Many of us use Microsoft Excel or other similar spreadsheet programs in our day jobs or to keep track of our personal finances. But here’s a question for all those writers out there – do you use electronic spreadsheets to map out your work before you write? If not, this blog post will give you some ideas of how you can use spreadsheets to:
· pre-plan your work
· provide an evolving, at-a-glance story map
· assist in the editing / revision process
I’ve now used Excel for three major projects – one novel and two screen stories – and have found it immensely helpful. In fact, I don’t know how I would go about completing a major narrative without it. (I’ve even used it to plot out one particularly complicated short story.) Part of what I love about it is that it is adaptable to the needs of each project, as I hope to show here.
Planning a Novel
When I moved myself to Japan in 2007 it was with the goal of writing a multi-protagonist, multi-plot novel dealing with a group of 4 friends and their families, jobs, and relationships. Clearly, I had no idea how complex an undertaking I had committed myself to. I had about 500 pages of raw notes, fragments of scenes, snatches of dialogue, but how to organize it all? The first thing was to map out the structure of the book that all those fragments would fit into, so I could start to see the book as a whole.
So I created an Excel sheet.
I had an idea of the structure I wanted: a short opening section to introduce all the characters (about 30 pages), then 4 long sections (of about 120 pages each) dealing with each of their (interwoven) stories and backstories, and a final section (of about 50 pages) that ties up all of these narrative threads. So I plotted it out just like this, putting simple scene descriptions onto each line of an Excel sheet, and using colour-coded rows to indicate the different threads of the book and the main character that is the focus of each scene/section.
Because I was writing about the lives of four different characters, I actually kept them all separate (except for their group scenes) in four different sets of files, one for each character. But at a certain point, about a year and a half before I finished my first draft, it came time to weave all those threads together – to chop up those bigger files and paste the scenes into the novel as a whole. This is when having my spreadsheet as a roadmap was extremely useful. It was the recipe – if you like – by which I was able to mix the separate ingredients (i.e. the plot threads and scenes) in the right proportions and at the right times (i.e. places) in the book as a whole.
Of course, as the book continued to evolve beyond this point, I naturally continued to add new scenes and remove old ones. Having short descriptions of each of them in Excel made it easy to move them up and down, and to see how they would relate to the scenes around them. This is very useful for ensuring continuity and logic in time, but also the tempo and emotional rhythm of the piece – alternating shorter and longer scenes, as well as more humourous and more serious scenes.
If I was not sure about moving a scene, I often used the ‘strikethrough’ feature to cross out the text in the row’s present location (scene 12 in this example), and then made a copy of the row (not crossed out) and inserted it into its new location. This way, I could see at a glance both where the scene was now, and where it had been before, in case I later decided to go back to the older structure.
The evolving spreadsheet, of course, is only as good as you are at keeping it up to date. So, generally, any time you add a new scene or move something around in your actual manuscript, you have to make sure to make the matching change in Excel. This is not as burdensome as it might sound. I generally have both files open (one in Word, one in Excel), at the same time, as I need to refer to my roadmap frequently throughout the writing and editing process.
As you can see by looking at the sheet, some of the other information I recorded was: the calendar date, month or season when the scene takes place (Column L). This was important because my story takes place over one calendar year, and because I had to make sure incidental details about weather, etc., matched the time of year in which I set each scene. I also had to decide when each character’s birthday was, and whether it would be referenced or celebrated in the book.
It also helped me keep track of which scenes were taking place in the present moment, and which ones were flashbacks (‘behind time’). At a certain stage in the editing process, I realized I had too much backstory and needed to either eliminate or push as much of it as I could into the present. The Excel sheet was enormously helpful in allowing me to see this structural problem at a glance, and to figure out which scenes I could eliminate or move from the back story into the present moment.
I also used separate columns (V, W, X and beyond) to keep track of who the major character was in each scene, and which key relationships or plot events it related to. I could have done this in more detail, but it wasn’t necessary. All I needed was some major events to act as ‘tent posts’ to help me see the overall structure of the book.
Later in the editing process, I entered page lengths for the current draft of each scene (Column O) and targets for the scene/section (Column T), as well as notes about which scenes could be cut entirely (Column S). This helped me pare down my first draft from 805 pages to 640 and then down to 595. If you have three scenes back to back that are all 15 pages long, you are going to bore the reader. The pace is too slow. So, having clear targets and being able to see them at a glance helped enormously in correcting that problem of rhythm and pace – figuring out what was essential and what could go.
Wrangling a Miniseries into Shape
For many years, I dreamed of writing a novel that brought two of my favourite Shakespearean characters onstage together as father and son, Aaron the Moor (from ‘Titus Andronicus’) and Othello. I’d been gathering notes and ideas since the release of Julie Taymor’s incredible film of ‘Titus’ in 2000, but wasn’t able to sit down to the project until 2016. At that point, I had been reading about screenwriting for months, and had written one screenplay adaptation of an earlier short novel, so I decided I would try writing it as a screenplay instead, figuring I could always adapt it into a novel later.
Now, screenplays are generally supposed to be not more than 120 pages in length, as one page corresponds to roughly one minute of screen time, and audiences tend to get antsy if they have to sit for more than 2 hours. Comedies should be shorter, about 90 minutes. Dramas and epics can be longer, but unless you are David Lean or Francis Ford Coppola, you’re not likely to have much success getting a 180-page screenplay made into an actual film.
Screenwriting imposes a strict discipline on you as to what is essential and what is not. Novels can be any length, though beyond 400 pages (or about 120,000 words) these too start to try the patience of most readers. But a screenplay needs to be a fairly tight 120 pages. And you can only squeeze in so many scenes. Syd Field sets the maximum number at around 48. It may seem arbitrary, but that’s a bit less than 3 minutes a scene – some shorter, some longer.
So, after doing a few months of research about the various locations and cultures I wanted to send Aaron to, I sat down and mapped out in Excel all the scenes I wanted to include. I soon saw my problem. I had about 120 scenes, and I knew that once I got into writing it, I would probably need to add even more.
Three weeks into writing, I had 120 pages, and I was only a third of the way through the story. But there was very little I could cut. I soon realized, I was not writing a feature screenplay, but a miniseries teleplay that would stretch to first six, then (on revision) to seven parts.
I used the Excel sheet similarly to the way I used it with the novel, but my story was simpler in some ways. We follow Aaron almost exclusively for the first Episode. Then it begins to break into a B and a C plot as more characters are added. The main issue was to keep the story moving forward, in time and geographically, since I send him from Rome to Egypt, then across North Africa, to Malta, and ultimately back to Italy, this time to Venice.
In Part 2, I had two ‘settings’ to deal with: a pearl-diving operation by the sea, and an inland walled city, modeled on the monastic communities of Coptic Egypt. In my first draft, there was too much transit back and forth between the two. So I used Excel to rearrange the scenes to make sure that once Aaron moves from pearl diving to working in the walled city, he never has to go back to the sea again. The story can keep moving forward.
I started to use a fairly elaborate system of coding for the scenes (Columns C, D & E), because I was breaking my script up into Shakespearean acts. What’s important to note is, the numbering is ultimately arbitrary. Thus, if I called a scene ‘Scene 2.5b’ (meaning Act II, Scene 5b), and then later moved it up or down in the scene order, I never changed the name of the scene. It’s simply a unique scene identifier. So long as the order of the scenes in Excel matches the order of the scenes in Word, the numbers are irrelevant. (It also serves as a retroactive guide to where you thought the scene belonged when you first created it.) I also kept these scene identifiers in my manuscript (in Word) until I was confident that the scene order was pretty much set, and then I removed them. Having them in the manuscript meant that I could use the ‘Find’ function in Word to locate them and move them around to match my Excel sheet more easily.
In this way, I was able to manage the more than 180 scenes that ultimately formed my epic story, and keep them organized in their seven episodes. And since TV dramas generally have a structure of a Teaser (short, suspenseful or engaging opening scene) and then Two or Three acts leading to an episodic climax, and often ending in a cliff-hanger, I could break the Excel sheet up into teasers and acts to see how the episode would break down and which scenes I could move around to make for the most impactful/suspenseful endings.
A Feature Screenplay That's Waaay Too Long...
This project is still underway and, to be honest, I am struggling with it. But I would be struggling even worse without a spreadsheet to guide me.
It has been conceived as a feature screenplay about a relationship between an older white landlord (Carolyn) and a younger black tenant (Randall). It aims to be a kind of serious comedy touching on aspects of race, class and gentrification, but since I have chosen characters that have an instrumental relationships (landlord/tenant), and since I want to avoid the cliché of either trying to ‘save’ the other from his or her life situation, much of the action involves other characters in each of their lives (parents, children, lovers, friends, bosses, etc.). So, at the moment, it is a bit crowded with characters and plots (you can see them listed and colour-coded at the right side of my spreadsheet). I am still in the process of trying to boil it down and eliminate as many of the unnecessary characters and plot threads as possible.
But since this is to be a comedy, something I am trying to do with my spreadsheet this time is to make notes about the Subtext (Column P) and the Source of Humour (Column Q) in each scene, since these are often interrelated in comedy: it’s the things we DON’T say, or don’t INTEND to say (but reveal indirectly) that create both the tension and the humour of a scene.
As with the novel, I am using editing targets (Column J) to help guide me. The current draft is 200 pages, so I would need to cut each scene by about 40% to meet the 120-page target. This is doable, but I think I need to address the over-complexity of the story first – eliminating a number of scenes, and collapsing others, to reduce the burden of having to condense what remains. Either that, or rejig it as a multi-episode teleplay.
As with the novel, this story takes place over one calendar year – or possibly one school year – so I am experimenting with different ways of mapping that year onto the various scenes (Columns B, C) . And I am using the Plot/Subplot tags (Column F) to see at a glance how I am interweaving the threads of the story for rhythm, logic, and pace, as well as the tonal alternations between comedy and drama. I am also trying to use Columns N & O to note the Act and (Sub)plot Climaxes, to make sure they are spaced out appropriately, but since the sample shown only covers a portion of Act I, none of the subplots will have climaxed yet.
I don’t know yet if it will work, but – again – without the spreadsheet to work with as guide, I wouldn’t even know how to tackle this problem. And having done it successfully twice before, I am reasonably confident that with that roadmap in hand I will find a way forward.
What about you? Do you use spreadsheets this way? Do you use column headings or colour coding for other purposes? Do you keep track of page lengths and editing targets for individual scenes or sequences? Tell us about it and share your tips in the comments.