Through my 25+ years as a writer, I’ve tried all kinds of lists, charts, and plotting aids to help me keep up with the characters and story lines in my work-in-progress. My latest experiment seems to be working well for me--an Excel workbook containing a variety of worksheets that cover everything from goal/motivation/conflict to chapter-by-chapter plotting to the names of every character in the book. Here’s how I use it:
When I’m starting a new book--and once I have at least a general idea who my characters are and the central conflict they’ll be facing--I start thinking in terms of each character’s GMC. Using the chart below, I fill in the heroine’s and hero’s names, then determine each one’s basic goal (character wants/needs . . . ), motivation (because . . . ) and conflict (but . . . ).
Then it’s time to start plotting. I am a confirmed seat-of-the-pants writer, but I still try to use the next chart to help me at least get started on the story. Once the story takes off, I don’t always go back and finish filling in the chart, but I do refer often to the steps in the left-hand column, which I’ve adapted from Michael Hauge’s Six-Stage Plot Structure with inner and outer journeys. I’ve spread out the stages pretty much as I’d expect them to fall chapter by chapter, which helps me with pacing the story. You'll see only the first few stages in this screen shot.
Since reading The Moral Premise, I’ve added one more worksheet as a plotting aid. Once I can put my story’s moral premise into words, I think about how each character does or does not live live according to that basic truth, the event that will change the character, and how he or she approaches life after the change. Below is an example for the heroine of my upcoming Heartsong Presents novel Romance by the Book. At this point in the planning, I wasn’t sure what Sailor’s change event would be.
The worksheet I use most consistently is the calendar. I set it up to fit the time frame of my story, and then as I write each scene, I jot a brief summary of what happened on the appropriate calendar square. If I later revise a scene so it happens on a different day, I’m careful to make the change on the calendar as well. I also include key events that affect the characters but don't necessarily play out onstage. Keeping an accurate story calendar will pay huge dividends when your editor questions your timeline! Along with the previous worksheet, it’s also very helpful for writing your chapter-by-chapter outline or synopsis.
To keep track of all the characters in a manuscript--and to make sure I don’t have too many names starting with the same letter--I use the character name worksheet. I enter the character’s name twice on the sheet: once by last name, and once by first name, as shown below in the example.
I also like to track how many words I’ve written each day, and that’s where this next worksheet comes in. I’ve set it up so that all I have to do is enter the date and the number of words completed that day, and Excel automatically calculates the daily total and copies that figure onto the next line under “Start word count.” I manually type in the ending page number when I stop for the day.
No doubt these methods will continue to evolve the longer I'm at this business. If anyone is interested in giving my worksheets a try, I’d be happy to e-mail you the workbook file. Just let me know in the comments section and be sure you either include your e-mail address in the comment or are logged in so I can find your e-mail if I click on your name.
Remember, the key is to not become a slave to a bunch of spreadsheets, but to use only what is helpful at the time!
ADDENDUM 7/16/09: I may not get back to the comment section on this post again, so anyone who missed getting my novel planning Excel workbook and still wants the file, please e-mail me directly. You should find my contact info in my profile. Thanks for your interest!