Tuesday, January 4, 2011

15 A Writer's Plot Board: Getting organized

"Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, 
but you can make the whole trip that way."  

- E.L. Doctorow

Last week I listed some great tools to help you start 2011 off on the right foot. So it goes without saying that once you have all the tools in place, you need something tangible to work with. Let’s assume you’ve got THE NEXT GREAT NOVEL IDEA percolating in your head. What next?

It’s time to get organized, my friends.

Now, I’m not saying everyone needs to be a plotter, or a panster, or whatever. Writers are creators regardless of the pre-writing ritual. But as creators, that also means we’re visual by nature—whether we’re seeing what’s directly in front of us or just seeing the creations still forming in our mind. 

For me, one of the best ways I can visualize my story is by creating a plot board. If you’ve never created one before, then consider this post my New Year’s present to you!

A plot board is essentially this: a poster board with a plot on it. *Grins* You may know it better by the name, storyboard. Screenwriters and directors use storyboards for movies and TV episodes to help them organize everything from story lines to blocking the actors to prop/set design. They are essential in Hollywood pre-production.

As a writer, you can decide whether you want to create one in the planning stage of your novel or in the revision stage…or maybe you give it a solid go and decide it’s too James Cameron-esque for you. That’s fine, too. At the most, you would’ve wasted thirty minutes and some post-its and who are we kidding—everyone knows office supplies are right up there with chocolate and coffee/tea for a writer.

Here’s what you’ll need:
  • Multi-colored sticky notes
  • Pen/Pencil/Sharpie
  • Ruler
  • Poster board (the tri-fold, foam-backed science project boards work great but if you don’t want to bother with poster board, you can get by with just empty wall space)
There are many variations of how to do a plot board and if you decide to create them for your writing projects, chances are good you’ll develop your own way. But for purposes of this post, I’m going to go over what I do for my planning stage (NOTE: I’m totally a plotser, meaning that I develop just enough of an outline to know where I’m going, but I definitely don’t flesh it out beforehand and it never looks like my finished novel.)

Here’s what you do:
  • Divide the poster board into four columns and two rows (I structure my story into three acts, with rising and falling action and a turning point in each act. On my plot board, I split my second act into two columns since it has the most pages, and my turning points occur on the line that separates the board in half lengthwise. I also use a star or heart-shaped note to separate turning points from the main plot and subplot sticky notes. Some plot board users divide the board by number of chapters, or for simplicity’s sake, they’ll divide the board evenly into 16 squares – four columns by four rows. Since I don’t typically know what chapter my events will happen, I find that the more general 4-act story structure works for me. But this is your board so do what works best for you!)
  • Assign colored sticky notes to specific plot lines (i.e.: Main Plot = yellow, Love interest = pink, Villain thwarting Hero = green, Parents’ divorce = blue, School Social scene = purple, etc…). Depending on your story, you may find it more helpful to assign colors to specific characters, especially if you have multiple narrators or a larger supporting cast.
  • Write story events on sticky notes. Add things like location, date, point-of-view character, or whatever comes to mind that may be helpful in your planning.
  • Place sticky notes in the approximate spot that fits your story arc. The beauty of sticky notes is that you can always rearrange them if you decide to play with the timeline of events.

Referring to your plot board while you write can help you stay on course and remind you of important events. It also helps you stay organized by giving you a clear picture of how your plot lines weave together…or maybe don’t weave together. 

Oftentimes if you’re stuck with a certain scene, you can look at your plot board and see that perhaps you have too many green sticky notes in back-to-back scenes, thus skewing your story more toward your villain rather than your hero. Or maybe you notice a distinct lack of blue sticky notes when you need that subplot to have more hold in order for your character to grow throughout the story.

You can also create plot boards after you’ve written the first draft, when you need to see your story all at once. This is where you really get a chance to see how your story comes together! During the early revision stage, it’s a lot easier to experiment with pacing by moving notes around than by copying and pasting chunks of actual writing.

And here’s a picture of a plot board I did for a past project. I should probably note that this was created during my first round of revisions, so I knew how many squares to create and I think I also used the back of the poster board. But as you can see, I like my office supplies! 

For more information on plot boards, check out some of these awesome links:

Alexandra Sokoloff : Index Card Method can be modified for a plot board [http://thedarksalon.blogspot.com/2008/10/story-structure-101-index-card-method.html]
Diane Chamberlain: Picture of before and after plot boards [http://www.dianechamberlain.com/blog/?p=1143]
Suite 101: Storyboards Help Track Plots [http://www.suite101.com/content/storyboards-a24216]

For this week's writing prompt, use the photo above as inspiration to write a flash short story based on the main star of today's post, sticky notes! If you’d like to share it with us, enter it in the comments below (up to 250 words) or provide a link to where we can find it on the web. We also welcome comments on the stories or the craft tip.    

And the winner of last week's giveaway of Forget You by Jennifer Echols is:

Angela Dahle

Congrats Angela! I'll be mailing out your copy this week. 

Today's giveaway is a hardcover copy of Rampant by Diana Peterfreund. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post and fill out the entry form. The contest is open to US residents and will run until Jan. 10 at 8pm EST. The winner will be announced next Tuesday. Good luck!

Happy Plot Boarding!



  1. Great ideas! Since I don't have the space for something so large, I have a similar approach except I use sheets of 8 1/2 x 11 paper, taped together. Then I can fold up the storyboard if necessary (or stick it up on the back of a door or wall, like a poster).

  2. Great idea for outlining plot. I was studying Alexandra Sokoloff's index card method over the holidays and am going to try to outline a new idea before I start writing it. Thanks for giving me more helpful suggestions.

  3. Wow! Amazing links, thanks Adventures. I like to use a spreadsheet for stuff like this because I'm a dork like that.

  4. This seems quick and easy. I believe I was doing something similar (I love sticky notes) but didn't know what to call it.

  5. Love this idea, but I tend to lose stuff like post-its WAY too easily! If it's not in my computer, it tends to fall on the floor and fall victim to the whims of my pugs. I do however, love using Scrivener's storyboard-like interface. Similar idea without the teethmarks :)

  6. Um. Wow! Thanks for this!

  7. I love to use office supplies! Can't wait to try it :)

  8. I've never tried this before...but I love using post its so I'm going to give it a shot!

  9. Great idea. I'm planning to do something similar (though electronic) come revision time. Thanks for the links!

  10. Wow, yes, I'm bookmarking this post!! When I move into my new home (and my library!) I'm going to get a posterboard and do this!!!!!

    Thank you! :D

  11. I work similarly, but use a notebook instead of a big board. It gets a bit messy, because I have to jam in new pages and move things around, but it works for me! I like the idea of using differently colored stickies for different characters. Then, even if you don't end up writing it, you know what everyone is up to.

  12. I like this! I may just have to embrace organization and try it!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  13. This is better than how I did it once, with a whole bunch of little strips of paper with scenes on 'em. LOL

    I like the idea of being organized, so just might have to try this on my next novel...hmm, or to help finish up my WiP...

  14. Solid advice. And your plot board looks so much prettier than the outlines I scrawl in my journal!

  15. Cool idea. It addresses both my OCD and my love for stationery products.


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