Short Storyspreadsheet: Excel as a Trojan Horse for Literature

Written by David on March 31st, 2009

A few weeks ago, I had a nutty idea and decided to Tweet it:

Naturally, I assumed that would be it.  Like one of Yoko Ono’s wacky concepts, the mere idea of such a thing would be entertaining enough.  No point in going through the trouble of actually doing it.

But there was a bit of a reaction to the idea.  Just a wee bit of a stir.  Then absurdist writer Nick Name came up with the term for such a creation:  novexcel.

That struck me as a beautiful new word.  It acted as a kind of fuel for my inspiration.  I decided that, for once, I really ought to put one of my nutty ideas to the test.

But the time required for a full-length novexcel would be more than I’d care to invest in an experiment.  Instead, I thought, how about a short storyspreadsheet?

So I’ve done it.  Here is the first draft of my short storyspreadsheet “Under the Table” (I hope I don’t need to point out the double entendre).  Other formats are available at the end of the post.  Read it.  I swear it’s not horrible (how’s that for a blurb?).

Click here to download the Excel version of “Under the Table.”

The first worksheet of the Excel file has the “raw data,” the story itself (8 columns x 30 rows).  The easiest way to read it is to click on the first cell and then use the arrow keys to move to the next cell you want to read.  The second sheet has a line graph that gives graphical representation to the “Character Intensity of Thought Units” (CIT Units) for each “Action Segment” in the story.

The raw data is formatted to print nicely, if that’s your thing.  However, I encourage everyone to read the story in its electronic format.  I’ve turned on “Track Changes,” thereby cordially inviting you to collaborate with me on this short storyspreadsheet.  Make any changes you feel are appropriate, and then send your version of the short storyspreadsheet back to me at david [at] theurbanelitist [dot] com.  I’ll be able to highlight any changes you made.  In particular, I’d like help with the language of each character’s thoughts.  I was not sure how best to handle this (Joycean stream of consciousness or ???).

All suggestions/edits will be considered and greatly appreciated.  However, I remain the master of this particular short storyspreadsheet.  This is not literature as democracy.  Whether or not a collaborator’s suggestions are used, all collaborators will be credited in the final version.

Of course, if you’d like to write your own short storyspreadsheet, please send it to me and I’ll add all submitted short storyspreadsheets to single Excel file (one story per worksheet).  The short storyspreadsheet collection will then be distributed globally in an electronic format, free of charge.  Those who download it will be encouraged to sneak a short storyspreadsheet or two into their dreary work-related Excel files.

Do I have any plans to turn “Under the Table” into a “normal” short story?  No.  This banal scenario, I think, would not work as a standard short story.  It only has the potential to be effective in the short storyspreadsheet format.  Besides, these characters are a rather despicable lot.  They deserve to be trapped inside a spreadsheet.  (Let that be your warning.  These characters are cruel and often crude.  Deal with it.  Short storyspreadsheets by their very nature contain only cold facts, like them or not.  Welcome to your world.)

Do I hope to have the final version of “Under the Table” published in the online version of a highly esteemed literary journal?  Yes.  I want to say something like, “Let’s see if any literary journal has the GUTS to publish a short storyspreadsheet!”  But if I were to do that, a significant percentage of people would not realize that I was kidding.  We can’t have that.  If I’m happy with the final result, I would like to see this published in a highly esteemed literary journal, but I do not actually believe that publishing it will require any “guts.”

Options for reading “Under the Table”:

Excel version (recommended)

Word version (the Excel table is pasted into Word)

Update: Google Docs Spreadsheet (thanks, Ryan)

Screen shots after the jump…

Click thumbnails to enlarge:

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29 Comments so far ↓

  1. melissa says:

    HILARIOUS! Definitely kept me entertained at work.

  2. Pfepher says:

    I really enjoyed this. It was a novel way to read a story. I’m truly sorry for the pun, but it is the only way I can summarize the experience.

    I also enjoyed the story.

    Well thought out and well executed.

  3. Jason says:

    Brilliant and quite interesting. Looking forward to seeing changes and what others come up with. Well done.

  4. preshest says:

    I’m lovin’ it!!

  5. Nick Name says:

    1. It gives new dimension to narration
    2. It is spreading literature to totally new areas
    3. It perfectly describes what literature is about: to accumulate emotions
    4. It’s redefining the term “blank sheet of paper”

    Total: EXCELLENT

  6. yelahneb says:

    Excellent – like a storyboard for a film. Nicely done!

  7. Might I suggest republishing the document as a publicly viewable Google Docs spreadsheet, to allow web-rrific access? Indeed, I’ve taken the liberty. Let me know if you want me to take that down or if you want me to share the sheet with you.

  8. nemo says:

    Very interesting. :)

    It feels kind of like the literary equivelant of a programming flowchat or pseudocode… I don’t think I’d want a very long novel from it, but it think it’s a great way to analyse a scene… being able to slice the story elements in different ways like this and follow each characters thoughts and moods easily without manually filtering out the rest :)

    I found the CIT data too much trouble to refer to though, and suggest instead that it be included directly to the story flow. Perhaps as coloured borders/backgrounds for each thought cell?

  9. sgong says:

    this is so cool. the concept is cool – but also the fucking story is so great. i’m not sure if it is because it is the only short story i have read since 6th grade — because i cant pay attention to anything in book form and i can pay attention to this one because it is divided into logical units, or is it because it is such a great short story. whatever. i just think it is great and logical and more like a math equation and i dont know, it is just cool.

  10. David says:

    Thanks all for the positive feedback…just don’t forget to send me your edits if you think of any specific improvements! And thanks, Ryan, for the Google Docs upload and link…very handy, it is.

    Melissa, your comment reminded me that I neglected to mention that having fiction in Excel makes it very easy to get away with reading it at work, even when some dastardly authority figure might be looking over your shoulder.

  11. Q says:

    this was a really cool story!

  12. Jonathan Salem Baskin says:

    Actually, I use a spreadsheet to map out my novels — characters along the Y axis, chapters along the X — and as I can keep track of plot development for each (and how/when they interact). Making it THE novel itself is an intriguing proposition!

  13. Kris says:

    Those poor people, all so unhappy! Ha ha!

  14. Actually, this looks like a shit-hot outlining tool, and I am going to jump in and investigate its use at once …

  15. Chris Martin says:

    I definitely love the concept. I think that using these ubiquitous modern media to transmit narrative is a great idea.

    But (and I hate to rain on your parade), my problem is that your short story wasn’t intrinsic to Excel. Excel is about numbers and formulas and functions. What’s more, Excel is a fundamentally interactive experience – you don’t just look passively at a sheet of numbers, you input them and alter them to see new results. I would have loved to see you play not just with the form of concurrent narration (which has been done using just plaintext, without the need for Excel, though Excel does formalise it well) but with the medium of Excel itself.

    But at the same time I really like that you’ve established a jumping off point for others to use. I just wanted to establish the principle that using an unusual medium is not sufficient – each new medium has to be used in such way as it reflects the nature of the medium in a way that enhances the story.

    Chris Martin

  16. David says:

    Thanks,Tim. I’d seen that read at work site and had wondered why they just didn’t use Word docs instead of PowerPoint. They’d blend in even better at work.

    Chris, I agree that there are far more dynamic things one could do in Excel, but I was more interested in the effects of breaking the text up into a grid than in utilizing every function Excel has to offer. I hope others do try something that’s more of a departure from standard narrative text.

    That said, as I mention, I don’t think this particular story would be very interesting at all in a standard format. In this format, I think it at least has the potential to create an unusual tension among the character. I also like that the spreadsheet pretty much forces the writer to eliminate all the “fluff” that you’d find in a normal short story and just deal with the “facts” of the action, dialogue and thoughts.

  17. Sukanya says:

    It’s very interesting. I think Marisha Pessl (Special Topics in Calamity Physics) used the same technique while she was working on “Special Topics…”…
    I think it’s a really neat way to organize thoughts!

  18. happyseaurchin says:

    interesting premise…
    glad you put it on googledocs
    let’s see…
    first scene
    brilliant simple intro to dynamics
    and potential for multi-narrative reading has real potential!
    second scene:
    action is not action but 3rd person author comment
    since it is obvious from Fred’s internal dialogue…

    interesting dialogue
    can be read as a play or monologue or shortstory


  19. happyseaurchin says:

    while looking at it on googledocs
    someone else started reading it
    and i started chatting with them
    but they didn’t respond…
    very interesting potential there too :)
    all in all
    an interesting development!

  20. Furnald_Hall says:

    Nice idea and first story.

    I’m wondering if this is a one-shot novelty, or if it can be developed into a minor literary form; it does have appeal, somehow.

    Thse waitress is a bitch!

  21. Where did you get such an idea?! It’s intriguing, but I don’t like systematic approaches to writing.

    But hey, maybe I’ll try it once, just to see how it works :D!

  22. BlogHill says:

    Very creative… I must read some more… Gabriella sounds Brazilian. ;)

    “I want to say something like, “Let’s see if any literary journal has the GUTS to publish a short storyspreadsheet!” … you just did!

  23. Gary Stewart says:

    You’re a very smart guy, but a shitty writer. A good story w/ interesting dialogue and memorable characters should be your main concern, not showing the world how clever you are.

  24. Thanks for the food for thought.

    I already use a spreadsheet to plan any long pieces of work, column 1 is for plot points, 2 is for notes and bites I wish to include, 3 is Pseudo-script (minimalist text directions), 4 is for hooks (points where conflict starts and when resolved).

    Rows are the progressive chapter, scene timeline(s).

    A textual storyboard if you like, I only start truly writing when I can “see and feel” the story and characters.

    I then use it as a guide, finding that it stops me from writing long sections that eventually get cut out anyway.

    I hadn’t taken it to the point that you have, where you can visualise each characters feelings and internal dialogue.

    Thanks, I would not like to read a book like this but as a writers tool it has untapped potential.

  25. Nzl says:

    SO interesting :) it was fun reading it..

  26. d.humeston says:

    Very creative! I thought creativity was dead, but you proved me wrong!
    Great job!

  27. Karla says:


    I really like this. I have a really hard time getting my thoughts straight between the characters.


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