Thursday, November 15

Using Excel To Outline Your NaNoWriMo Novel: Defeating the sprawl

Using Excel To Outline Your NaNoWriMo Novel: Defeating the sprawl

We're smack in the middle of NaNoWriMo and, I hope you're faring better, but my novel has grown a mite cluttered.

I did have an outline when I began (really, I did!) and I have followed it ... more or less ... but my characters had ideas of their own. I've ended up adding new scenes and modifying old ones.

The result looks a bit like a ball of wool after a cat played with it.

Normally I'd go back and tidy things up by re-writing what I have so far. But the beauty and the curse of NaNoWriMo is that there's no time! Because, let's face it, if I went back and tidied things up it would hault the flow of the story and might squelch my caffeine-fueled creative drive.

Outlining the NaNoWriMo Novel: Excel To The Rescue

The solution? Excel. At least I'm hoping. I came across this article today: How to Get a “God’s-Eye View” of Your Story in Microsoft Excel by Jeffrey Scott. (Jeffrey writes scripts, but I think his way of organizing a story works equally well for novels.)

It's marvelous! Using Jeffrey's system:
- you can see where you are in your outline (halfway through act one, at the midpoint, etc.)
- you can read a brief description of each scene
- you'll know WHERE each scene takes place as well as WHEN it takes place.
- you'll know which characters are in the scene (the main ones).

When I first saw Jeffrey's spreadsheet I was a bit intimidated, but just hold on, everything is simple and easily explained.

Here's a link to an example of one of Jeffrey's spreadsheets, this one is of the movie Independence Day: Outline of Independence Day done in Excel.

Let's step through Jeffrey's spreadsheet column by column:

Column 1

- Tells you were you are in the act structure. Jeffrey uses a 3 act breakdown, but it will accommodate whatever act structure you prefer.
- Black & gray color coding: Indicates different acts, or parts of acts (1a, 1b, 2a, etc.).
- Page length estimates for each act or part thereof

Column 2

- Page length estimates for each scene. Jeffrey sums these at the bottom to get a running count of how long the story will be.

Column 3

- Brief description of the scene. What does your point of view character want to accomplish in this scene?

Column 4

- Your slug line. A slug line consists of 3 parts:

a) Is the scene inside (INT.) or outside (EXT.)?
b) Where is the scene taking place? For instance, "Jeffrey's apartment".
c) At what time is the scene taking place? Day? Night? Dusk? Dawn? Late night? Early morning? Also "Later" can be used to indicate the passage of time.


Slug lines are a screenwriting tool, but I find them helpful when I'm writing a first draft. (For more information on slug lines: Screenplay slug line.)

Column 5

This can be whatever you want. A longer description of the scene, notes, whatever you like.

Color Coding

Color code each scene according to either who has the point of view in that scene or according to who is the most active in the scene.

Jeffrey does a great job describing his outlining method, I'd encourage everyone to read his well-written and exceptionally helpful article.

I'm hoping that, using Jeffrey's method, I can quickly do up an outline for what I've written and it will bring the clutter under control by helping me sort out the different plot lines.

Thanks to The Passive Voice Blog for mentioning the article Tools to Outline Your Novel over at Galleycat which mentioned Jeffrey Scott's article.

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What do you think, was this information useful? Do you use an outlining method that lets you see your novel at-a-glance?

Other articles you might like:

- Donald Maass Talks About How To Make Your Readers CARE About Your Characters On The First Page
- 8 Do's And Don'ts Of Writing Fiction From Neil Gaiman
- Using Technology To Sell Books: Quick Response Codes (QR codes)

Photo credit: "wallpaper - The ISLAND" by balt-arts under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. Now this I like. I'm a complete Excel geek so this should help me enormously. Thanks.

    1. Glad to hear that Geoff! Best of luck (not that you need it :)

  2. Now that is a great blog. I love excel, it fits extremely well with my linear-scientific-engineer-like brain.
    Thank you Karen, one of the best tip I have ever received when it comes to writing organization :-)

    1. Thanks Oliver! Glad you liked it. :)

      I tried a variation of Jeffrey's system out yesterday and I don't know how I wrote without it. Definitely something I'll use in my writing from now on.


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