I'm revising (yet again) Sacred Games, book 3 of my ancient Greek mystery series. In particular I'm shuffling some scenes back and forth to smooth out the narrative flow, and to rebalance a few character appearances.
It's quite hard when you write early drafts to perfectly manage this sort of thing. The story, the plot, the atmosphere and the character development are much, much more important. The truth is, flow and character movement is relatively easy to clean up in later drafts. But by the time you get to it, you have 90,000 words and it's a chore to keep in mind the overall picture. So I have this trick to see what's happening:
In a spreadsheet, I write all the scenes down the left column, and all the characters across the top, preferably in order of appearance. I get something like this (click on the image to see it in better detail):
This is a sanitized version to avoid spoilers. The scenes in the real copy are short descriptions, and the Char N cells along the top are character names.
Now for every scene, I put in an X for each character who appears. All those dots in the picture tell me who appears when, and I can see at a glance who's busy and who isn't.
The coloured rows are sequences of scenes which must be treated as a logical block, and kept together for story logic. I'm only part of the way through this; when I'm finished there'll be more coloured bands. If I want to move a scene that's in a coloured band, I have to move the entire band as a unit. Of course, some bands must precede others, which I've yet to mark in but would normally do down the left hand side.
Can you see where the climax of the story is? It's the scene with lots of Xs in a row. Which means almost every character is present.
If you scan the rows, you'll see I tend to have only a few characters per scene, which is my natural style. Nico goes about prodding and poking at the situation, in much the same fashion as a detective in a traditional mystery from the Fifties. In fact if you made such a spreadsheet for a traditional mystery, you'd get a similar looking pattern.
Columns with only a few Xs are candidates for character elimination, or perhaps merge that character with another. Columns with lots of Xs indicate a character who's having a hard day at the office.
Now to balance out character appearance, I can shuffle the scenes up and down, within the restrictions imposed by the coloured bands and their precedence requirements. When I've finished, I need to rework the entry and exit of the moved scenes to match their new neighbours, and I need to manage any domino effect on plot, though domino effect is minimized by using the band system.
The top surface of the Xs also tells you something. If characters are listed left to right in order of appearance, then the shape formed by the top Xs shows you the rate at which characters are introduced. I've marked it out in a light blue line so you can see what I mean. Ideally, you want a gentle slope downhill, followed by a steep drop, which I more or less have. If you look closely you'll see a couple of lonely Xs outside the shape; that's because I've begun marking in planned changes.