Welcome to version 3.0 of my Excel novel outlining tool. I’ve used it successfully for my most recent novels, and I’ve done several bug fixes and feature improvements since the previous version. Because Version 3.0 has many changes and improvements, I’ve decided to re-write the instructions from scratch rather than pointing only to the changes. So, if you are downloading and using version 3.0, you don’t have to look at the previous blog posts for version 1.0 and 2.0.
Enjoy, and please comment with your thoughts and suggestions. Finally, if you are interested in a quicker outline method, I have recently posted a new outliner called the Quick Novel Outlining Template—feel free to check that one as well.
If you’d like to follow along, feel free to download the excel file first:
Master Novel Outline and Tracking Tool V3.0
What is the Master Novel Outline Tool?
The Master Outlining and Tracking Tool is an Excel spreadsheet that helps writers organize their novel idea into a complete outline. It helps you progressively grow that singular idea step by step all the way to a full scene list. If you are an outlining writer by nature, you’ll love this tool. If you are more of a pantser, you might still use it. Once your novel is done, you can use this tool to help drive your synopsis creation and create your novel’s emotional intensity map and do corrections during the editing phase.
Most people think that Word is the tool for writers, while financial professionals mostly use Excel. I’m here to prove you wrong. Excel is an excellent planning tool for many things because of its way of organizing data in tabs and tables. I love Excel, and I use it every day at my job, so it was only natural that I’d attempt to use it for outlining my novels. You’ll be surprised at how versatile Excel is for this purpose, and I’m sure that in time, you’ll learn to love it.
The latest version of this tool has been designed in Excel 2016. It should function correctly in Excel 2013 and 2010 as well. I can’t vouch for Excel 2007. If you read this and try the tool on Excel 2007, please tell me if it works. Same for Excel on Mac – no idea if it works since I don’t have access to a Mac. If anyone could test it, please post your findings. Thanks!
One small caveat to mention: because of an Excel limitation, no mathematical calculations can be made with dates before Jan 1, 1900. So, if your novel is set in the past, the system won’t compute age differences and things like that for dates preceding that date. One trick I recommend, if needed: Make a convention that 7000 is 1000. So, Oct 10, 1859, would be Oct 10, 7859. It’s a cheap trick, but it does work!
Outlining Tool – General Usage
The spreadsheet is organized into tabs, and their progression is from left to right, for the most part. You have to hop around, but overall, the idea is to go from left to right and build. The tabs are color-coded into groups, so navigation is going to be quite easy and intuitive.
The first tab of all is Instructions. That’s where I memorialized detailed instructions for each tab. If you read this post fully, you probably won’t need the Instructions tab.
Novel Outlining Basics
The Dashboard is your first stop. Here you’ll fill in the basic information about your novel, such as the name, market, genre, and so on. Because all stories happen in space and time, this dashboard asks for the “present” date. This might not be relevant if you are writing some time travel or backward type of story, but the vast majority of stories will have a “present” day.
The Checklist is a simple way to track your work through the entire outline. Once you complete one task, mark it with an “X” and move on. You can use the links in the Worksheet column to jump straight to those respective tabs.
The last informational tab is Summary. This will not be too useful until you complete more of the work, especially the scene synopses and the characters. So, leave this one there for now, and we’ll return to it a bit later.
From Idea to Scenes
Before we chat, here’s a quick visual of how the process goes from idea to scene.
As you can see, you take the one nugget and keep breaking it into three parts. Each part can be thought of as a beginning, middle, and end progression. At each step, you go a little deeper. If you want to think about it in text mode, look at each box as one sentence. At the next level, expand that sentence into a paragraph made out of three sentences.
The outlining tool will guide you through the steps.
- In Part 1, you will enter the entire tree represented in the chart above by water-falling down one step at a time.
- In Part 1 Recap, you will be able to see how does your storyline maps to the standard 3-Act Structure. If you don’t use the 3-act structure, feel free to adapt this to your structure. At this stage, you have 27 steps that should be defined enough to give you almost a complete picture of the story.
- In Part 2, you will take your 27 steps and break each into three parts – this is already your scene level, the lowest unit of your outline.
- Scenes – this imports all data from Part 2 but gives you additional abilities to map and organize your scenes.
When it comes to scenes, really walk through the columns and set the different parameters. It will be beneficial later on.
Let’s be honest: writing your novel’s synopsis is a pain in the butt. It is! But what if you could build your synopsis little by little as your story grows and gets outlined? Well, this is exactly what’s happening here. Once you’ve documented your scenes, move to the Synopsis tab and make sure you have one to three sentences for each scene. In this way, your entire story synopsis gets built right then and there:
- One-Line Synopsis — this is basically your story one-liner.
- Quick Synopsis — the description of your main beginning, middle, and end
- Short Synopsis — this is the combination of all Level 4 synopses (the green boxes in the chart above)
- Full Synopsis — the combination of all synopses of all the scenes in the story
Of course, as you write along, some of these things might change. Make sure you keep them updated as you go along.
If you use Scrivener to write your novel, I’ve written a separate article that discusses how to organize your writing in that software. You’ll see an obvious parallel on how to take the data from the outlining worksheet and move it to Scrivener.
Glossary & Ideas
The next two tabs, Glossary, and Ideas are for informational purposes. If you have any sudden ideas about your novel, but you are not sure where to put them yet or what to do with them, accumulate them in the Ideas tab.
The Glossary is handy if you are writing speculative fiction. If your novel is science fiction or fantasy, you probably need to document some of the unusual terms that appear throughout your story. This will make it easy for you to remember what those are.
Outlining – Plot, Setting, and History
Every story is made out of Characters (Who?), Plots (What? How?), and Setting (Where?). Layered between these is the concept of Time (When?).
Your plot will ooze naturally out of your scenes’ outline, but it’s a good idea to memorialize the different plot lines. Most stories have a main plotline, but some might have a multitude of plot lines. They all depend on one another, intersect, touch, diverge, etc.… One way or another, it would be good to have an idea of what they are. Think about The Game of Thrones, for example. I can’t even think how many plot lines are there… Use the Plots tab to document your various plot lines and their interdependence.
Novel Outline Settings
The Setting is, of course, the place where things are happening. If you are writing fantasy, science fiction, or other speculative fiction types, your setting might need to be created from scratch. If you use our world as we know it, you may have to hint at the place. For example, an apartment in the center of Paris is pretty obvious. In any case, the Setting tab allows you to define multiple locations for your action.
To define the setting, go from big to small. First, define your Conceivable Universe, then go down to Visible Universe, Tangible World, and actual Physical Locations. Again, this might need more work for complex fantasy or science fiction worlds, while for Earth-based stories, it will be a lot simpler.
Just make sure you duplicate the Location Worksheet to capture as many locations as needed.
The historical context of your story is different than the timeline. History is the big picture. If you were to take a step back as far as possible and look at the entire history of your story, what does it span? Note that it doesn’t matter if your story is time travel, backward, filled with flashbacks and overlapping time periods. At the end of the day, time flows forward, and there’s always a “beginning of time” and an “end of time.”
How wide that is, depends on your story. Often, your reader won’t get more than a glimpse of that, but it’s important for you, the writer, to know the history.
The Historic tab allows you to build that history in steps. Note that you only input data in the Red columns; the others are calculated.
There are 4 types of predefined Event Types:
- Scene – something that happens in one of your scenes
- Life Event – some event such as Marriage, Birth, Death, Divorce, etc. (document the sub-type on the Life Event column)
- Historical Event – something that happened in history (regime change, war, natural cataclysm, etc.)
- Other – something else that is not classified above
When you enter a date in the Date column, the following columns will show the Present Time’s relative time (remember when I told you that the “present-day” that you set at the start would be important?). This helps establish how far from the present are those events.
Next, if any of the events involve a Character, put their name in there. The system will look to see if there is a “Birth” event for that character and if there is, it will automatically calculate the Age of the character at that point in time. For instance, you may have Dan James with a Birthday event and a Wedding event, as below.
You can see how this is a good tool to have. You can basically wave in all your characters among the events they participated in, active or inactive. The Age column is beneficial if you have many family members and want to keep track of what ages they are at different points in time. You really don’t want your 150-year-old grandpa running a marathon, right? Unless the story is just about that, of course…
The Timeline is different than the historical context. Timeline is a subset of history; it’s the precise series of events in your story. So, if you take every scene in your story and you align it on a horizontal timeline, where do they fall? And again, it doesn’t matter how you handle time in your story and how you reveal it to your readers. In the end, each scene happens somewhere in time… The Timeline tab allows you to track that.
Once all your scenes are named, they will appear on the B column. Use the actual date row to enter dates. At the intersection of a date and a scene, put an X. This will let the system know that the scene happens on that date. The data from here is used to build out the cards.
Outlining – Character Development
Characters are the backbone of every story. No story can happen without characters. So, I am giving special development tools for characters:
That Character List is pretty straightforward. List your characters, their role in the story, and their relationship. On the right-hand side, you have a small tool that calculates how many first names begin with the same letter. It’s recommended to have the main characters’ names begin with a different letter not to confuse readers. Tom and Tim, Celina and Celia, things like that could add confusion. Obviously, this is merely a suggestion.
Character Development Worksheet
Developing characters is one of the most enjoyable parts of outlining a novel, at least for me. For that reason, I’ve designed a stand-alone Character Development Worksheet that you might consider using if your only goal is to create strong and memorable characters.
The version included in this novel outlining tool integrates with the overall outlining process and allows you to create your characters touching on the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. By tackling all the facets of your characters, you can give them multiple dimensions and make them believable.
Genealogy is a chart that only appears once in the sheet, but you can duplicate it for as many characters as you want. Each tab should be used for one character only to define their ancestors. The sheet itself is pretty self-explanatory.
Outlining – Other Tools
The Card view gives a quick snapshot of your story in the form of index cards. It pulls some data from your tables, such as the Scene location (Act, Chapter), the scene name, date from Timeline, a Major or Minor scene, and the Intensity Index from the Scene Intensity column. I’ll be honest, it’s not that useful, but it was quite fun to program this one in…
In every story, the writer must take the reader on an emotional intensity ride. It goes up, and it goes down, and that rollercoaster of emotions keeps the reader engaged. Obviously, you can’t have a story that stays only in high or low emotional intensity for a very long time. That becomes either tiring or boring. It must be a balance of ups and downs.
As you plan your scenes, you’ll know more or less where the intensity goes up and where it goes down. The last column in the Scene list is where you can set the intensity level (measured as a number between 0 and 100). The Intensity Tab gives two charts that show the intensity by scene. This allows you to make sure that your intensity pattern has some peaks, some valleys, and it’s otherwise balanced and matched to what you think your story should be.
This is less important, but it tracks the number of scenes and words by chapter and charts them out on the right side. There is definitely no rule about it, but if you are trying to keep your chapters balanced in terms of size, you can use this worksheet to track it. Just make sure that you enter the Actual Words per scene in the Scene List tab once you finish writing each scene. The statistical data will build in this tab.
Word Count Tracker
Once you’re done with your outlining and summary process, it’s time for the best part: writing your novel. I’ve designed a straightforward tool to help you track your work. It reads from your dashboard the start date and estimated date. Then, as you complete daily or weekly writing sessions, put the date in and the current total word count. The system will compute where you are and let you know if you are ahead or behind schedule. It’s pretty simple, but it does the job!
Outlining – Download V3.0
So, this is it. I hope you find this useful and helpful, and I would love to hear if your next novel started with this tool. As always, please feel free to comment, add your suggestions, bug reports, and any other issues.
DOWNLOAD – Without anything further, please download your copy of the Master Novel Outlining and Tracking Tool in Excel.
Master Novel Outline and Tracking Tool V3.0
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- Do you use outlining tools? Which ones?
- Are you a detailed outliner, or do you sketch the high-level?
- Is there any point in your story where you feel stuck because you don’t know where to go next?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!