Visual Plotting Via Plotting Board

Writers tend to fall in one of two categories: plotters or “pantsers.” Plotters like to organize their story ahead of time, creating in-depth character descriptions, outlines, and world-building rules before they write word one. “Pantsers,” on the other hand, skip the organizing and write by the seat of their pants. If you’re in the latter group, you can probably ignore this post. But if you’re a plotter, and especially if you’re a visual learner, plot boards could be a great tool for you to use. (Full disclosure: I’m a plotter. Always have been. I love lists and outlines. I have nothing against “pantsers,” if that process works for them. It just makes me think of the term “patzer”–a weak chess player).

Over on the Wordserve Water Cooler blog, Erica Vetsch wrote about how she uses plot boards to plan her stories. Loosely based on a film’s story board, a plot board uses Post-it notes and one of those tri-fold display boards you probably used for your middle school science fairs. The trick is to use the Post-it notes to track your scenes, making sure each logically follows the last in a cause/effect relationship. That happens along the top half of the board. Along the bottom, you can track the internal and external motivations and conflicts of your characters.

The beauty of this system is its adaptability. You can color code your Post-it notes by POV character. This allows you to see if your storytelling is varied yet balanced. You can quickly identify and fix plot holes at the early stages instead of later, when it’s more difficult (remember what I said earlier about learning to fail faster?). You can also easily rearrange your notes if you want to play with the story’s timeline to incorporate flashbacks or a “bookend” structure.

Yes, I’m pretty sure you can do all of this with Scrivener. (Note: I’ve never used Scrivener, but I’ve been tempted to get it on more than a few occasions, as many writers swear by it.) But I’m an old fashioned, pen and paper sort of guy. Also, display boards and Post-it notes are cheaper than software (of course, software is a one-time purchase). And if you plan on having more than 20 scenes or chapters, and/or more than two central characters, you’ll need more than one board, or smaller notes (just imagine George R.R. Martin’s plot boards!). The more information you need to summarize, the less useful this technique will become.

I really wish I would have found Ms. Vetsch’s posts before NaNoWriMo began. I can think of more than a few writers who would have loved spending the last week or so of October putting together their plot board so they could launch full-speed into November.

Do you outline? How do you plan out your story? Do you think this might be useful? Let me know.

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