Plotting fiction structure using a Numbers spreadsheet

[Note: This post was written last night – or rather, this morning – but I was too tired to proof read it then.]

There once was an application called Power Structure.

Power Structure still exists, but hasn’t been updated for three years. That tells me that the developers have no further interest in continuing the product. Fair enough, software comes and goes, but I had a reason for looking at Power Structure: my plot. See, I’m working on a major fiction project and I’ve got a gaggle of characters to keep straight and each has his or her own rises and falls relating to their personal tension levels as reactions to real or perceived conflicts during the story. * exhale *

If that doesn’t make sense, I apologise, for I have been staring at a spreadsheet, a line chart, a smattering of index cards with scene briefs, and my ‘story thus far’ synopsis in outline format for the better part of four hours. My analytical side is sharp but my ability to communicate in coherent sentences probably died a couple of hours ago. I am knackered.

So, what I’ve been up to is pretty cool but my needs are far less complicated than what Power Structure would want me to produce.
In brief, here’s what I’ve done:
I’ve got a table listing my characters and the related conflict to track on the left side (ie: Jane – John, Jane – Joe, Jane – World) and a range of scenes listed across the top. In each cell I assign a number representing the tension level of that conflict + scene on a 1 – 10 scale, 10 being most tense. These numbers then get plotted on a separate line chart of coloured zig-zaggy lines, each line representing a particular conflict from that column down the left side. In doing that, I have a visual representation of the personal journey of each character. Seeing this plotted in colour-coded glory is a real eye-opener and I’m finding it indispensable for keeping on top of all the twists, moods, and conflicts of the story.

It’s not a quick thing to create but it shouldn’t be. As I created the spreadsheet and chart I was forced to think things though much more thoroughly than I had before. I found plot holes and illogical character responses. I found that a whole chapter was a creating a column of whitespace in the chart (BIG RED FLAG MOMENT!), indicating that nothing moved forward or had conflict; it was a chapter of exposition that was far better off being chopped up and integrated into other scenes.

After I’m a bit further along, I’ll try to remember to post a screen shot of what this worksheet looks like. I’m using Apple’s Numbers application from the iWork suite, but I’m sure this can be accomplished in any number of other spreadsheet applications.

Damn. This writing career is starting to feel like work. πŸ˜‰

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4 thoughts on “Plotting fiction structure using a Numbers spreadsheet”

  1. Hello Wayne! Welcome πŸ™‚

    I do plan on doing a proper post with screenshots. The technique has helped me tremendously. Thank you for your interest!

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