Spreadsheet: The Giant Tamer

Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic

If you arrived at this page via the link in the print edition of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, Shawn Coyne’s Silence of the Lambs spreadsheet is now at this link.

View and copy my Giant Novel Spreadsheet.

New! This post is now available on audio.

Once upon a time I wrote a novel. It was a passionate love story, a sweeping social drama, a staggering work of heartbreaking genius.

So needless to say it was also a manuscript of epic proportions. It weighed in at a mighty 230,000 words.

Giant looming stack of white paper with a red heart on the side

I knew it needed to be cut, but I didn’t have a clue where to begin. After all, the whole story was brilliant. How could I make it shorter without ruining it? I spent a month on a search-and-destroy mission targeting adverbs and shoe leather, and managed to cut it by something like two percent.

Of course, this was using 1200-grit sandpaper on raw lumber. It was finishing the seams of a coat that was four sizes too big. It was putting lipstick on a pig.

Well, you get the idea. It was wasted effort.

Then I had a brainstorm.

Why not take my tax refund and give it to a professional editor?

That very day, someone on Twitter said an editor they knew had a rare opening in her schedule. It was so much like magic that I didn’t even look further–or do any research. I contacted her and grabbed that upcoming spot.

I explained to her that I thought my novel was well-written, meaning that my line-by-line prose was good. I said it had been through editing already, because several people had done line edits, copy edits, and proofreading, and I didn’t want her thinking I was looking for those services. But, I explained, my book was too long and had “pacing problems” (though I didn’t really know what that meant).

I had a vague sense that between the wordsmithing skill that was my whole definition of “good writing” and the prose-polishing that was my whole definition of “editing,” there was a mysterious chasm, and in that chasm lurked the solution to my too-big-novel problem. I thought that if I gave her a lot of money, this real editor would reveal what was down there.

Little did I know…

About six weeks after I sent the behemoth off, the editor came back to me a with a short note saying that my novel was “well-written, way too long, and had pacing problems.” If I wanted her to write up more detailed notes, it would cost me another tax refund. She had, after all, earned my whole windfall just by reading the thing.

Let me be clear here: this is not a critique of that editor, or of editing services in general. While it may be the case that her services weren’t clearly defined, it was also the case that I was an unprepared, uneducated client who went into the situation with more self-delusion than a plan.

But I was out of money. And what was worse, I felt shamefully duped and ignorant. I couldn’t fix the novel I had. I didn’t dare start another one because it would come out too long, with pacing problems, just like the last one. For a whole year I quit writing altogether.

My Worldview Disillusionment arc was complete.

Then one day a friend told me about The Story Grid. I can’t remember what prompted me to give one more writing book a chance–possibly the friend’s insistent enthusiasm–but I bought the ebook and I was hooked right from Steven Pressfield’s introduction:

What The Story Grid offers is a way for you, the writer, to evaluate whether or not your story is working at the level of a publishable professional. It if is, The Story Grid will make it even better. If it isn’t, The Story Grid will show you where and why it isn’t working–and how to fix what’s broken.”

Hallelujah! I plunged back in. I accepted the call and began my new adventure.

If you’re still deciding whether to do the same, maybe my own experience will help you.

A word regarding the Foolscap

I tried. I really did. I accepted that defining my Content Genre was critically important, but I couldn’t nail it down for more than a year.

(PRO TIP: It is much easier to pin someone else’s story to a Foolscap than it is to pin your own. Other Story Grid Editors assure me that my novel is a Global Love Story with a strong Society secondary, and that’s good enough for me.)

I returned over and over to the Controlling Idea, and the best I ever came up with was “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.”

And you know what? That served me perfectly well. Though it wasn’t up to Story Grid official specs, It felt right, and it did what a Controlling Idea is supposed to do: it kept me on track scene by scene and draft by draft.

All this is to say that my Global Foolscap sheet was incomplete or slightly off for most of the two years it took me to edit my book. It was a constant source of discomfort to me, because I believed in the story theory it represented and I wanted to have it all perfectly filled in, but I couldn’t do it.

Instead, I plunged into…

The Spreadsheet

“The Muse loves me. I don’t need to do this kind of thing.” –Not Me

The Story Grid tool that stymies more of my editing clients than any other is The Spreadsheet. The very name evokes disdain, terror, or the glazed eyes of overwhelm. I’m not gonna fib here: The Spreadsheet is hard work. There are good reasons to fear it.

It’s horrible.

Latina woman with hands on cheeks and a screaming expression, black background

It’s also the most amazing tool in the world if you have a story that’s finished but not working…or almost finished…or, like mine, so over-written that you need to cut tens of thousands of words.

Using The Spreadsheet, I cut my novel from 230,000 to 130,000 words. That’s right–it lost 43% of its body weight. I jettisoned two characters, two subplots, and 20 scenes. Four sequences were drastically rearranged. The average chapter length dropped from 3900 to 2400 words.

The result was still the story I’d set out to tell, with the same plot, setting, protagonist, antagonist, inciting incident, climax and resolution. But the characters were better: darker, more nuanced, more three-dimensional. Their motivations were clearer. The middle build was tighter. The essence of the story was more apparent. And the writing was better.

Wait a sec. You got all that out of a spreadsheet?

Full disclosure: No, of course not. I got all that out of The Spreadsheet and eleven drafts over two years. But The Spreadsheet was essential.

Let’s go into the process a bit.

My first problem was figuring out what constituted a “scene.” Was it a chapter? Did a new one start after some time-break that I’d indicated with a double white space? Each time my characters changed location? At every point-of-view shift?

I didn’t know, so I began by adding a row in each of those cases and wound up with something like 130 rows. Eventually I got it through my head that a scene contains a story event where something changes for one or more of the characters, and I was able to collapse a lot of those rows. (The final count was 84.)

The point is, I added as much as I could. Better 130 rows than no rows. I filled in the easy, objective columns: scene number, word count, characters onstage, characters mentioned but offstage, duration, location.

Then I started flailing. Turning point? Value shift? Jeez, I don’t know. And it was incredibly frustrating trying to guess. It was hard. It made me feel dense and clumsy. My brain just didn’t work that way. 

It was like learning to ride the Backwards Brain Bike.

(I warmly recommend this 8-minute video about the hard work of brain change.)

Nevertheless, I persisted.

Not because I’m super disciplined, but because it was a puzzle that I felt compelled to solve in the name of this story that I genuinely loved.

That first pass took three weeks. Three times six days times two-hour work periods: 36 solid hours of heavy analytical lifting.

By the end of that time, half of the Value Shift column contained question marks or blanks. Where the Turning Point column wasn’t blank, it was filled with guesses, most of them kind of stupid. 

But a glimmer of light began to emerge as I plugged away. More than half of my scenes had a clear turning point, and quite a few of them felt like they turned even though I couldn’t yet pinpoint exactly where. Over the course of one bazillion passes through The Spreadsheet I was able to identify or add an exact turn and value shift in the scenes I kept.

In short, The Spreadsheet was showing me that my initial story instincts had been pretty good, a sign of how many stories I’d consumed in my life, and how much I already subconsciously knew.

Getting the Lead Out

As lovely as it was for me to strike that glimmer of gold, the real thrill for a chronic long-writer like me was when I struck lead.

The Spreadsheet quickly showed me which scenes were cold, heavy, and dead. Not only was it obvious that they didn’t turn, but I could see that they would never turn. Most of them weren’t “scenes” at all. There really was no story event. They were mere settings, setups, or backstory that didn’t need to be on the page. These provided my first big cuts.

For instance, I had a 5000 word prologue.

The Spreadsheet showed me that while this prologue had some turns and some conflict, it fell outside the main timeline. It involved settings and characters that never recurred in the story. I loved that prologue, but I could see that the only reason it existed was to narrate a key fact of my protagonist’s early life.

I deleted it. Boom.

Then one day I saw a way to insert that key fact of my protagonist’s early life into Chapter 14 as three words of dialogue.

Three words. Gut-punch impact. Better writing.

And that was my turning point.

The value of The Spreadsheet came into focus. My ability to use it accelerated. My brain began to change. And I became ruthless.

Every scene that didn’t have a clear turn or story purpose got cut. I would read the preceding and following scenes and look for ways to suture the edges of the wound together. Sometimes the stitching involved adding a new scene. Most of the time, however, it involved further cuts–for instance, yanking out whole characters and their subplots.

It was like pulling a big, obvious weed, and then finding all sorts of tendrils and roots and dirt coming up with it. At least two full drafts were devoted to making sure none of those deleted story filaments left holes.

Cartoon blond woman pulling a weed whose root system is enormous

Here’s where The Spreadsheet had the biggest impact on making me a better writer. Like that prologue, most deleted scenes contained some detail critical to the story. But when I noted that detail in my list of things to weave back in somewhere, I discovered that I’d made the critical point elsewhere.

It’s a fact of life for us long-writers: we tend to reiterate our important points, testing them with different flavors or colors, trying to get them just right. Then, because we also tend not to be story planners, we embroider whole wonderful scenes around the second and third iterations of those important points. That embroidery leads to another lovely scene, and pretty soon extraction has become a delicate, complex maneuver with a high emotional cost.

The Spreadsheet is the best tool I’ve found for identifying this problem. Once you identify the problem, solutions start to appear. And once you’ve implemented the solution a few times, you tend to stop causing the problem in the first place.

The Column View

If you hate spreadsheets, it’s certainly possible to gather the same information on index cards. Or the backs of ATM receipts. Or a giant sheet of paper taped to the wall.

But really: use a spreadsheet.

For one thing, the format will accommodate all the adds, deletes, and changes you’ll be making. (The history on the document I created for my last novel lists 97 versions.)

More than that, though, The Spreadsheet gives you the column view.

The column view is where the story structure information lies. You’ve built this story up row by row, layer by layer. The column view is the vertical slice. It lets you see how things stack up.

A frosted layer cake sliced open to reveal six layers in rainbow colors.

The columns are where you glimpse your patterns, your habits, your problems. There, you spot your unwillingness to challenge your characters (Polarity Shift keeps ending positive). You see where you ratcheted up the tension too soon or left it too late (Value Shift takes a shocking dive then leaps back up). You see that the energy is moving downwards as the story tension increases (consecutive positive-to-negative shifts).

detail view of six columns of the Story Grid Spreadsheet, filled in

(Note my rather lame, best-I-could-do word choices in the Value Shift column. Good enough really is good enough.)

The official Story Grid Spreadsheet has 14 columns:

    1. Scene Number
    1. Word Count: Watch for both wild variation and monotonous consistency in your scene lengths.  
    1. Story Event: What literally happens in the scene. Something had better be happening. No event? No scene.
    1. Turning Point: Point where complications are about to become the crisis. No turn? No scene.
    1. Value Shift: The nature of the change of a character’s state. Hungry to satisfied. Alive to dead. No shift? No scene.
    1. Polarity Shift: based on the previous. If Alive to Dead then + to -. If Hungry to Satisfied, then – to +. Beware multiple consecutive scenes with the same polarity shift.
    1. POV: If you alter the POV, track it here. Is the POV character the one experiencing the shift in column 5?
    1. Period/Time: When in the story’s history the scene takes place. Summer, April 1772, three weeks later, the same afternoon.
    1. Duration: How much story time is spanned by the scene. 15 minutes, an evening, a couple of hours. Vary the duration of scenes.
    1. Location: Pablo’s living room, Long Peace Street, the diner, Entebbe International Airport. Watch for too much recurrence. Check for specificity.
    1. Characters Onstage: Name them.
    1. Number: Count them. Beware of multiple consecutive two-person scenes, crowd scenes, same-character scenes.
    1. Mentioned but Offstage: Name them. Watch for characters who never appear onstage–especially characters whose storylines you’ve deleted.
  1. Number: Count them.

The original 14 columns may be perfect for you, but if they aren’t, remember: The Spreadsheet was not handed down by God. You can change it if you want to.

That’s what I did.

My personal Giant Novel Spreadsheet has the original 14 columns plus 20 more. To each header, I added notes defining the terms and reminding me why I’m collecting that data. My additional columns include:

    • Opening and closing lines: I was starting too many scenes with someone waking up and ending too many with someone leaving a room.
    • Reversibility: On a scale of one to five, how reversible is the character’s crisis decision? (I had a tendency to make all consequences reversible, a real drama-killer.)
    • Conflict type: Choices are Internal, Interpersonal, External. (I was over-preferencing Internal.)
  • Plot purpose: A place to note key Hero’s Journey points, obligatory scenes and conventions, or just why I wrote the scene in the first place.

Some of these extras, like opening and closing lines, help improve line-by-line writing more than my story structure. Some of them will probably end up being deleted. Most of them are more experimental than proven. But they’ve made The Spreadsheet easier and more fun for me, because when I can’t find the answer to one column, the answers in other columns usually point the way.

A Map You Can Grasp

All these technical uses aside, perhaps the most compelling reason to attempt The Spreadsheet is this:

“Nothing, no power, will keep a book steady and motionless before us, so that we may have time to examine its shape and design. As quickly as we read, it melts and shifts in the memory; even at the moment when the last page is turned, a great part of the book, its finer detail, is already vague and doubtful…”

Percy Lubbock, The Craft of Fiction, 1921

Old Percy was talking about novel criticism rather than writing, but his point is still valid: even you, the author, probably can’t keep the whole novel in your mind at once. The Spreadsheet is a map of the vast territory of your creation. You can pan around it both horizontally and vertically, zoom in, zoom out, and see patterns and gaps in your book that you simply can’t detect at ground level when you’re reading your own text.


    • If you have a full manuscript…
    • If you know it doesn’t quite work but you’re not sure why, or how to fix it…
    • If it’s way too long, and just cutting adverbs and shoe-leather is not going to cut it down to a manageable size…
  • If you want to hire an editor, but first you’d like to bring your manuscript to a more professional level on your own and save a lot of money…

…then it’s Spreadsheet time. Take a deep breath, crack your knuckles, and accept your fate, because I know of no clearer path than The Spreadsheet to streamlining and repairing this complex thing known as a novel.

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About the Author

Anne Hawley is a developmental editor specializing in literary historical fiction and stories set in fantasy and science fiction worlds. When she's not editing, she's creating courses for writers at Pages & Platforms, a women-owned business aimed at helping diverse writers tell the best story they can—and then market it to its intended audience. Anne is the author of Restraint, a queer love story set in 19th Century London, and the forthcoming The Footman, set in the same universe. She lives and rides a bike around Portland, Oregon.
Story Grid 101: The Five First Principles of the Story Grid Methodology
by Shawn Coyne
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Peter B. Dudley says:

I liked your whole article, especially your idea about adding those additional columns, like opening and closing lines. Great idea.


Thanks, Peter. I’m a big fan of those extra columns, though I’d be the first to admit that 34 might be overkill! It’s been helpful to me to view The Spreadsheet as a fluid thing, ever a work-in-progress.

Shelley Sperry says:

I’m almost speechless. This is honestly the most helpful thing I think any writer with an early draft of a manuscript could possibly read. It’s practical and realistic in a way that only someone who has used SG to solve problems can be. It’s funny. It’s honest. And it’s a guide a writer can actually follow and understand, without feeling overwhelmed and inadequate and hiding under the covers. You did it, and you show exactly how–including how long it takes to get things right. Thank you for putting this out there in the world, Anne. It goes on the must-read list for every writer I meet now. As does Restraint, of course, which I’m ordering for me and for a friend who’s going to devour it. Now we need an audiobook . . . . !


Audiobook in the works! And thank you. I am DELIGHTED that this post is useful. It’s a story I’ve been wanting to put out into the world for a long time.

Rachelle Ramirez says:

This is a great blog post. I’ll be sharing it with my editing clients who are looking to cut words from their stories. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us.

Beverly Lyle Patt says:

Ok, so, dork that I am, how do I save this whole thing to use over and over? This is awesome – really love the little explanations to remind yourself (us) what the heck these columns are supposed to tell us! Sometimes I get so tied up with the names of things (crisis or climax? Turning point? End of the middle build?) that I’m more muddled than before I start!


Hi Beverly. I’m sure you’re not a dork! I’m glad this stuff is of use to you. Are you referring to the Giant Spreadsheet I made? If so, you should be able to view it all here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1ixt9JdwJphcNamTkr7tgKynO7po_W9rpuqI5LoOK2Bw/edit?usp=sharing.

Assuming you have a Google account that you’re signed into, using Google Docs’s File–>Make A Copy will do what it says and store the copy in your own Google Drive. If you don’t have a Google account, you should still be able to File–>Download as, and then specify Excel or Open Document Format. I won’t swear to all the column header notes coming across in that case, though.

Art says:

I enjoyed reading this article. The way you described your experience brought me into the story and made me feel. Also, I appreciate you sharing your spreadsheet with us.

Thank you.

A.O. Shred

Ashley says:

Thank you for this article and the link to an easy to copy and past spreadsheet.

I’m wondering what LT stands for on your spreadsheet?


LT is “Launch Type”. You’ll notice a little black triangle at the top right of most of the column headers, indicating a note. If you hover over the header column, the note will pop up. LT, which is more about writing style than story structure, says:

“Launch Type. There are three ways to launch a scene: A: Action, S: Setting, and N: Narrative.
(All can be good. Use them consciously.)

A: She left the house and set off running.
S: The few remaining leaves were frosty as she set out for her run.
N: She usually ran earlier in the morning, but the day was too cold.

Miles White says:

This is wonderful. I never thought about the category of ways a scene can start, so now I’m wondering what my own MO is. I think I can suggest another: dialogue. Scott Turow begins Presumed Innocent with something like: “I should feel sorrier,” Raymond Horton says. Turow burrows into the story from there. I thought it was a powerful way to open the story.


Stay tuned, Miles. I’ve got a whole article on Scene Launch Type coming out tomorrow.

Mary says:

Hi, Anne,
I really am grateful for you sharing how this worked for you. I have been trying to spreadsheet my novel and having a lot of trouble working with Excel. I’ve watched YouTube and I’ve gone through Excel tutorials, but it is just not intuitive for me, figuring out how to make the boxes the right size, how to keep the words in the boxes, how to move back and forth across the spreadsheet without getting lost, etc. If you or anyone else has any recommendations on how to learn to use Excel quickly, that would be very helpful. Thanks so much.


Hi Mary. I’m probably the wrong person to ask, since I worked for years and years in a spreadsheet-intensive software and systems environment–the technical part comes naturally to me. I don’t know that spreadsheet software per se is critical though; the point is to get information into a table where you can read it vertically and horizontally.

Now, I happen to have literally a great big table in my house, and it’s not unheard of for me to capture key information on a set of large notecards, then lay them out on that big table and see what I can see. It’s low tech and can help show me an overview.

I wouldn’t want anyone to feel they absolutely can’t use the Story Grid method without spreadsheet software expertise, and if it’s going to eat up your brainpower to the detriment of your real work, I’d say get a big stack of big cards and a Sharpie, and go to town.

Loretta Rose says:

Wonderful post! Thank you for sharing. And I love your big spreadsheet. I’ll definitely add some of these columns to my spreadsheet. Now that I’ve been using the spreadsheet for a while (a little over a year), I honestly don’t know how anyone writes without it. Your post brings alive the possibilities for using it more effectively.


Thanks, Loretta. I’m impressed that you’ve been using the spreadsheet for a year already and finding it useful.

Dan Eisenberg says:

Thank you very much, Anne, for the specificity of showing us your columns and data. Much appreciated and helpful. Theoretical examples can get us only so far.


I’m glad the specificity is useful to you, Dan. I’m a big fan of concrete examples…and endless analogies and metaphors.

Dan Eisenberg says:

Anne, I have one question about your new columns. What’s the difference between “Essential Action” and the “External Object of Desire”? Thanks 🙂


Funny you should ask, Dan! 😀 Leslie Watts and I have a post coming the day after tomorrow that focuses intensely on precisely this question. In extremely brief form, Object of Desire is the character’s strategy over the course of the story, while Essential Action is their scene-to-scene tactic for moving towards it.

Essential Action is turning out to be revolutionary for me personally in my own writing and in my editing practice. Stay tuned till Friday and you can find out everything Leslie and I have learned on the subject. It’s fascinating!

Paul says:

Starting in 2001, I’ve taken the spreadsheet idea a few steps further: I went from using many tables in my Word docs to making my own filemaker database.
The main advantage is different views of the same data, without having to re-type anything.
The scene view is a form that lets me create and work with dozens of questions about each individual moment; then I switch to a table over view that shows me all the scenes (as rows) which, as Anne described, let’s me see columns showing how scenes compare and progress.


Hi Paul. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I could create a good old Access database for exactly this purpose! I love databases.

On the other hand, it’s fair to say that Resistance would LOVE it if I’d fiddle around with database design…

Paul says:

Oh yeah, it all-but demands constant tweaking of every script and field entry box…
(Seriously, I’ve spent/invested/wasted a lot of time on it!)

Nancy J Nagler says:

Re the backwards bike: I’m reading “Apache” by Ed Macy about that amazing battle helicopter in Afghanistan. In training, he had to learn to use his right eye for the monocle heads up display and the left eye for everything else. After long practice, he found he could read two books at once.

Wren Kenny says:

I too suffer the incurable disease of over-writing. After TWO professional edits, I received my MS back from a fancy London editor with the words: “you are one to two drafts away from being able to send this to an agent or publisher and need to cut about 25k to 30k words.” I’ve been numb since. Can I tell you how much your post encouraged me that you left yours alone for a year, and then went through 11 drafts. I’ve read the story grid and plan to start the spreadsheet tonight. You’ve made me feel NOT ALONE. And you’re in PDX where my son lives. We’re in Yakima. I’m purchasing your book on Amazon right now! Cheers.


You have ALL my sympathy, Wren. I have many Deep Thoughts about book length. Even after I had Storygridded my novel and cut it by nearly half, agents told me that it exceeded some maximum word count that they felt they could market. Would it have been possible to shorten it further? Sure. But while 11 serious drafts resulted in the best version of the story I was capable of telling, I felt very strongly that a) further cutting would make it a different story, and b) it wouldn’t be the story I’d set out to tell.

There’s a point–especially in today’s magical world of self-publishing–where your story, written and edited to the highest standard you can reach, can find its audience. The Story Grid showed me a path to that standard, and few things I’ve ever done in life have been as satisfying as following that path all the way to “real authordom.” I wish you the best with your mighty Spreadsheet and all your revision endeavors.

And remember, I and most of the other Certified Story Grid editors offer a free half-hour phone consultation if and when you begin to think about engaging editing services again.

Lewis Faulkner says:

Hey Anne–

I am not up to speed yet, because I kind found out about the podcast late, and I am listening to all the podcasts heading up to the most the current one, and should be current in about a month.

On one podcast near the beginning of 2018 (where I am now), Shawn mentioned that there was a “super spreadsheet” that the professionals use that had maybe 40 columns total, rather than the normal 14. As much as I hate to admit that I am this big of a story-nerd, I guess I kind of am. I found myself continually adding columns for things in my own novel. For example, one column in mine has Hero’s Journey stuff in there. In each scene in Scrivener, I have a “comment” with stuff in there like ‘inciting incident’ etc, and I hook that comment to the line in the scene where that item occurs, which makes it easy for me to go through the text and know I have that commandments in the scene. I’m now in editor mode, and I’m about half way through spreadsheeting my novel.

Anyway, could you share a URL for where I can get a copy of the super-spreadsheet, if you’re allowed to share it? Is yours the one Shawn was referring to, or is there another one, too?


Larry says:

Hi Anne,
I could swear I’ve seen some post with an example of your spreadsheet filled out for a story, but can’t seem to locate it. Was I dreaming?


You might have been dreaming. You’re welcome to review the spreadsheet I completed for my own novel, but I don’t have one available yet for a genre masterwork. Of course you can look at Shawn’s completed spreadsheet for Silence of the Lambs, the basis of The Story Grid book, but it doesn’t have all my many added columns.

Mine is here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1ju9z5dRE1Cn8l3JfJ51PwpmpuDwe2PuUCZAfBVm1M08/edit?usp=sharing
Shawn’s SoTL one is here: https://storygrid.com/resources/story-grid-spreadsheet-silence-of-the-lambs/

The editing team members are working on Story Grid masterwork editions that will include full spreadsheets for classic or modern novels in the 12 content genres. Those will be coming in 2019, I think.

Lewis Faulkner says:

Thanks for your help! I’m not just looking for the biggest one ever 🙂 I was just wondering if the one they referred to was yours, or some other one. The 14 columns are hard enough to print out 🙂 unless you can read font size .0001

Miles White says:

Hi Anne, I’ve been checking out all the articles and podcasts I can find that deal with what I need to do next: it’s the spreadsheet, dummy. I accept my fate, so I’m looking at everything that has to do with the spreadsheet. This is the most practical thing I’ve seen so far; everything has helped, but this is really hands on. Thanks.

Miles White says:

Maybe the best thing about your Big Template is that the very last column is for notes. Perfect. I don’t have to make notes on a separate document now as I was thinking I would have to do. The template is also very easy to use. I have never used a spreadsheet in my whole life, but this is very user friendly for spreadsheet novices. It only took me 2 scenes to get the hang of it.

Irene Allison says:

Anne, this is fantastic! I’ve spent years wondering how to analyze my manuscripts, how to do my own developmental edits, how to know if the story actually works, and how the heck to get a grasp of the 100,000 words staring back at me for each of my works. You’ve given me hope and a phenomenal tool that I can use. I can’t thank you enough! So let me just say it again. Thank you, thank you, thank you!


Isn’t it a thrill when you see a rational path through what has seemed to be a wholly un-grasp-able creative process? I mean, a 100,000 word novel is still a big thing, don’t get me wrong, but when I began laying mine out in this form, so much became clear. I’m delighted that the process is giving you hope, too!

Mark McGinn says:

Anne, this is surperbly written, accessible post. I smiled throughout because the first draft of my first legal thriller was 188k. My NZ editor physically recoiled and brought her hand to her mouth when I told her. It was our first meeting. She said I’d do well to look for tangents and chop. Like you, I tried to polish although I did get it to 144k before I asked her to go to work. I think the final count before I self published was 79k. Anyway, I’m a client of Rachelle’s and she has helped me complete a “story that works” – moderately well, I hope. I’ve been listening to the Roundtable podcasts and enjoy your incisive and well-reasoned contributions very much. Which is to say, if anyone was thinking about hiring a Story grid editor, do it! You won’t regret it.


Thanks, Mark! I had coffee with Rachelle just yesterday (we’re practically neighbors) and she’s just amazing. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. It was fun for me to create.

Scott Elwood says:

Hi Anne, what a great and inspiring podcast. As usual, the quality of the roundtable editors’ reflection, work and commitment to this process flabbergasts me. It’s a tribute to Sean’s method to have you guys out there running with it and making it your own.

I knew I’d have to come to it one day, but oh was I putting off story gridding my first draft of my first novel. But this podcast lodged it into my brain that this was something for now, not later. So I started last night. And have committed to doing it every evening, just like I write every morning, getting it to become a habit. I like all of your additional columns.

I do have one kind of dumb question. I’m using a copy of your spreadsheet, and although it’s pretty straight forward to fill out, involving the cursor and all, it’s not very easy to see all the information due to the way excel works I think. Is there a trick you or Sean use so that the columns can be seen all at once. I imagine you could print it out, on a A3 for example, but only once finished…. like I said, kind of dumb question, but there you go….

thanks again,


Hi Scott. Valid question. I don’t have an ideal answer for you. The spreadsheet, even at the original 14 columns, is pretty wide, and my version is monstrous. I’ve never printed one, but I know Shawn once had his Pride and Prejudice spreadsheet printed because it came with the love story workshop in NYC a couple of years ago. As I recall, it was on big poster paper, rolled up. Even then, the print was pretty fine, and I don’t think the human eye (at least not my human eye) can take it all in.

You can decrease your font size, change the column widths, or just shrink the whole view to fit more of it on your screen. Mostly, though, once data is entered horizontally, I use it vertically, scrolling up and down through one or two columns at a time. Sorry I don’t have a more scintillating answer. Glad you enjoyed the Bite Size episode.

Ronan says:

Hi. Congratulations for this post, it’s awesome!
Do you believe that this spreadsheet is useful to begin a story? It means, if that’s a good tool to create a story already validating the scenes or there’s a better option? Thank you. =]


Hi Ronan. Thanks. I view the spreadsheet as an editing tool. I’ve known writers who have begun throwing scene ideas into it as part of an outlining process. Depends on how you write. For me, the better option is to write and write and write, discovering my story as I go, then put my scenes on the spreadsheet to figure out which of them need to be cut.

Christopher G (@galtenberg) says:

Shawn’s Story Grid book, Chapter 58, says:
“Visit http://storygrid.com/spreadsheet to download your copy of The Silence of the Lambs Story Grid spreadsheet.”

Now that link lands a visitor on this page.

You may want to place the spreadsheet link at the top of this page, so that people can find it right away. (If you hadn’t replied to someone’s comment above, the link wouldn’t appear on this page at all…) Appreciated!


Wow, good catch. I had no idea–and I doubt if Tim or Shawn realize it either. I’ll let them know.

Mafia Hairdresser (@mafiahairdreser) says:

Thanks Anne. (my twitter friend!) I have/am devouring The Story Grid and I’m very thankful for your spreadsheets on Google Docs. I do feel like I’m stepping back as Shawn had said one would when editing. And, I’ve decided to to use the Story Gird method on my first novel, for practice; instead of another author’s classic or my WIP. Then I’ll move onto self-published second novel. I feel, by doing this, I’ll become a better writer editor. This is already worth it and I have dreams…


Hey there Mafia Hairdresser! Great to hear from you. Give me a shout at [email protected] if you run into spreadsheet questions. I think putting your first novel through the spreadsheet wringer is a great idea–assuming you’re comfortable spotting problems in a finished work (that can be difficult!). I know the effort has made me a better writer, and I think it can do the same for most writers. I love that you have dreams! Keep in touch.

Drew Emery (@InlawsOutlaws) says:

Anne, this is fantastic. From reading The Story Grid and following the blog and podcasts, I had a pretty decent idea of theoretically how the thing works but I didn’t realize until now that I had one massive Tim Grahl WHY hanging out there unanswered.

Leave it to a good story well told to illustrate that why brilliantly. I’m sold! Now I just need to get myself to that first draft finish line, you know, that marathon that ends at the start of another one…

Thanks for this!


Hey Drew. I’m glad you found it useful. I usually tell writers not to try spreadsheeting a story idea, but only to use it as a diagnostic tool once you have a draft. For many writers (pantsers, as much as I loathe that term), it can slam shut the sluice-gate of creativity, and shut down the entire drafting process.

But it’s a huge eye-opener after the fact.

Jim says:

So very helpful in keeping track of a complex story. Thank you for doing all this work and sharing it.

Billie says:

This spreadsheet is amazing! I’m new to the Story Grid and even just seeing the definitions for everything is great, let alone having something I can use to improve my story! Thank you very much.

Letisha Robinson says:

Thank you so much for this article and spreadsheet. I’m not sure if I overlooked it, but when doing the Spreadsheet for the first time after my rough draft is complete, do I first read my draft in its entirety without the Spreadsheet then during the second reading use the Spreadsheet or do I use the spreadsheet during the first reading and fill it in as I read. I hope that makes sense. Also, do I fill out the Foolscap before doing the Spreadsheet? I greatly appreciate your assistance!


Hi Letisha. There’s no single best way to use the spreadsheet or any other diagnostic tool, but when I read a full manuscript for a client, I read first for act structure. Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end? Does any part seem too long and draggy or not long enough? Your gut instinct should tell you this, but if you can’t get much distance on your own work (it’s not easy), a beta reader or editing-group partner might be able to.

THEN I start a scene by scene analysis. Most of the time, an act that sags or drags has non-working scenes in it, and the spreadsheet is a good tool for finding them and rooting them out. I’ve started using a scene analysis template that’s not a spreadsheet but answers the same general questions. You paste it in at the end of each scene in your manuscript and fill it in there. You might find it useful. Feel free to make a copy and try it out.

As to the Foolscap, I work back and forth between it, the scene analysis, and the manuscript itself. Some writers–the real plotters–like to fill out the Foolscap before they even start writing. Me, I’m still more of a pantser.

All in all, I encourage my clients not to get too hung up on any one tool, and to keep in mind that if a scene works, it works. No need to spreadsheet everything. Your reader/writer instincts will tell you the truth if you listen honestly.

Letisha Robinson says:

Thanks, Anne. This is great advice. I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions and so promptly. In the past, every time I tried to start revisions with my rough draft I’d get anxious and give up because I had no real idea how to start and keep going. With the spreadsheet, what I’m learning from all the Story Grid content and advice I finally feel more confident about revisions. For the first time in a long time, I’m actually looking forward to the process. Thanks again!

Jule Kucera says:

~ ~ ~ deeep breath ~ ~ ~

Today is the day I am to begin spreadsheeting my novel. I have done almost everything possible to delay actually starting: reread this article, watch the backward bicycle video, read every note in the spreadsheet column headers–so helpful!), make a copy, learn that MS Excel doesn’t like notes as much as it like comments, so convert all notes to comments (Review/Notes/Convert to Comments).

Unless I want to start changing fonts and colors, it’s time to start. Here we go!

Thanks, Anne, for your guidance and additonal columns. 😊

Jaeleah says:

Dear Anne. What a godsend you are! I loved this post and have happily copied your detailed spreadsheet onto my desktop to begin the arduous process of culling content from my first draft. I was lost but now I am sooo found! After listening to your own editing process using Shawn’s method, it has made me excited to begin my own. You are a blessing, Mamacita.


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Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.