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.


Plotters vs. Pantsers

To kick off this series, let’s talk about that age-old argument: plotters versus pantsers. “Plotters vs. pantsers” is a description of how writers write. If you interviewed a hundred writers about their writing process, you’d get a hundred different answers, some polar opposites, none wrong. The writing process is as individual as writers themselves.

Defining Plotters and Pantsers

Some writers start with a character or an idea or a flash of a scene. Just the tiniest spark of inspiration. They start writing, and they let the story unfold as they write. These writers are sometimes called “discovery writers” or “pantsers,” because they write by the seat of their pants, following inspiration where it leads them.

Other writers prefer to plan before they begin writing. These “plotters” want at least some idea of a destination and some semblance of a roadmap before striking out into the unknown.

Plotting and pantsing are opposite ends of a continuum. Although a few writers (including me) fall on one extreme end or the other, most writers fall somewhere in the middle. Some do high level outlines but vary from it when inspiration strikes. Others plan a few scenes ahead. Still others pour their hearts and souls into deep character backgrounds and then let their characters dictate the story events. Individual writers might even find that what works with one story doesn’t work with the next. Writing is individual to the writer, to the story, to the moment.

Why am I a plotter?

I am an extreme plotter. My professional background is in technical writing and instructional design, and my first professional writing was in nonfiction. Through nonfiction I learned how organization could make or break content, how structure determined whether content would be effective.

My first truly creative writing was screenplays. Structure is as critical — and omnipresent — in screenwriting as it is in a sonnet. With screenwriting I learned that structure could be the difference between mediocrity and art.

I also had the importance of pre-planning drilled into me by my mentor, a man who had made his living as a television writer for many years. It was, he taught, much easier — and faster — to make massive revisions at the outline stage than when you have a finished draft in hand.

And so, those were the lessons I carried with me when I began experimenting with prose fiction. To my delight, I discovered that nearly all of what I learned about story and structure in screenwriting could be successfully applied to novels as well.

I also found that the method I had worked out addressed many of the concerns and pitfalls that seemed to plague other writers. Pacing, character arcs, intertwining of events all falls neatly in line. I decided to share my method with others in hopes that someone else could skip over some of those concerns and pitfalls as well.

Come over to the dark side!

Do I think my method and ideas are the only way to write a novel? Of course not! Do I think pantsers should abandon their preference and come over to the dark side? Yes! No, I’m kidding.

I do think, however, that even die-hard pantsers will find something useful here though, because even pantsers have to deal with structure and organization during the rewrite phase.

Come on. I know it’s scary. Just give it a chance!

Ready for the next step? Let’s talk about what to write about.

Baby Pflouff -- she'd definitely be a plotter