I discovered this amazing, useful tip via Janet Reid's blog, but all credit goes to Gary Corby, who shared it in the first place.
Ever have trouble balancing the appearances of characters in your stories, or the way scenes are arranged? You want them to flow well, but also reveal information to the reader at key points, and you want your characters to show up with good timing. And even with an outline, this can turn out to be quite a challenge in your first draft.
Well, Mr. Corby had the ingenious idea of creating a spreadsheet to block this all out. Across the top, he put the names of the characters, and along the left side, labeled each scene. He puts an X in the appropriate cell whenever a character appears in a certain scene, and voila! It becomes much easier to track who shows up when, who shows up and then never shows up again, and so on and so on.
I had an extensive outline for my last manuscript. Pages and pages of text. But it was also the first novel I wrote with a very large cast of characters, and pretty soon I found myself swimming. What happened to so-and-so? Have we heard from them in a while? What about that subplot? Mr. Corby also color-codes blocks of scenes that have to be treated as a logical unit, and this allows him to see what scenes can be easily shuffled around if necessary. I imagine one could get quite complex, tracing when themes or subplots and so forth appear, rather than just characters. It's ultimately customizable and provides a quick visual reference to the structure of your story, and that's great. This strategy could have really helped me, and given how much I use spreadsheets in my day job at the library, I'm ashamed I didn't think of it first!
I'm planning to rewrite that last manuscript at some point in the future, and am looking forward, with probably more glee than is appropriate, to trying this out. I'm about halfway through my current manuscript and it, as is normal for me, has a smaller cast, but if I get stuck, I'll definitely pause to give this a whirl. I'm excited.
As a disclaimer, I had not heard of Mr. Corby before, as I'm not too into mysteries, but the voice and allusion to setting just in his little blog burb has made me anxious to track down his books. So it's a win all around.