Laying out the Plot

As I learn to write I am developing my own tools and techniques of how I write. This is of course mostly through trial and error; the methods I use are improving incrementally all the time. What works for me might work for you. I recently shared how I solve plot problems (part one and two), but how do I go about planning the overall plot of a story? This is how I did it for my current project, The Rebel Queen.

I designed the plot document in Microsoft Excel because it formats things nicely in a grid. Otherwise I would have to line them all up myself; I’m a bit OCDish in that regard. I will admit that I do tend to spend a bit longer “tidying” (aka procrastinating) on these things than I should so the formatting can get a bit pedantic. I do however like to work with things being “neat”, so it is still a valid and important part of my process. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. I almost believe it.

Step 1: Identify the actors


These are mostly the characters, but can also be a faction or group within the story world who are involved in the plot.

Each of these I place in the first column of the spreadsheet, with a small row between each to provide a visual gap. I have written the character’s name and role, and sometimes also add their mood or disposition at the start of the story.

(Pedantic detail: The background is the same colour for the different core factions e.g. the good guys get one colour, the bad guys another colour etc. The “main” character in each group gets a slightly darker shade. All of the characters have a different colour font which is consistent throughout the plot document).

Step 2: Outline plot elements


Under a heading of “Chapter 1” I then use the background colour to shade the cell. Inside of the cell, I add a brief description of what the character is doing or feeling in the chapter. Note that this is per chapter and a character having a box here doesn’t mean they necessarily get a point-of-view in the chapter. Not every actor will have a plot box in every chapter. Any additional detail that I want to write beyond a short description goes into a comment attached to the cell.

(Pedantic detail: The columns are uniform throughout the rest of the document. I always have the text box with a width of 16.09, then a visual gap column of width 2.18 and then an indicator column of width 0.5. Just to be clear the columns in the document are therefore 16.09, 2.18, 0.5, 16.09, 2.18, 0.5, 16.09, 2.18, 0.5 etc).

The “indicator column” which is green in the above picture starts off life with a grey shading. Grey denotes that it hasn’t been written yet; I change it to green when it has been written. Writing one scene may result in “completing” one or more indicators at a time.

Obviously I then continue with a column for each chapter…

Step 3: Tweak, and repeat

Inevitably the plot will change as you write. It’s a living document and I make changes as I realise that things needs to be adjusted.

Final thoughts

  • I haven’t described it above, but I also use the COUNTIF formula and text hidden in the indicator column of the plot boxes to calculate the percentage of how far through the plot line I am.
  • I probably should write a macro to make it easier to insert columns as needed; it’s a little tedious.

If you want to see the full plot laid out (but obfuscated) I posted it in a previous blog post. Hopefully you found this post or part of it helpful.

If you have any hints/tips that work for you I’d love to hear them.

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