the character, of course.

At the bottom I list the main settings and describe the main features in case I forget what I put where.

The second worksheet is the plotting timeline. But I do the third one first, plot beats. I use three acts and have three plot beats per act, sort ofin general. Act I has plot beat 1, plot beat 1, and plot point for the end of the act. Act IIa has plot beat 3, plot beat 4, and middle point. Act IIb has plot beats 5 & 6, and plot point. And Act III contains plot beats 7 & 8 and the end. These are just a phrase to tell me what important thing happens at that point. There are 12 items and, if I can get 5500 words for each one, I'll have a decent length novel.

I don't always have all of them filled out when I begin, but as the story unfolds, they all get filled in.

Then I put these on the second worksheet in RED. These are the writing points I'm aiming for. They can change, of course, but if I don't have something to aim for, I have a hard time getting started. The red events go down the first column under the heading "Events". The next column is "time" and the next one, for my current WIP, is "clue or suspect", that is what does this event relate to. Sometimes I color code by theme, by clue, or by suspect so I can see if too much of one thing is bunching up.

The rest of the columns have the names of the main characters, beginning with the protagonist. I fill in more detailed events leading up to the plot points, and put details about what separate characters are doing at that point in their columns. It's easy to glance across the sheet and see if I've been neglecting a theme, a clue, or a suspect for too long. It's also easy to see if I have a character doing two things in two different far-apart places in too short a time.

I like to bold the first column and unbold the event as I write it. It's very easy this way to make sure things happen in the right progression. Especially if you decide to make a big plot change and need to shift things around.

I used to have the characters on a different sheet, but decided that I'd like them all together. Just have to do control-page-up and control-page-down to shift between my worksheets. And I use other worksheets to keep track of things specific to that project.

That's how I do it! I'd love to hear other methods or ways this one could be improved.

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