Keeping Track of the Details

A common question I see on writing groups is “How do I keep track of the details?” Timelines, arc progression, character and location specifics — there’s a ton of information to keep track of!

There are no set rules for this; every writer has to figure out what works for them. Below I share what works for me.

Resource #1: My Design Doc

I keep a couple of resources, but the first and most critical is my design doc. There are many ways to build this. If you use Scrivener, you could have a folder dedicated to this information with a separate page for each of the topics. I, personally, use Microsoft Word.

At the beginning of a project, I set up the document with a bunch of standard topics as headers. I fill out the content, as I develop the story.

The topics I include in this doc:

  • Logline
  • Pitch
  • Synopsis
  • Theme
  • Setting
  • Structure and Key Scenes
  • Characters
  • Character Backstories
  • Issue Breakdown
  • High-Level Outline
  • Scene-by-Scene Breakdown
  • Character Details

As I look at this list, I realize these topics actually give a pretty good breakdown of how I plot my novel. I’ll follow the order here — sort of — in this series of posts.

Some will take more than one post. But it’s a good outline. I’ll explain each of the topics in detail in the posts dedicated to it.

Resource #2: Timeline spreadsheet

I used Microsoft Excel for this, but do what works for you.

Novels have multiple characters doing many things at the same time. Keeping track of who is doing what and when can be very, very challenging.

In Doubting River, the novel I’m currently querying, I also had a person with an injury that had a specific healing and rehab schedule. I had to be aware of where I was in that schedule during the different scenes of the story.

My timeline spreadsheet is set up with the dates in the first column and the characters across the top. Very straightforward. I filled it out with the events I knew had to happen at a certain time, and then worked everything else around that.

details timeline example

Resource #3: Scene-by-Scene Spreadsheet

To be honest, I didn’t create this one until fairly late in the drafting process for Doubting River. However, I’ll be setting it up as I go as I write Training Angels. It was incredibly valuable for keeping track of names mentioned, smaller events, etc.

Again, the spreadsheet itself is very straightforward. I listed the chapter and scene (for example, 3.2 — chapter 3, scene 2) in the first column. Then across the top I had a chapter for date and “to do” (to capture changes I needed to make) and then a column for all the major characters.

I listed, beat by beat, what each character did in the scene. I swear, this was incredibly helpful, because it helped me FIND moments I needed to review or edit.

Living Documents

I want to emphasize that none of these documents are one-and-done. They would a complete waste of time, if that were true. As the story changed, I updated the documents, so any time I referred to one, it was up-to-date and correct.


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