Outlining on Excel…(yes, that’s right, Excel)

Recently, I found myself doing something I never thought I’d ever do in a million years–outlining a book in Excel. You read that right–Excel. (Well, actually, I used Numbers and not Excel because I have iWork, but details, details… :P).

This isn’t something I’d recommend for every book, but I’m currently revising a pretty hefty, unwieldy plot with multi-POV. It’s not A Song of Ice and Fire level or anything, but it’s complicated enough for a normal outline to feel lacking. I wanted to see everything laid out by character, with convenient places to add notes about world-building, sub-plots, etc.

…I can be very Type A when I want to be, all right? 😉

Now, I’m certainly not the first author who has wanted a better way to visualize her story. I’ve explored a lot of different methods, including Meg Spooner’s sticky-note method:


(pic from Meg’s post!)

And Marissa Meyer’s color-coding method:

Both those ideas are awesome (man, do I love color-coding things), but they never worked perfectly for me. While I loved having things blocked out, I didn’t like having to write things out by hand because it made them harder to edit. Plus, both post-its and notecards are limited in size, which is great if you can summarize a scene in a few sentences, but not-so-great if you sometimes find yourself practically writing a scene out, the way I do.

Now, I know Scrivener (which is a godsend) has its own internal “digital notecard” function, but for whatever reason, it never really clicked with me either. Maybe I just haven’t gotten the hang of it yet. If you have a link to a good tutorial for this function, let me know in the comments!

Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 2.57.15 PM

I’d pretty much despaired of ever figuring out my perfect outlining method. Then I remembered that old picture of JK Rowling’s outline for Order of the Phoenix.


Grids, I thought. Grids are nice. Grids can be color-coded!

And what computer program conveniently makes grids that automatically shrink or expand in size, and color-codes them, and everything? Why, Excel. (Or Numbers, for us iWork people following along).

Now, there are various ways to set up an outlining spreadsheet. I used to study screenwriting, so sometimes I think of things very clearly in terms of Act I, Act II, and Act III, as well as Plot A, Plot B, and Plot C. In simplistic terms, Plot A would be the main plot; Plot B would be the main subplot; Plot C tends to be something emotional, often a romance–though sometimes the romance is a large enough part of the story to be Plot B–or some other relationship-based story. For example, a father reconciling with his estranged daughter, or something like that.

The Excel sheet would be set up thusly:

Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 4.04.49 PM

By separating out the plots (and color-coding them!), you can easily get a feel for how each of your plots are progressing. Obviously, Plot A should have the most action going on, and Plot C the least, but if you have a lot of subplots, it can be hard to make sure they’re spaced out correctly, and tying together well–especially if said subplots feedback onto the main plot (as they should!).

Another way to set up the sheet would be by POV character. This is only relevant, of course, if you have more than one POV character (and they’re off doing different things). Again, by color-coding and separating everything out, it can be easier to make sure things are balanced out, and you’re not going too long with one POV while ignoring the other.

I find that the little boxes Excel provides are handy, too. While outlining, I don’t try too hard to make sure 1 box = 1 chapter. Rather, I focus on 1 box = 1 Important Event. That Important Event might be a scene, might be a chapter. With this set-up, you can also find out quickly if one POV character is languishing while another one is getting all the plotty action.

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 1.15.24 PM

I like to have a world-building notes column (sometimes called the world-building/backstory column because it also includes character backstory I need to get in there), because it makes sure I get down all the info I need to at the right times, without overloading. Over the course of revision, it can be easy to forget whether you explained that particular piece of the character’s backstory or not. Or if you’ve already done it three times, oops. This lays it out in an easy-to-digest form, so you can see if you’re info-dumping, or waiting too long to tell your readers something, or whatever in between.

Okay, this post is already getting too long! Obviously, I have a lot to say about this new-fangled outlining technique. (Or maybe it’s not new-fangled at all, and I’m just slow to the scene).

I hope some of it has been helpful, even if outlining in Excel sounds just a little too weird for you…


33 Responses to Outlining on Excel…(yes, that’s right, Excel)

  1. Avatar
    Anna Jordan Jun 17 2015 at 7:40 am #

    This is great! I’ve been messing around with actual cards again because Scrivener doesn’t have a vertical function. However, I could totally get what I need with a spreadsheet. Thanks for the insight.

    • Kat
      Kat Jun 17 2015 at 2:53 pm #

      You’re welcome! And yes, I always wished Scrivener’s notecards were somehow…more. I don’t know how “more,” but “more.” 😛 I do have friends who find them really helpful, though, so I guess everyone’s process is just different.

  2. Avatar
    Stacy L Jun 17 2015 at 8:47 am #

    This idea is GENIUS!!!!! Thank you so much for sharing. This is exactly the outlining technique that I’ve been hoping for. I was trying to use the Rowling grid, but ink was so permanent and fixed that I it was difficult to go back and make adjustments. But this BRILLIANT method is going to make my life so much better! Thank you so much for sharing!!!!!

    • Kat
      Kat Jun 17 2015 at 2:55 pm #

      I’m so glad it was helpful! 😀 (and yes…ink is marvelous in many ways, but it doesn’t erase well ;P)

  3. Avatar
    Isabel Jun 17 2015 at 9:41 am #

    I LOVE this. I will definitely try this out the next time I get stuck on this revision. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Kat
      Kat Jun 17 2015 at 2:56 pm #

      You’re welcome! 🙂 I hope it works well for you.

  4. Avatar
    Abby Jun 17 2015 at 10:31 am #

    This looks so helpful! I often have a hard time keeping track of different sub-plots while wrangling the main plot, and this seems like a great solution. Thanks for sharing!

    • Kat
      Kat Jun 17 2015 at 2:56 pm #

      I lose track of my subplots with embarrassing frequency 😉 They’re hard to wrangle!

  5. Avatar
    Stephanie Jun 17 2015 at 10:46 am #

    I love this! I usually attempt to use post-it notes on large pieces of poster board, but they are always falling off. This looks much neater! And I love how you included pictures of so many other methods. 🙂

    • Kat
      Kat Jun 17 2015 at 3:00 pm #

      Thanks, Stephanie! I do love post-its, but yes, their stickiness level deteriorates quickly 😛

  6. Avatar
    Kim Jun 17 2015 at 11:43 am #

    I never thought about using Excel to outline. I use it afterwards to break down scenes/stakes, but I LOVE this idea. Thanks so much for sharing it!

    • Kat
      Kat Jun 17 2015 at 3:01 pm #

      You’re welcome! Using Excel to break down scenes/stakes sounds like a great idea, too!

  7. Avatar
    Caryn Caldwell Jun 17 2015 at 11:45 am #

    Thank you for this! I’ve also been uninspired by the notecard feature in Scrivener, and don’t like to have to write out all the sticky notes because, yeah, it takes time and is hard to change them afterward. Your method looks great, though!

    • Kat
      Kat Jun 17 2015 at 3:03 pm #

      I hope it works out for you! 🙂

  8. Avatar
    Heather Jun 17 2015 at 11:49 am #

    YES. I am coming to writing somewhat late in life after years of business and operations work. And me and Excel, we’re like THIS (cross fingers). For my own story outlines, I’ve been using half-size notecards that I tape up on a wall, and then I move those to tables in a Word doc, for a somewhat similar effect.
    Another great use for Excel is to track word count at the end of each day: This keeps me motivated and also reminds me when to hit my marks for key turning points (Excel can easily tell you when you’re X% of the way through the story.)

    • Kat
      Kat Jun 17 2015 at 3:04 pm #

      Sounds like you have great Excel tips! To be honest, the more complicated parts of Excel used to put me off, but I’m learning! 🙂

  9. Avatar
    Katelyn Jun 17 2015 at 12:00 pm #

    This is exactly what I needed to see right now! I’m drafting, not revising at the moment, but this is perfect. I have a bunch of POVs and a huge world and it’s too much to keep straight in my head. Getting it down like this would be soooo perfect! 🙂

    • Kat
      Kat Jun 17 2015 at 3:05 pm #

      Yes, I think it’ll work well with complicated stories like that! 🙂 Good luck!

  10. Avatar
    Patchi Jun 17 2015 at 12:04 pm #

    So glad to know I’m not completely crazy! I love Excel for revisions, especially when making sure the novel’s structure is solid. My columns are set up as chapter, POV, page number, total pages (calculated), chapter summary. Mostly, I want to make sure I hit the key plot points at the right time, but it also helps me make sure the chapters are even, the story is flowing, and everything is balanced.

    • Kat
      Kat Jun 17 2015 at 3:05 pm #

      It’s a great technique, and I can’t wait to use it more! 😀

  11. Avatar
    Robyn Jun 17 2015 at 12:50 pm #

    Eureka!! Much better than all my notebooks, sticky notes, or wall board. Maybe I can finally get some momentum.

    • Kat
      Kat Jun 17 2015 at 3:06 pm #

      I hope so! Good luck with it 😀

  12. Avatar
    Alexa S. Jun 17 2015 at 3:31 pm #

    This method of yours is actually quite brilliant! I might have to try it for the story I want to write this summer. Thank you for sharing <3

    • Kat
      Kat Jun 17 2015 at 5:09 pm #

      Thanks, Alexa! <3

  13. Avatar
    RK Jun 17 2015 at 9:44 pm #

    Such an awesome post! This is genius! Thanks so much and all the best. 🙂

    • Kat
      Kat Jun 19 2015 at 11:30 am #

      I’m glad it was helpful! 🙂

  14. Avatar
    Rowenna Jun 18 2015 at 12:12 pm #

    Oh, my God! I could include a “complete” column and indulge my obsession with to-do lists!

    And my inner Type-A organization-obsessed weirdo is so excited right now.

    • Kat
      Kat Jun 19 2015 at 11:31 am #

      I bet it’s the same excitement as when I get to color-code things 😉 <3

      And yes, I totally hear you on the to-do lists. I don't make them as often as I should...

  15. Avatar
    Kristin Russo Jun 19 2015 at 1:16 am #

    I am so going to try this. Thanks for the idea!

    • Kat
      Kat Jun 19 2015 at 11:31 am #

      You’re welcome! I hope it’s helpful 🙂

  16. Avatar
    Elysabeth Jun 19 2015 at 7:44 pm #

    Thank you for this. Very helpful information. I’m in the process of writing one novel and revising one novel (well I’ve not really tackled it yet) but I can see uses for both sides – making sure our stories flow and make sense and keeping the characters and plots and subplot on track. I’m going to try to incorporate this “outlining method” to both stories so I can move on with them both. E 🙂

    Elysabeth Eldering
    FINALLY HOME, a Kelly Watson YA paranormal mystery

    • Kat
      Kat Jun 20 2015 at 1:04 pm #

      Great! I wish you the best with your books 😀

  17. Avatar
    Ben Jan 11 2016 at 9:39 pm #

    Thank you! I know I’m late to the game in commenting on this post but I have spent the last few days looking for a way to organize my plot. I also saw the JK Rowling outline and thought SPREADSHEETS! but I just couldn’t wrap my brain around exactly how I could implement the process. I finally found your post and it is exactly what I needed to read.

    I also use Scrivener and I like the note cards but they just don’t “work” for me. At them moment I have most of my scenes described on the Note Cards. I’m thinking I will use your spreadsheet method to organize my thoughts from the note cards and get a better way to look at my story as one big picture.

    Seriously, thank you so much.

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