J.K. Rowling’s Plot Spreadsheets


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The author and mastermind of the whole Harry Potter universe uses plain old notebook paper and a ballpoint pen to develop the intricate plot structures of her books. Down the y-axis, she lists chapter numbers and a month-based chronology, and along the x-axis she lists various attributes of each chapter like title, events and even prophesies integral to each segment of the book.

I think this is fascinating and I’m so curious to know what other authors use similar, low-fidelity planning methods. Also, it goes to show that even in a multimedia age, most good ideas start with a pen and paper. More about the spreadsheets here.

  1. This is so great. I love it when you see the humble beginnings of such a complex piece of work.

    I and other cartoonists I know use similar variations of this type of low-tech outlining for short & long pieces. As a webdesigner, I also start with foundations of scribbles on lined paper, both for visual structure and more complex back end scripting.

    Nothing beats a simple pad of paper!

  2. “Also, it goes to show that even in a multimedia age, most good ideas start with a pen and paper.”

    Sounds good, but I’m not sure how you can present that as fact. A lot of good ideas (as well as bad ones) start on paper. No doubt. Most? Maybe. Who knows. I do know the fact that J.K. Rowling uses pen and paper proves nothing except just that.

  3. I do a lot my first draft work on paper (fountain pen or pencil just to be really archaic).

    Jake, you seem to derive great happiness from making trivial and pedantic debating points, I’ll bet you have lots of friends.

  4. I’ll never forget what Ray Bradbury said: “Put me in a room with a pad and a pencil and set me up against a hundred people with a hundred computers – I’ll outcreate every goddamn sonofabitch in the room.” (Link)

  5. Because I know you really care deeply about this, I have to say that Harry Potter isn’t so cheesy as to have a different prophecy for each chapter; rather, there is one prophecy, and that column on Rowling’s chart refers to the villain’s chapter-by-chapter progress in learning what it says.

  6. This post really makes you think that high tech is not always the best solution to productivity. I’ve been tooling around with the idea of just going all out with my blackberry and moleskine. To be honest, I own a few mac productivity apps which are very popular these days, omnifocus and things and if I tell you I have not look at my next actions in a couple weeks, would that surprise you. JK Rowling, I’m sure, is way busier than I am.

  7. When I saw Rawling’s spreadsheet immediately came to mind the methods used by the French writer Georges Perec, especially for planning his masterpiece ‘La vie mode d’emploi’. Rawling may or may not have been inspired by that method, I don’t know. Perec’s book is like a machine and its gear wheels are set in motion by the ‘polygraphe du cavalier’ or knight move from chess (a Oulipo procedure, proposed by another French writer, Raymond Quenau). The other spreadsheets that Perec developed for his book are derived from the polygraphe and are somewhat similar to Rawling’s. The book is just as complicated as its sounds but nevertheless a good read.
    Take a look at the material that can be found at the Bibliotheque National de France on Perec: http://classes.bnf.fr/ecrirelaville/album/perec/index.htm.

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