Get the big picture of your novel

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.

36 comments:

C. N. Nevets said...

As I said when you were tweeting about this last night: brilliant, and I will definitely be doing this. I love excused to leverage Excel or Access anyway...

Skipperhammond@gmail.com said...

Love your system, nerd that I am. However--what do you do if there's a thread running in scenes 3,5,10, 38, and 40; and another in scenes 4,5,6, 12, 38 and 55, and still another that should be in 6, 13, and 12 (in that order)? Use stripes, polka dots and plaids?

Gary Corby said...

Nevets, it was our conversation over twitter that inspired me to write it up as a post.

Skipper, welcome to the blog! Interleaved plot threads is what Tom Clancy does all the time. It's a very typical thriller structure! (And when he does it, he opens each thread switch with a place and time heading). Dancing between plot threads generally implies there are several point of view characters, one for each thread, and it's probably written in 3rd person. All of which means you can swap scene order with impunity. Since I write in first person from a single POV, it's rarely an issue for me, but if it happened, I'd simply colour the connected threads the same colour and maintain their relative position. But in first person mysteries, the detective usually follows one line of investigation until he hits a brick wall, then switches to another line, the results of which may or may not unblock the first. Everything's much more linear.

Amalia T said...

Oofda!! Wow. That is some really impressive organization there! I know yWriter does a thing where it will search and tell you what characters are in what scene after you've input them all into the file for the book but I never played too much with it-- that is a LOT of characters to shuffle! I'm not surprised you need a spreadsheet!

L. T. Host said...

Holy--! That's some fierce spreadsheeting!

I don't think I'd have the patience for this... which is a shame, because it looks seriously useful. Perhaps that's why I'm having trouble finding the motivation to finish my own mystery!

Stephanie Thornton said...

Okay, I got a chuckle out of this because this is something I would expect Bill Gates to do if he were writing a book- very linear and organized. Given your Microsoft background, I suppose that makes sense!

Spreadsheets give me the heebie-jeebies, I think from all my years working retail and having to write out everyone's sales goals. But I'm glad it works for you!

Gary Corby said...

As it happens, BillG is an excellent writer. His style is elegant and concise and has crystal clarity.

It takes a couple of days to do the spreadsheet, and a couple more playing with it to spot the opportunities. It's not something I'd ever do before writing a book--that would be planning!--but it's terrific for analysing what's there.

Lexi said...

Gary, I am all admiration - and getting a slight headache just thinking about your system.

Jarmara Falconer said...

I got lost when you said the word Spreadsheet! or is that two words. I like to keep my life simple and spend my time writing.

LV said...

Oh God. As if I needed another excuse to brood over my novel some more...I like it! Thanks for the idea.

Sarah W said...

This is fascinating---what an interesting tool!

I'm always scribbling lists of who did what when and why, but they aren't what you would call organized.

This just might straighten out my timeline worries . . .

Jessica Rosen said...

Fantastic idea and it appeals to the geek in me. Spreadsheet solutions! I become concerned at times I lose touch with characters along the way or rely too much on a certain character. This is a terrific way to give those questions immediate answers. Thanks so much.

Take care,
Jess

Stephanie McGee said...

Wow! That's a great way of organizing things. I may have to try this at some point. (And I totally agree that this is something not to do before the first draft is written.)

David said...

This is cool, and I have my spreadsheet going too, although I don't use this approach. I graph flow in scene and sequel instead--you know, dips of sequel relative to their length and arcs of scene relative to dramatic action.

Your spreadsheet says a lot of your style. I was even more interested in what you had to say about blocks. I too am in revisions, and, as I write, I can't help but interweaving my plot so the entire thing becomes an interconnected block.

I wonder why this difference is? Number of characters? (I have fewer) Genre? (You're writing mystery while I'm writing fantasy) Or something else I'm not considering...

I think the bigger question is: what are the advantages/disadvantages of a plot that can be easily resequenced versus a plot that is almost one large block? Or perhaps, a plot can always be resequenced, if in some small way... and this, really, is the key to writing well.

lora96 said...

Please be flattered that my disorganized mind finds this deeply frightening.

Sarah Allen said...

This is awesome! Wonderful, fantastic ideas. I may have to see if they'll help me.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Botanist said...

I was sitting here thinking what a cool layout, when I realised I already do something very similar.

I have a spreadsheet with timeline down the side and main characters along the top, and scenes described in the cells. This way of organising things is more to tackle the problem that Skipper talks about...multiple threads and POV's. This helps me keep track of essential sequences or concurrency (A must happen before, or at the same time as, B, even if they are in different threads). It also helps to show where threads cross or merge - something like the way your climax appears where many characters are involved.

There's many ways to slice & dice the same pool of information depending on what you are trying to reveal to yourself.

annebingham said...

Okay, that does it. I have put off learning how to use Excel long enough. I am especially impressed with that Thin Blue Line.

Good that you added the caveat to do this after you have the story down, because it could quickly turn into either a very involved distraction or writing to conform to a rigid structure instead of using the tool to analyze the writing.

Gary Corby said...

Wow, who'd've thought a spreadsheet could be so interesting? Welcome all the newcomers to the blog: Anne, Botanist, Sarah, Lora, David, Jessica, Jarmara and Stephanie.

Excel's not too hard to learn, but even so, you could do the same thing with graph paper, if you don't mind writing the new version all over again.

I absolutely do this after writing the book. I guess there are strong planners who could do it before, but I'm not one of them.

Re all the comments on resequencing...clearly some scenes must precede others, but it would be a rare novel in which every single scene is locked into position.

Jumping between plot threads is for me fraught with the danger of losing the reader, particularly since I write fairly tightly plotted murder mysteries. I prefer to let the characters--and the reader!--follow through on any given train of thought before switching them. You don't have to do it that way, but I find it simplifies the story.

My characters tend to go wide rather than deep. This book is set at the ancient Olympics, so there are lots of for-real famous historical people to be met as Nico blunders through his mission. The small character sets you find in, say, Agatha Christie, happen because they're closed universe...like the well-used trope of the isolated stately mansion. There are pros and cons to this, but my setting is exotic, and I hope interesting to the reader. To give a feel of what it was like to live back then, it means delivering a complete, life-like cast of characters.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Well, I've gotten as far as index cards of scenes. . . ;)
I am in awe.

Gary Corby said...

Glad you like it, Tricia, and everyone else too it seems. I'm surprised!

This humble post about a spreadsheet has averaged 2 hits a minute, every minute, of every hour, for the last 12 hours.

Botanist said...

LOL! Gary, what do you expect when The Shark herself writes a glowing recommendation of your post?

Orlando said...

This is really interesting. I love the idea and will most definitely be putting it together in the next week. I know it will take me a little longer to put it together.

I love these new ideas from authors. Thanks.

Gary Corby said...

Hey Botanist, it looks like we both have a daughter named Megan, and we both have guinea pigs. We must be in psychic tune.

Janet's reference always has a big effect (the poor woman represents me, so I get a mention from time to time), but the hits on this particular post are setting a new record.

Interestingly, the previous record holder was a post I wrote more than a year ago, about advanced find/replace in Word, which got 852 hits in the first 24 hours, and 15,000+ hits over the following months. Seems like there's a real demand for how to use writing tools. I'll see what else I can think of that might be useful.

Nancy Kelley said...

This is absolutely brilliant. I especially like the idea of using it to get rid of dead weight. We always find justification for hanging onto those characters, but if the spreadsheet says they're worthless, who's to argue?

For multiple POV stories, a second, simpler worksheet might be possible. List the scenes down the left column like you have, and then simply color code them by character. If you get large monochromatic blocks, it's time to switch things up a bit.

Gary Corby said...

Hey Nancy, that's a terrific idea. Thanks for thinking of it!

I'd say welcome to the blog, since you've only just begun to follow, except I know you've been reading it for ages. A pleasure to have you here regardless. :-)

Amy said...

Hi Gary, thanks for sharing! This is a great system. I've been struggling to figure out how to go about revising my novel and I think this will be a big help.

Joel said...

Eureka!

Thanks for sharing, this. I know teaching refines your own ideas, and I appreciate you taking the time to share them with us.

(Found you through Janet, BTW ...)

Nate Wilson said...

Before I'd even finished reading your explanation of the chart, I knew I'd be borrowing your technique to sort things out in my novel in between the 1st and 2nd drafts (if I ever finish my 1st, that is).

I'll just have to make some adjustments to track perspective as well -- I use multiple 3rd person limited POVs -- but I believe this will be quite useful for trimming characters from my manuscript. Thanks for sharing this part of your process, Gary!

Marguerite Lafayette said...

Add me to the list of people who took Janet's advice to check out your blog. Boy, am I ever glad that I did! I think this is the answer to my current problem with my wip. I can hardley wait to get home and chart out my story. THANK YOU!

Karin said...

Very neat. I might have missed the basics, but it is Excel, isn't it?

I'm struggling with a plot where there are flashbacks for a number of different persons. Could that work or do I have to go three-dimensional? Or four-D?

Gary Corby said...

Karin: Yes, it's Excel, but any spreadsheet will do. I also have the freebie OpenOffice, and its spreadsheet system is just as good. I usually avoid flashbacks, but I'd suggest as far as the chart goes, it's no different to other scenes.

Amy, Joel Marguerite, welcome to the blog, and I'm glad you think it's useful. I've had so many people arrive via Janet, I should pay her a commission. Oh, wait...

Nate, yep, with multiple third person POVs you'd want some way to record that. I've never had to solve that one. Do let us know how you deal with it!

Alli Sinclair said...

Absolutely brilliant but scary at the same time. Wow. I am super impressed. I'm going to give this a whirl of my ms and see how it pans out. It will be interesting to see what happens. Thanks!

Nate Wilson said...

My initial thought is to replace the "x" with a different symbol when the scene is from that character's perspective, so I can track the narrative flow and the frequency. Don't know if that'll do its job, but I'll give it a shot once I finish the draft.

Alaina said...

This is great, thank you so much!

Megha said...

Thanks! I'm not going to use this right now, because I just finished all the planning for my novel, but I'll definitely use this sometime. Thanks; this is really helpful.