How To Plot a Novel Using a Spread Sheet, A Hero’s Journey and Charles Liu

Have you ever read a good book and thought, I really liked that, but why? What was it that made it unforgettable? Was it the main character? Did I feel sorry for him? What was it about the book that made it impossible to put down?

You think, I need to know so I can make my book as memorable, right?

Charles Liu uses a certain method to answer these questions.

Who’s Charles?

LinkedIn has a few writers groups that I occasionally hang out at. I’m always interested in what writers are asking other writers. I don’t always have time to engage in conversations, but last week I started a chat with Charles Wiu. He asked the question: “How many of you are using a “formula” to help structure your plot, and how do you feel about using “formulas” to help in the writing process?

I had to answer this question because several years ago I was in an online critique group and had this same discussion with my partners. I wanted them to critique my novel on the story elements, and I critiqued them on theirs. But they told me they didn’t write “formula” fiction and didn’t want any part of that. I was dumfounded because I believed that all good fiction should have three acts and each act should contain certain elements. I still believe this.

So, when Charles asked this question, I was interested in learning what others had to say. Charles follows the Chris Vogler’s book, THE WRITER’S JOURNEY. Do you have the book or the DVD? If not, you might want to put it on your BOOK LIST. I have the DVD. I use it when I’m plotting a new novel. I watch it and list the parts, making sure I have all the pieces. (Or try to.)

When Charles reads a good book, or watches a movie he loves, he uses Christopher Vogler’s theory to answer these questions: What made it memorable and why did he like it? But he takes THE HERO’S JOURNEY a step further by using spreadsheet he created so he can document movies and books and dissect them. He analyzes the ones he likes to figure out why they rocked. (I call it MOVIE BIOLOGY or BOOK BIOLOGY. I’ve done several posts on THE HUNGER GAMES, dissecting them for the acts. Click here to view them.)

I LOVED his idea of a spreadsheet because it’s convenient, time-efficient, and visual. It’ll be ready whenever there’s a new story to dissect.


Here’s a screen shot of what his ACT III looks like:



As you can see, he lists Vogler’s terms and theories for the headers and then fills in the space beneath with the action from the book or movie. The bottom spaces are empty here because that’s where he writes the elements of the book/movie he’s analyzing. Isn’t that creative?


I asked him to share an article with you today about how he plots his formula. Here’s what he had to say:

Learning to have your own writing style is like having your own fashion sense. It’s a reflection of your own personality. Everyone starts from copying and learning from others. When we were kids, we learned to act like those we admire, while others already had their sense of who they are.

As an adult, we learn critical thinking and how to analyze. When I pick up a book I like, I ask: Why do I like this? What makes this so good? If I like the writing, I’ll go over a particular passage many times to try and dissect the word or words, or dialogue that grab my attention.

I try and figure out the writing style, the technique (if she / he has one), and what I can learn from this writer. What do I like about this character, and how do I create a process that will let me create a character like this. (Tom’s Clancy’s Jack Ryan comes to mind).

Sometimes, a writer or two will write a story that will completely take our breath away. We could spend years re-verse engineering his or her writing style to learn from.

You don’t have to pick a best seller to learn from it, although it might give you more of a hint on how to grow your audience. But if there are particular writers that you like, being able to categorize and pick out, why you like them, can be a big step helping develop your own style.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Stephen King: to write is human, to edit is divine.

Charles Liu’s Website:  Click HERE.

Charles says if you’re thinking about being a writer you need to read this first: Click HERE

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  1. Awesome post, Michelle.

    This is exactly what I needed today as I revise my YA manuscript.


    • Hi Jodi!
      Glad it helped. I loved your blog tour last week. You’re so fun! I hope you’re selling gobs of books. I want a print copy. Soon, right?

  2. Really interesting article, Michelle! And as for Stephen King’s quote…I so wish I could relate to the editing part…LOL. Thanks for great info.!

  3. Great post! I checked out Charles Wiu’s website–WOW! This guy is or-ga-nized! That’s about the neatest website I’ve ever seen. I totally agree with you that good fiction has three acts and certain elements.

    • Thanks Patricia. I had a difficult time finding the right blog template.. because the usual blog templates that arranges by dates just did not appeal to me. As for deconstructing the 3 part hero’s journey . . . you can learn so much by comparing the sections side by side. I try to strip down things to its most bare essential… & throwing out all the noise. It also helps when you HAVE TO explain to yourself, and not simply leave it in a vague i know what it is, i just don’t know how to explain it position.

  4. Hi Michelle,
    As always, a great post. So informative, and something to glean from. I love Stephen King’s quote.
    Hey, perhaps my writing wil take your breath away, as I am remembered by all my typos. Just kidding! I envision myself as a greaI typist. I have determined that I have the fastest index fingers in the world. I do look forward to your posts. Blessings.

    • Hi Johnny!
      It makes me smile to hear you look forward to our posts. Thanks!
      I’m going to call you Tyrone the two-digit typing whiz. We writers get it down anyway we can, right?

      • Thanks Michelle. I always look forward to your posts, as they are very helpful, and informative. Looking forward to your next post. Hey! Tyrone it is! Blessings

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