Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Retro-Plotter part 2 - No job is done until the paperwork is finished


Why and how I keep track of events in my own stories... no matter how bad they are 😁

This is a sequel to The Retro Plotter part 1, and before I dive in, keep in mind that everyone has their own system. This is just an example of how I do things. Your approach might be far superior to mine!

Why document in detail, or (not) at all

Before talking about how I document events / plots / characters, I have to explain what my story is about. It is a first person present tense story, all told from the viewpoint of the main character. Because it contains betrayal, unknown history, and several things happening in the background (simultaneously with the main story), it is important to keep things synchronized. There's a lot of 'hidden behind the scenes' stuff going on that the main character will only discover in the later parts of the story.

Although my current work is light / urban fantasy, you could in some ways think of it as a layered detective / mystery / spy novel. For that to work, all events must fit. Perhaps I went overboard, but all this layering is fun 😜

My biggest reason though is that I rend to rewrite previous parts, sometimes even insert up to ten, twenty chapters, and that might require a lot of rewrites and retrofitting. So, like I said, it's part plotting, part pantsing.

Inserting additional material

When I did my first major rewrite, which ended up in adding more than 50% of new chapters to book 1, I decided to add the new stuff using a new 'thread' or 'arc', so it would blend in (as opposed to writing a more or less stand-alone insert that has little to no relation with the rest of the story, like filler episodes in TV shows).

That would have been pretty much impossible without keeping track of events. In the end, I added three subplots, all overlapping, like this (with all that red and purple stuff being added during rewrites):

Inserting chapters and even story arcs means I have to keep track of events. So, how do I maintain consistency?

My approach

1. Rough plot (some single lines in 'pseudo script')
2. Play the 'why' game if required, then simply start writing
3. Check written text against spreadsheet, update spreadsheet with latest chapters
4. Go back to 1 until done

(For steps 1 and 2 see the previous post.)

3. No job is done until the paperwork is finished

Because I sometimes rework part of the story, and my brain isn't good enough to remember everything and keep everything in perfect chronological order, I also maintain a spreadsheet. This is nothing more but the digital equivalent of a bunch of post-it notes.

My very first attempt at 'pantsing' the story caused me lots of headaches to keep things straight, so I adopted the 'plotting afterwards' method 😂, i.e. these days I document in a spreadsheet what I wrote (though only the relevant bits).

The very first time I used post-its, then later adopted it to a real spreadsheet, like this:

Note that this whole thing, colors, columns etc. grew organically. It was never a carefully planned layout or tool. In fact, the original colors were the ones I had post-its for...

What's in the spreadsheet

From top to bottom...


One row for each character, with things like age, looks, relatives, and (tip) speech patterns. If I forgot about the details of a character, I simply look for the name (Control+F), and voila.

Nothing stops you from adding an image or a link.

All character notes are in purple, to easily identify them.


What are the rules for magic? Although the story is light on magic, it still should work the same every time it's used. So, each row contains the name of some kind of magic or magic item, and how it works.

All notes on magic (or technology, as I've documented stuff for Have Hat Will Travel in the same way) is dark green.


Here we get to the events. From this point on, each line has the same format, with column A as book title (black) or chapter title (grey), and column B as timestamp (blue).

Columns C, D, E etc. contain events and notes. I use brown for all historical events.


These are the chapters I finished. Remember the 'two files' approach? You'll find these in the 'story' file. 

I use yellow for all regular events, dark yellow for all events that happen outside my main characters' view (it's a first-person story, after all).


(Or draft, or planned, or plot, or concept, or snippets, or whatever comes next.)

This part is messy, unorganized, and always out of date. But there's at least something.

I use light green for all regular events, dark green for stuff the main character doesn't witness.


Do the colors mean anything? Actually, yes, but not as much as you might think 😁 I primarily use the colors to identify the different subplots.

Columns A and B are fixed, so...

  • A - black / grey - book and chapter titles
  • B - blue - timestamps (i.e. when the event happen)

The columns CDE etc. contain the real stuff...

  • brown - historical stuff that happened before the story even started
  • light yellow - events in which my character participates (it's first-person)
  • dark yellow - other events outside the sight of my character
  • light green - planned stuff
  • dark green - planned stuff happening outside the sight of my character
  • purple - notes on characters
  • green - notes on magic
  • pink - notes on everything else
  • dark red - top secrets, utter story destroying spoilers, that even might require sequels
  • any other color - subplots, shorter arcs, multi-book overarching subplots, etc.

Remember the 'two files' approach, one for 'story', the other one for 'snippets'? Well, everything in the 'story' file is marked light / dark yellow, everything in the 'snippets' file is marked light / dark green. To be honest, the green part is always a mess, because I might be systematic, but I'm not a systematic plotter 😔


The whole thing looks like this, and is, as we speak, 250 rows, so that's not too bad for keeping track of 30-odd primary characters and 150k words over a one-and-a-half novel.




Story (written)

Planned (snippets, plot, ideas)

So, all these colored squares sit in one single tab of one single Excel file. Do I need specifics on a character, I just go to the top Ctrl+Home, then search Ctrl+F for the character name.

Just think of it as a bunch of color-coded post-its on a very tall wall, where the fact that it's digital helps speeding up searching, and inserting new rows.

Again, all of the above grew organically, and it's only required because I have multiple overlapping arcs. It's (fortunately) way easier to maintain than it looks like 😁

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