Many moons ago, back when writing was just a hobby, something that my wife would encourage me to do in the evenings whilst she planned world domination with the cunning use of post-it notes – back when The Good Guy’s Guide To Getting The Girl was still in first-draft and barely a few thousand words long – I discovered a problem that I suspect is fairly unique to fiction writers.
I was having one of those rare writing moments when (it felt like) everything was going well – words were pouring out of me. I was bashing out scene after scene with unparalleled delight. Never mind that most of those scenes seemed to start with the phrase “the next day” or words to that effect. That could all be dealt with in the edit. The edit which would happen when I’d finished the WHOLE book. I’d learnt that much about writing: Write first. Edit later.
Although, as I wrote “the next day” for about the fiftieth time that evening I started to realise that I might have a problem that couldn’t wait until the grand ‘fix-everything’ edit. And the problem was this; in my head the chapter I was writing was supposed to span roughly a month, sometime in the summer, a year or two before the turn of the millennium. But as I scrolled through my manuscript and counted the number of times that dreaded phrase appeared I realised I’d successfully created a month with 47 days. And given that most of the action was supposed to happen during office hours…
Which is when I turned to excel. Because obviously, that’s what you do when a crisis of this magnitude happens. There’s nothing in this world that can’t be fixed with a good spreadsheet. Trust me. I partially built an entire career in banking with my mediocre excel skills. But I digress.
I present to you the timeline spreadsheet. A way of keeping track of your novel / script / short story, when & where each scene takes place, as well as how old each of your characters are on that day. And because it’s a rare author who has the luxury of not having to worry about word count, there’s a bit of that thrown in for good measure.
Feel free to download it and share it all you like. And if it works for you drop me a line. If it doesn’t work for you, or you’d like it amended in someway, or you screw something up and need it fixing (in the spreadsheet I mean, not your story) – well drop me a line anyway and I’ll see what I can do.
In the meantime here’s a brief tutorial on how to use the sheet
This is a Microsoft Excel (office 97) spreadsheet. A basic knowledge of spreadsheets is probably useful. You should be able to open it in Open Office (which is free) or Apple’s Numbers. There are three tabs to the spreadsheet (you’ll find those at the bottom). To avoid breaking the spreadsheet (which is really, really easy to do) only change what’s in the blue areas, everything else should change automatically. The sheet comes pre-filled with example data – just delete this when you’re ready to start work.
To see any of the images below bigger, and in a new browser tab, just click them.
The least interesting of the three tabs, but still useful. Delete the example data in the blue box and enter the maximum word count you’re allowed. As you populate the rest of the sheet this tab will tell you how many words you’ve written and how many you’ve got left!
Right then. This is where all the good stuff happens. As you write each scene tell the spreadsheet (in the blue boxes) where that scene takes place, the date, as well as what happens. You’ll notice that column E works out what day of the week that date falls on (pretty cool eh?) and over there on the right hand side it tells you exactly how old your main characters are (once you’ve completed the third tab). Use column B to make a note of what chapter you’re writing, and then in Column C put either the word count for the entire chapter (as I have), OR for each scene (although personally I found that a bit labour intensive).
Even though I recommend only tinkering with the blue boxes you can still use formulas. For instance, if you’re writing a scene that takes place the day after the previous scene don’t type the date in, click the date above and add +1 in the formula editing thingy. This way, if you move a date earlier in your story everything should recalculate automatically. This is where the spreadsheet really comes into its own.
Use this tab to make a note of your main characters and their birthdays. Why? Because then the spreadsheet can calculate the age of your characters on this and the previous sheet. Useful if you’re the next David Nicholls and you’ve written a story that spans years.
Use the events section to make a note of significant events that happen outside of your story, but still that have some sort of bearing. For instance, if your story starts 10 days after the aliens have invaded, put the date the aliens invade on this sheet, and use a formula to calculate 10 days later on the timeline tab. Then if you decide that the aliens have to land on a different day, you merely change the date on this sheet.