Dynamically outlining your plot with Google Sheets

autophagy

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(...or any software that does tables, basically. Also some general plotting advice.)

Introduction

I am a writer and I know the struggle of keeping your plot organized. There's tons of different software for it, some of it quite expensive, some free. There's also many different approaches and methods. If you found the software/method that works for you, I'm happy for you! But if you are still looking for an alternative or are curious about other ways to plot, I want to introduce you to an easy and free method.

(I know the length of this tutorial makes it in fact not look easy, but trust me, it is, once you got the hang of it.)

I got the idea when I read a book about story structure. I don't want to advertise here, and I also have to admit I didn't understand much of what I read. BUT it helped me come up with a very (for me) efficient way to put some order into the chaos that are my plot ideas.

Like I said in the title, we will be using Google Sheets to create a dynamic outline for our plot.

The advantage of Google Sheets is that you can use it from everywhere you have internet access, and are also able to download the documents for when you need to go offline. I'd also argue it's better than doing this on paper, since you can always edit, add, delete, and move cells freely. But if you're a paper fan, you can of course use this method too. If you have Microsoft Excel or any other program that does similar sheets and aren't comfortable with using Google products, you can use this method as well.

But enough of that introduction thing, let's get to the actual tutorial!

Basic Sheet Settings

First things first, we need to change a couple of settings before we can get started. If you open a new sheet, it looks like this:


We need to change the text flow and such. Click on the upper left corner of the sheet to select everything and change the Horizontal and Vertical Align to Center, and the Text Wrapping to Wrap. If you want, you can also change the font face and size.


Like this, our sheet is ready for adding columns.

The Setting Columns

Now comes the part where you have to put some thought into what you want to depict in your sheet. We are going to add the columns that hold information about the setting of our story events. This step is hugely dependent on what type of story you want to tell. In this example story, we'll add a chapter structure, so the first column will be "Chapter". You can also never be wrong if you add "Time" and "Place". You can make this as vague or specific as you want - in my example "Time" will simply refer to the time of day, but you can also set up weekday or year columns, depending on the needs of your project.

Finally, if you're content with your column titles, you should add a column titled "Summary". Like the title said, this column will hold a short summary of what is currently going on in the story.

Once you have your setting columns, you should lock them so they scroll with the view. This way you don't have to scroll back if your sheet grows. To lock the view, select your rightmost setting column (in my example, it's "Summary") and Freeze the view.


Your sheet should look like this now.


If you scroll to the side, the first columns will scroll along. You can now do the same with the entire first row. This way you will always know which column you're in. On to the next step!

The Series Columns

Next, we will set up what I call the Series columns. These will contain information about your characters, their relationships, concepts, etc. Wondering about the name? Well, see:

Everything that appears in your story should appear more than once. Plot twists will not feel like they came out of nowhere if their elements were set up throughout the story. Likewise, characters will become three-dimensional if they have certain themes that are repeated and modified throughout the story. Locations and items will become familiar. Concepts will become messages.

If something only appears once and never again in your story, you should consider elaborating on it or getting rid of it altogether.

So, the name comes from the fact that everything that appears in your story will have a series of appearances that contain meaning.

With that explanation out of the way, let's identify your series! Each series should have its own column. There are different approaches to this, and you'll have to figure out what works best for you and your story, but here's a few columns I like to include:
  • characters or groups of characters

  • relationships between characters

  • objectives and core plot elements

  • important objects

  • concepts

Pro Tip: Colour-coding your columns makes everything much easier to keep track of!

You're going to figure out which columns you need and which you don't need along the way. For now, we want to fill our example sheet with some basic columns. Assume your story is about a hero on a quest. Let's call him Bob. The first column therefore could be "Bob". We will use it to simply record what he does. That's a simple character column. An example of a cell in this column would be "Bob leaves his village to go on the quest." This is stating a fact of what Bob does.

At his side, Bob has a pair of quirky twins who will help him on his quest. To simply keep track of what they do, we can make a new column, calling it "The Twins" for example. It will be filled with content like Bob's column. That's a column for a group of characters. You could make a regular character column for each of the twins, but it's not always necessary to keep separate records of characters.

Sometimes you can just combine character columns or omit them completely, depending on the type of your story and how you set up your sheet. In my writing project's sheet, I didn't make character columns for some of the main characters. Instead, they are represented by other types of columns (such as concepts).

These two columns are pretty straightforward, aren't they? Let's look at something that's a bit more abstract. There are relationship columns, which record how certain events change or explain the relationships between characters. For example, we want the Twins' relationship with Bob to change throughout the story. They could argue and fall out at some point for drama points. To make this seem natural, we can make it a series and build up the big argument through their interactions from the very beginning. Let's call the column "Falling Out". So what exactly do we put into this column? Since we are taking care of the facts of what they do in their character column, we only need to write down the impact of the events on their relationship. We'll include little disagreements that hint at a bigger conflict, which will eventually escalate.

Next, let's look at objectives and core plot elements. Bob needs a reason to go on his quest, so let's say a monster attacks his village. We could now go ahead and create a column similar to the character columns, calling it "Monster", where we simply write down what the monster does. But let's look a bit further and we'll see that this is not necessary. In our example story, the monster does not have a personality or character development. It is simply a plot element that serves to give our hero an objective. What is that objective? Let's call it "Kill the Monster". That shall be our column. It will contain anything we need to know about what the monster did, what it does, and what happens to it. Ultimately, it will record the monster's death and all the events that lead up to it.

There's another possible type of column: the important items. Maybe Bob has to find out that the monster can't be defeated by regular means. He needs a magical trinket that will grant him special powers. To make this sound a little bit less contrived, we can drop hints about the existence and power of this trinket early on. To keep track of them, we need a column, for example "The Legendary Trinket".

Lastly, I'm going to talk about concept columns. These may be a bit trickier to wrap one's head around at first since they are definitely abstract, but the more you use them, the easier you will be able to identify them. They may even replace other columns such as character ones. A concept can for example be "Bob is inexperienced". We could make a column that keeps track of little things that hint at Bob not being good at being a hero. Why would we want to do this? Why is this necessary? Well, character development. We can define Bob's character without stating it. We can show that Bob is not a good hero, so we don't have to tell. We can take this concept and make it part of the plot. Bob could grow as a hero during his journey and overcome the obstacles, or his inexperience could ultimately lead to failure. Whichever we decide on, this column will allow us to keep track of it.

Another possible concept could be "Power Corrupts". It's a pretty stock moral. But we can make it interact with our other concepts and relationships, and create an interesting story by doing that. We established that Bob is an inexperienced hero, so what happens if such a hero gets hold of our powerful magical trinket? We could use this column to explore what happens when an incompetent hero suddenly possesses great power. What does it do to his ego, his morals, his sanity? Let's use this column to write down these developments.

That's the most important types of columns. Of course there are also other types, and you'll discover and adapt them however you need them for your project as you continue to use this method.

Additional Columns

There may be other things you want to keep track of that don't fit the description of a Series column, but luckily nothing's easier than just adding another column for it. For example, in one of my writing projects I have a column for fights, and a column for deaths. The project is pretty focused around battles and such, so those things are important to write down somewhere so I know how to balance them in the story.

Finishing the Columns

When you're confident you have added the basic columns you will need, you can start to fill them with content. Remember - it's easy to add more columns or remove unnecessary ones later on, so you don't need to spend hours on coming up with possible columns. I styled them a little to make everything look neat. Your plot sheet should now look something like this:


Adding Content

We've reached the part where we actually use all these columns we spent so much time talking about! How do we go about this? The honest answer is, however you want. If you're just throwing together a rough outline to get a general idea of what's going on in your story, you can use this method just the same as when you are down to planning every event in detail. Realistically, you will probably start writing down the general course of things, and maybe even add some isolated events that you had random ideas for, and then add and modify the cells as you refine the story and events. That's why it's a dynamic outline! It can adapt to whatever stage your story is in, and it grows and transforms as you expand your idea.

If you are beginning from scratch and if it's easier for you, you could for example start by defining the classical plot points of the Three Act story structure. Add another column to your Settings columns or simply use the "Chapters" column to identify each part of the acts.

Personally, I am not a big fan of sticking religiously to the Three Arc structure. If you build your story strictly sticking to this structure, it is in danger of becoming stiff and generic. Like all rules in art, it's important to know about it, but it's also important to bend and break it where necessary. In fact, if you use the method with series and let them develop organically, you will find that often the story you end up with doesn't fit the classical structure. If you look at popular works, you will also notice that while you can force the structure on them, it might take some imagination to make them fit the formula. Buuut that's personal opinion, and you might disagree. The sheets method can be used either way.

Once you are done with that, or if you already have a story or part of a story, you can start to fill in the events in a chronological order. Think about what you roughly want to happen during your story and fill in the cells of the Summary column. Just go to the first empty row, add an event, then add the next event in the row below, and so on. If you have decided on them already, you can also fill the Time and Place columns. Most likely we'll fill those later on, when we are refining the individual events. It could look like this:


Then, think about how these events relate to your series and fill the cells in the respective column.

It's also possible to go the other way round - you may have an idea for one of the Series columns. In that case, you can also simply make a new row for it and fill it in, then figure out how it relates to the other columns.

Remember that not every event has to relate to every column! But, the more of the row you can fill, the better, as it means that the event is meaningful in the context of your story's elements.

Every once in a while as you add more content, take a look at your series and try to identify the ones that are still lacking in development and content. That is the time to either remove the column or add more to it.

The more you fill out, the further it's possible your story will stray from what you initially figured out. You will find yourself making edits to the summaries and events as you get new ideas for the series. This is not a bad thing! It means your plot is evolving around its core elements. You just started a process that will probably be a long one, and it's normal that you might end up with something different than you started with. As you can see, one of my summaries has already changed in the meantime and I've only filled out the first two rows:


This plot sheet is still far from finished, and the plot itself is very basic, but it's just an example story for the purpose of this tutorial. If I continued working on it now, I would add more events, refine the existing ones, and possibly add subplots. It's all possible with this method.

That's it! Happy plotting!
If you have any questions about this method, feel free to ask!​



Disclaimer

I don't claim ownership of the Series concept; like I said, I got the idea from a book. Also, Bob's story is lame, I know. It's just an example.
 

eXalted

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This is really helpful. Thank you!
 

pandadodod

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Thank you very much for this :)
 

Idiot

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This is such a helpful eay of organizing my thoughts - just what I needed! Thank you so much!
 

astracat111

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Great stuff, excel is such a good program for outlining
 

Cezar_cr

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Keeping my own ideas has been difficult. Until now. Thank you for your insights!
 

Kalyith

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Thank you for showing us a free alternative. I would have never thought of this!
 

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