Well, every project is different, to say nothing of every writer being different! But yes, I do find a spreadsheet useful for outlining. Especially so when I have a project with a lot of different strands in it that I want to sort of braid together through the story. [[MORE]]
Normally spreadsheets are for numbers, obviously, but you can stretch out columns and stick words in them, so they work for stories, too.
Spreadsheets are good for anything very linear, and if you’re thinking about your story in a linear way (getting from point A to point B) then a spreadsheet is a good way to visualize all the steps between those known bits. One way to think about a story is as a series of scenes, like a film. They go one after another, so you can catalogue them and stack them up pretty easily in a spreadsheet.
This is generally how I construct long stories, though not always.
It’s very helpful and practical to lay out your scenes when you know how you want your story to end, or what you’re building up to in general (say, in a romance, your characters getting together), but you aren’t sure if the end will be believable. That’s always how I feel about romance. I’m never convinced that it will be believable, and it’s believability is core to the whole enterprise. So I use an outline to make sure I’m taking one tiny, believable step at a time to lead toward my romantic conclusion, so that by the time you get there it feels completely inevitable and natural. Like tightening braces to shift your teeth.
Of course that also makes very some long, long stories. Serious outlines, in my experience, makes your stories much longer. I think it’s just easier to sustain a very long story when you let yourself see the bird’s eye view as you go.
What’s nice about working in a spreadsheet is that it’s so flexible. You can lay out all the steps to get you from point A to point B, and then look at it and decide if it’s all necessary, or if bits are in the wrong order, or if you’re repeating yourself or dragging, or if some bit is jarringly faster then the rest of it. It’s very easy to pick rows up and move them around as you see fit.
You can also colour code your columns and/or rows, which can be helpful. I used a lighter version of a background colour when I haven’t written the scene yet, and then a darker one once it’s done.
I read through outlines a lot before I start writing, and as I’m writing, to make sure it feels natural and smooth, and to account for the things I learn and think about while I’m writing. People often think that if you work with an outline, you don’t organically shift things as you write, but I don’t find that to be true. I let the writing inform the outline for sure. Usually it informs what will happen in a story at a distance of a few thousand words, so I have time to adjust things as I go. An outline is definitely a living document. Much like a bird’s eye view, it shifts as you fly!
I like the endless columns of a spreadsheet to help me keep track of other elements in a story as well. I like to write romance-driven fanfiction, so I want to keep track of my protagonist’s emotional state or, as is more often the case, level of awareness of their emotions/level of attraction so that I can increase it in small steps. Keeping a column for that lets me see that progression separately and modify as required, while still keeping an eye on the plot (or the what’s happening in the real world) in another column. So I generally keep a column for each of those things, and a few more for whatever else I want to keep track of.
It also leaves a column available for your beta reader. Once you have a well-built outline, a beta reader can read through it and see if you have any major plot problems or believability issues. Helpful to know before you start crafting beautiful sentences, eh?
Spreadsheets are flexible, but they are quite rigid in terms of scenes being definite and bounded things. I like that rigidity because my brain isn’t very good at staying on task like that. I veer off the rails really easily, so the discipline of the cells and columns keeping me in the real world of the story is helpful.
Writing it out this way reminds me that this character is in the here and now and I need to give him things to do. I wrote a story where a character is living entirely inside his own head for tens of thousands of words, so having a column for where in the world he is and what he’s actually trying to accomplish was helpful to me. If I hadn’t had that, he wouldn’t have physically been anywhere at all. I would have forgotten to put him anywhere! Being aware that that’s an issue for me, I’m drawn to tools that help me avoid it! I construct those columns based on my own known failings as well as my goals for the story.
Not all stories benefit from this level of pre-work. I wrote a simpler story more recently that didn’t need multiple columns. For that story, I did a similar thing (writing out what happens in order) but I did it in a regular doc, with paragraphs. That works too!
I’m happy to do something like this when I’m more confident in getting all the pieces out all mixed together, when a story is a bit more…I was going to say one dimensional, but that’s not the right phrase. When the story action is what influences and drives the characters. When it’s more on the nose, if you know what I mean. When you don’t have hidden tracks to take care of, like complicated denial-romance or psychological winding roads alongside other things going on that you don’t want to loose track of.
I’ve written some very complicated outlines in my time. The one pictured just above was my first real outline, and looking at it now I just shake my head. It doesn’t have enough detail for me now. Here’s an early text version of the outline for The Quiet Man, which is the same story outlined above in the spreadsheet:
Looks more like a story, really, but this is just “what happens” without any pretty words. At this point I separate out the idea from the execution of that idea pretty cleanly, though never entirely cleanly. What I prefer about the spreadsheet version is that it’s easier for me to scan and see how many scenes I’m anticipating and makes it easier to jump around inside the plan.
Spreadsheet outlines also make it possible to estimate a) the number of scenes (or chapters) until the end, and b) the total word count. If you put the scene word counts in, it will average them out for you and tell you what your final word total will be way before you get there.
Not that it really matters, but it’s kind of interesting and motivating along the way, somehow.
But, as I said, every story has it’s own needs, and every writer has their own issues to watch out for. The first thing is just to work out what your story needs, and what you need to make it easier for you to write it.
I use a spreadsheet to make a complicated story easy to write, and to keep it from overwhelming me. And to help keep it fun. If it’s not fun, there’s no point, I say.