Plotter, Pantser, and the Power of Spreadsheets

Maya Bairey
4 min readJul 11, 2023
a young woman puts together puzzle pieces

There’s a certain kind of magic that comes from organizing thoughts, ideas, and characters into a cohesive narrative. It’s a bit like solving a puzzle or a crossword. Today, I want to share with you my love for this process, my journey as a Plotter, and the joy I find in using spreadsheets to bring my stories to life.

In the realm of writers, there are three main types: Plotters, Pantsers, and Plantsers. Plotters, like me, are the architects of the writing world. We plan everything out before we start writing. Pantsers are the adventurers, starting with an idea and seeing where it leads them. Plantsers are a bit of both, having a rough plan but leaving room for spontaneous growth. Maybe someday I’ll evolve (one hopes!) but I think I’ll always be a Plotter at heart.

My journey begins with planning and organization. And my secret weapon? A spreadsheet. I start with the story structure, filling in which important plot events go where. Before long I’m recording word count (and noting where I’m over!) and I can track how complete each chapter is. I start filling in the timeline too, which makes it handy if a character wants to say, “but I saw you last Friday!” Did they? It’s in the spreadsheet.

It’s like a GPS for my story, guiding me from the start to the finish line. Each cell, each row, each column is a piece of the puzzle, a part of the story waiting to unfold. My spreadsheet is more than just a tool; it’s a canvas where I paint the broad strokes of my narrative, a stage where my characters come to life, and a sandbox where I can play with ideas, scenarios, and plot twists. It’s a space where I can be both an artist and an engineer, crafting intricate narratives while also building robust structures to support them.

a spreadsheet lists chapters in a book

It’s not just about the plot, though; characters are just as important. I have a section in my spreadsheet for character maps. It’s a blueprint for each character, detailing their personalities, quirks, and backstories. I usually start with the basics, and whenever a new facet comes to me, I throw it on the list. Sometimes I realize a different character would help the story if they had an opposite trait, and in that goes too. Pretty soon, I have a full picture of them all.

a spreadsheet lists character traits

And then there is scene planning. I plan important scenes in excruciating detail. Not every scene, of course! Just the big ones. What’s going on in a character’s head, their emotions, actions, sensory experiences, interactions with the setting — I note it all down. It’s a step-by-step recipe for the scene that helps me nail down exactly what should happen and leaves no room for tangents. It’s mentally stimulating, and feels so good when you get it just right.

a spreadsheet lists events in a scene

One of the most satisfying aspects of being a Plotter is the clarity it provides. With my spreadsheet, I can see the entire landscape of my story, from the towering peaks of climactic moments to the quiet valleys of introspective scenes. I can track the journey of my characters, their growth, their struggles, and their triumphs. I can monitor the pace of my narrative, ensuring that it ebbs and flows in a way that keeps readers engaged.

Before you think this sounds too dry and strict, let me assure you that Plotting is also about creativity. My spreadsheet is a playground for my imagination, a place where I can experiment with ideas, explore different narrative paths, and push the boundaries of my storytelling. It’s a space where I can let my creative instincts run wild, all while checking them against my direction and purpose.

And the results? They speak for themselves. As a Plotter, I’ve found that my writing is more focused, more coherent, and more engaging. My characters are more developed, my plots are more intricate, and my scenes are more vivid. My stories are not only products of my imagination; they are carefully crafted works of art, shaped and refined through the meticulous process of plotting.

There’s a unique joy in seeing a story come to life, in watching characters grow and evolve, in witnessing the unfolding of a novel that was once just a collection of ideas in a spreadsheet. It’s a feeling of accomplishment, of pride, and of fulfillment that is hard to put into words.

So, whether you’re a seasoned writer or just starting your journey, I encourage you to explore the world of plotting. Give spreadsheets a try. You might just find, like me and many others, that they bring a new level of joy, satisfaction, and success to your writing.

Originally published at https://bairey.com on July 11, 2023.

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Maya Bairey

Maya Bairey pens tales of relatable, stuck characters who find solutions within, aided by real relationships. Discover her book, Painting Celia, at bairey.com.