Story plotting and writing poetry with Microsoft Excel

Microsoft Excel is not the first app you would associate with creative writing, but it has become my go to app for thinking through story structure, composing poetry, and doing story outlining.

This is how it started. I was working on a proposal that had four major characters, most of whom were not in the same place at the same time, and all four stories were progressing simultaneously. I needed a way to track everything that was happening with each major character, on or off the page, and I wanted to be able to visualize each character’s story in connection to the other stories. Even that sentence is complex. I tried every software tool I could think of, from timeline apps like Beedocs Timeline 3D to cork board apps, but none of them was quite what I needed. By accident, I was staring at a spreadsheet at work, with several columns of data, and I was struck by the notion that my plot points were just data.
That night, I took all my notes and plugged them into Excel and it was like someone just took blinders off my eyes. I could visualize my story from start to finish AND I could cut across story lines at any point in my story. I very quickly saw where I had gaps, where timing didn’t line up quite right, and even where best to switch from one character to the next to advance the story. It was like magic. The more I fiddled around with Excel, the more revealing it was. I was able to block off areas by day, or color code which scenes I wanted to include in the actual story.

That project ended up not being greenlit, but when I started work on my sequel to Elvis Sightings, I used Excel both to plot it out and write the treatment. In my story, there are several mysteries being investigated simultaneously, so with three columns in my spreadsheet, I could visualize which mystery was getting too much time, or needed to be re-sequenced to work better narratively. When it came to write the treatment, I used each row as a beat in a scene, then used formatting to delineate rows into scenes, chapters and days. I sent the combination of plot outline and treatment to my editor, and she was able to make beat by beat notes in a second column. When I rewrote my treatment, I was able to keep the original in one column, the notes in a second, and my changes in a third. I could see exactly how my story was evolving.

Excel Poetry

From a forthcoming Zombie poetry project

But what about poetry, you say? How could a spreadsheet help with something so artistic? Well, I was working on some poetry where I needed to think in syllables and rhyme pattern. I color coded each line for the a-b-b-a-c rhyming sequence. Then as I wrote, I used each cell as a syllable. It took a while for my brain to stop trying to write a few letters at a time before hitting the tab key, but once I got used to it, I was able to very quickly figure out the right words to fit my syllable counts. I’d start with the words I wanted to try to rhyme, plug them in at the end of each line, then work backwards in syllables to the start of each line. It worked really, really well, and it’s not something I could have easily done in a traditional writing app like Byword (which I’m using now and  love, btw.)

It’s totally counter intuitive, but every writer I’ve discussed this with who’s tried it has been  pleasantly surprised how useful a spreadsheet can be. Obviously, you don’t have to use Excel – any spreadsheet app will do. If you find yourself trying to figure out  some complex plotting or want to try your hand at sonnet, give this technique a try then tell me how you used it. I’d love to hear other creative ways to employ a spreadsheet.

The Night Shapers by James Blish

The Night ShapersMy latest airplane reading was a relatively short book by James Blish. Most of his work is straight up sci-fi, but Night Shapers is quite a different work altogether. The book takes place in 1900-ish Africa, and posits what would things have been like if many of the primitive beliefs and powers of African witch-doctors were real?

It’s a great premise, and not something I’ve run across elsewhere (as opposed to the dystopian future meme) so if you’re interested in something short and off the beaten track, give the book a whirl.


Nopalgarth by Jack Vance

NopalgarthJack Vance is one of my favorite writers. The man could come up with the most outlandish ideas and turn them into great stories. Nopalgarth, which is basically a novella, is a prime example.

What if there were invisible creatures squatting on your head that fundamentally altered your perception of the world? And what if there were a war raging from star to star, to exterminate these invisible creatures, and it was discovered that Earth was their home planet?

It sounds dumb, but Vance makes it terrifying. One of his better and more accessible short stories, and the lead in to this collection of his work.

Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

The Shockwave Rider by John BrunnerJohn Brunner is always good for an interesting read. As a writer, he stewed up plots that, to my mind, are rarely matched in originality by other more celebrated writers. As much as I admire Brunner and his work, reading The Shockwave Rider was a real struggle despite the fact that I suspect the novel was fairly influential on what would become cyberpunk.

The core concepts behind the book lie in Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. The basic premise is that the culture of early 21st century America moves at hyper speed, too quickly for most normal peopleto cope with. The protagonist, Nick Haflinger is no ordinary person though. He’s a computer genius who can also create new personalities, not just new identities, but new personalities, to keep himself one step ahead of a secret government/military school, called Tarnover, that he’s escaped from.

Future ShockMost vintage sci-fi, whether it is from the 40’s or 70’s, has artifacts like memory tapes or everyone smoking cigarettes, but it rarely makes the story difficult to get through. But the paranoia, fears, and sense of a radically changing world in Shockwave Rider are all very rooted in the 1970’s. So much so, that it is often difficult to get past the 70’s zeitgeist that is threaded throughout the story. Much of what Brunner wrote was fairly prescient, like computer worms on a global internet (the book is actually credited with being the originator of the term computer worm,) or light speed interpersonal communications, but culturally, we’ve moved past so much of what made the so called dangers identified in Future Shock that it’s too hard to understand or empathize with some of the various characters’ goals.

If you’re a huge fan of Brunner, read it. If not, he has a lot of other, better, books.