Using a Plot Board to Plot Your Novel

Way back in Mid-August, I posted here about how a Plot First Novelist Builds Character(s). I admitted to being a plot-first writer and a dedicated ‘Plotter.’ Boy howdy, if you want to divide a room full of novelists quicker’n Shergar won the Derby, ask who is a plotter and who is a ‘pantser.’

But, though novelists fall mostly into two camps, each side often wonders about how the other manages to write books using their method. I thought I’d give you a peek into my plotting method.

I use a plot board. I first came across this idea on the Seekerville blog where a guest had a photograph of her own plot board. Since I’m a visual person, I glommed onto the idea and created a board of my own to see if it would work for me too.

And it sure does! There are so many things I love about using my plot board.Β The plot board allows me to see at a glance how many scenes I have, who is the point-of-view character, and the characters’ Goals, Motivations, & Conflicts. It forces me to write out, however briefly, the internal and external goals of the characters and really think about what it is I’m trying to say with the story. Oh, and I get to play with post-it notes. πŸ™‚

One other thing I love is that it’s easy-peasy to change your mind about something. You just move the post-it to a new place or throw it away and write out a new one. I found this particularly appealing, especially since I tend to change my mind a lot while plotting.

The top half of my plot board is divided into 20 equal sections and numbered across the rows. Each of the numbered boxes represents a chapter in the story. Β (Twenty is just a starting point. I lengthen or shorten the story based upon what is needed. But there is only room for about 20 boxes on the plot board. If I need more, I have to scrunch things and overlap.)The bottom half is divided into two parts with six equal sections in each part. These are for the characters.

Prior to writing anything out for the plot board, I’ve researched, ruminated, and spent days and weeks reading and thinking about the story. I’ve got a few high points of the plot in my head, and I have a fair idea of setting, time period, etc. I have a rudimentary idea of the characters, too. This pre-plotting prep is necessary for me. If I dive into plotting too early, before the story has had a chance to marinate in my subconscious, I find myself staring at the blank plot board the same way I stare at a blank screen if I haven’t plotted beforehand.

When it comes time to begin filling in my plot board, I start at the bottom of the board with the two six-chambered grids. On each side, one column is labeled External, and one is labeled Internal. This is where I put the Goals, Motivations, and the Conflicts for each of the two main characters. Since I write romance, this means the hero and the heroine. What do they want, why do they want it, and what is keeping them from getting it? I decide what personality types my characters are (click on the first link in this post to see how I do that) and start plotting the story.

Β 
Then I grab my smallest post-its, about 1.5 x 1 inch. I write the major plot points out and stick them to a notebook page. (Things like Avalanche hits Train, or Finds Out He’s Adopted.) As fast as the ideas come to me, I jot them down, keeping it brief and fairly broad. When I think I’ve got the big ideas of the story set down, I start arranging them on the plot board. I keep them in chronological order, but I don’t sweat too much whether they are in their final position or not. I know it’s probably going to change as I go. When I have the bones of the story down, I start making logical connections with scenes. What has to happen in order to get the character from major plot point one to major plot point two? Β I use the next larger size post-it for these in various colors. Pink for the heroine’s POV and blue for the hero’s. Orange, yellow, purple, chartreuse…those are for secondary characters’ POV scenes. By color coding the post its, I can see at a glance if I’ve kept a good balance of his/her scenes and if I’ve lost anyone in the shuffle.

One thing I mustn’t forget to mention is that the whole time I’m doing this, I’m talking. Usually to my daughter. (When we finished plotting the last novel, she crashed on her bed and I had to take a picture.) By talking it out and letting someone not as familiar with the story ask “Why?” kinds of questions, I minimize the plot holes as much as I can up front. My daughter is great at this, and I plot much better and quicker when she’s involved in the process.

When I get all the scenes filled in, I tell the story once more aloud, making sure I have it the way I want it. Then I use the plot board to type out a chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene synopsis, including what I want to accomplish in each scene. I know without a doubt that when I have that road map in my mind and in my hands, I write much faster than if I’m feeling my way around with no idea where I’m supposed to be going.

So there you have it. My plotting system. It works for me, and it’s been tweaked and refined each time I go through the process of plotting a new story. I hope you can glean something that will help you.

Question for you: Plotter or Pantser? Does the thought of using a plot board excite you or make you want to run screaming to the nearest bag of chocolate chips?

Post Author: Erica Vetsch

Erica Vetsch is a transplanted Kansan now residing in Minnesota. She loves history and reading, and is blessed to be able to combine the two by writing historical fiction set in the American West. WheneverΒ she’s not following flights of fancy inΒ her fictional world,Β she’s the company bookkeeper forΒ the family lumber business, mother of two terrific teens, wife to a man who isΒ her total opposite andΒ soul-mate, and avid museum patron.

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53 thoughts on “Using a Plot Board to Plot Your Novel

    • I admit, I thought of the huge amount of paper too. πŸ™‚ But I can see the value. I’m just cheap, and so I try to do it all on the computer screen.

    • I have Scrivner, but the plot board seems to work better for me. Maybe I need the scope. I must be fairly low-tech, because I found the learning curve on Scrivner to be steep for me, especially when I already had a system that was working for me.

    • Hi, Idella, I think that’s part of it for me too, stepping away from the keyboard and getting some scope and sequence, manipulating plot ideas with my hands and mind. That and I love post-its. πŸ™‚

  1. Thanks for the piece. I really enjoyed it, much more because this is exactly how I hope to more or less, write my novels. I realised it midway into my debut novel which I just finished.

    • Hi, Ike, I discovered this process about three novels in, and I’ve used it in one iteration or another ever since. Sometimes you have to experiment with different methods until you find the one that clicks for you. And I’m constantly tweaking the plot board approach with each novel I write.

    • Hi, Sue, I love the flexibility of this method. I can be as detailed or as broad-stroked as I want or need to be for a given project. I’m glad the photos and description helped you out. πŸ™‚

  2. I think I just got hives. The mere thought of doing this makes me dizzy. Obviously this works for you. I get the concept. I just want to run from the room screaming, that’s all. πŸ™‚ I’ll stick to my throw a bunch of ideas up in the air and see which way they land pantser style of writing. While I do harbor a secret jealously for all you plotters out there because your theories really do seem to work, and hey, you’re getting published, I just can’t change the way I write. And believe me, I have tried. In the end, it’s not worth my time and aggravation, so I continue to do things the hard way.

    • Hi, Cathy, It ain’t the hard way if it works for you! πŸ™‚ I feel the same way about character development sheets. Makes me queasy…and not a little bored when I think of filling out ‘what is your character’s favorite breakfast food’ questions.

  3. I love how you involve your daughter in the process! That’s awesome.

    I’m a minor plotter. I get paralyzed if I don’t have some idea where I’m going. But I’ve known people who plot out every theme and nuance in advance, and that makes my brain overload. I’d never write a word if I had to have all that figured out in advance, because too much of it reveals itself as I write.

    • Hi, Kathleen, my daughter is a treasure, and not just in the book-plotting realm, though she does rock that, too. Her going away to college has put a crimp in my plotting lately.

      I know what you mean about plotting out all the serendipity. I think that’s one reason I like the plot board. A post-it is way too small to over-plot. I paint with fairly broad strokes and let the rest come out in the writing of the story.

  4. Neat post, Erica. I really enjoyed reading how your daughter/family is involved in your plotting. Great idea! I’m not nearly as organized as you. I use sticky notes for scenes in my novels but then place them on my door in 3 groups — beginning, middle, and end. I also use different colors for my hero/heroine and various plot lines. I’ve never started my writing this way, however…usually turn to this about half-way through when in dire need! Blessings!

    • Hey, don’t knock the door-plot-board. πŸ™‚ When one of my novels grew to have 50 chapters, my glass patio doors were covered in post-its. πŸ™‚

  5. This is good timing for me Erica,
    I’ll admit it. I’m a pantser. But I’ve got to do some plotting now because my next book is due April 1st! I just downloaded Scrivener but I think by the time I figure out how to use it I might have wasted a lot of time so I’m going to try some of your method, some of my method and probably a couple others and see what happens. Sounds like fodder for a future post. πŸ™‚
    Thanks,
    Jill

    • Writing to a deadline was what finally moved me out of pantser mode too, Jill. And the learning curve on Scrivener was too much for me to accomplish before NaNo started and I needed to be writing instead of plotting. I’ll be interested to see how you make out plotting your next story. Yay for deadlines! πŸ™‚

  6. Erica, WOW! This information is so impressive, not to mention your whole plotting process. I’m keeping this handy in case I cross over to writing fiction one day. You are a blessing!

    • Hey, Donna, I’d be interested in hearing about how you organize material for a non-fiction book or Bible study to see how the processes compare. πŸ™‚

  7. My “board” is a single sheet of paper. I’m a nut for an accurate timeline as I write biblical fiction based on the facts laid out in Scripture. So I research what the Bible says, write it ink, and add post it notes with the fictional events I intend to weave among the facts.

    And then I write out a story by the seat of my pants, moving around the post-it notes as I go, while still bound by the Word of God recorded in ink.

    Love the photo, [ROTFL] Erica.

    • Hi, Anne, that’s a great process, especially when you’re working with the inviolable Word. I often incorporate historical events in my fiction, but nothing I have to adhere to as strictly as Scripture.

      My daughter is a hoot. It was hard to get her to stop giggling for the picture. πŸ˜€

  8. I’m a former pantser who’s been converted to plotster after having to ditch and completely rewrite three-quarters of the story that became my debut novel. These days I create a synopsis and plot most of my story scene-by-scene using sticky notes before I begin writing, using different colors for characters, setting, action, etc. I do leave enough room in the outline to allow for those wonderful bursts of creativity that make writing fun, though.

    • Yay for sticky notes! πŸ™‚ And yay for leaving some room to maneuver within the story. Those little bits of serendipity are like rewards for some of the harder slog like plotting in advance?

  9. Thank you for inviting me into the world of a plotter. I like the hands on aspect of what you’re doing, and the way it gets you away from the computer for creative space. I’m still trying to discern what I am. My first novel was seat of the pants. My second was based on a loose plot skeleton. My novella was written off a synopsis. If I plot too much I lose passion for the story, but I don’t want to waste time with scenes that don’t drive the story forward . . . so I guess I’m in between. I’m co-authoring a novel right now to be released in April. My co-author is a plotter. She uses a spread sheet to do a lot of what you’re doing on your story board. It’s been good for me to experience her process, but I found myself asking a lot, “Can I write NOW?”

    Overall, this is a great post. I’m going to link to it as a resource for the writers in my writing group. I think it will help!

    • Thanks so much for linking the post, Paula. I agree with the over-plotting taking the zest out of the experience for me. I think that’s one of the reasons the plot board works, because it’s not as structured as some methods and allows me plenty of time and space to maneuver. I have a one sentence (okay, maybe two) summary of the scene goal, written on a colored piece of paper so I know the POV character, and I know what the main characters in the story want and are hiding. Then I get to write and explore what that looks like. πŸ™‚

  10. I don’t know how anyone writes a complicated plot without one. Thrillers have to have so many clues or red herrings while still driving a plot and maybe even a sub-plot. Then life interrupts and it’s a week, a month before I’m back at it. Without all of those notes and direction it might not turn out so well. Plus I think it helps avoid ‘writer’s block’. Thanks for the post!

    • Martha, I think if I was writing true mysteries or thrillers, my plot board would have to be waaaaaaay more detailed. I would be lost without it. One thing I love about the plot board is that, as you say, I can be away from the story for awhile and come back and see the broad overview and pick up where I left off.

  11. As a reformed pantser and new to plotting, I’ve just been using a new Word document for each stage of the outline. I’m very much a list person so I make a new table for the main outline, each subplot’s outline, and another table for a timeline to keep track of when everything happens. I don’t make exhaustive tables, but I’ve found I need to know all the major points in the novel and not just a general idea of where I’m going.

    • Hi, Michelle, I love hearing all the different ways of plotting a novel and how creative writers are in getting their stories from thought to page. I tend to transfer my sticky notes either to a notebook or to a Word document, or both. πŸ™‚

  12. Erica, it sounds as if you and I have a similar working style. I’m also a plotter who leaves room in the structure by using something similar to a plot board. The reason I haven’t gone to something like Scrivener is that we writers already do so much work on computers that it helps me to have something tangible that I can touch.

    I know there are true pantsers out there, and I totally respect them for their courage! But I also know writers who claim to be pantsers but then get horribly stuck in the middle when they don’t know what happens next or how to get out of a hole. They they don’t write for months or don’t finish novels. That type of writer may not be a true pantser–she may be a plotter waiting to be liberated from the tyranny of the blank page.

    I encourage everybody to try at least a loose outline like a plot board at least once, and be determined about it. (For my most recent novel I just laid out index cards on the floor.) Using craft books can help you construct plots in satisfying, creative ways (one of my favorites is the screenwriting book Save the Cat–I also like using some elements of the Snowflake Method and The Moral Premise.) You may find out that you are more of a plotter than you think. It can be scary, because plotting forces you to confront whether or not your plot is actually interesting and original. But better to confront that question before you write 400 pages! πŸ™‚

    • Hi, Rosslyn, I agree, there are some true SOP writers, but I suspect there are more plotters too. Some write it down first, and others keep it in their heads.

      I do remember hearing about a woman who wrote a 50 page outline of her novel before she started it, and I thought that would be like writing the book twice — way too much plotting for me.

  13. The closest I’ve come to this system was using those huge multicolored index cards and plotting out my WIP. I labeled The SPINE (main storyline) and then added the Spiritual Thread, the Emotional Thread, etc. Then I made sure I had things like the Truth, the Lie, the Black Moment — for both my hero and heroine. I’d done a lot of plotting before all this using Susan May Warren’s The Book Buddy. (I know, not the first time I’ve mentioned this. It’s my go-to tool for plotting.)
    It seems like your system works for you–and having your daughter help–that’s priceless, Erica!!

    • Hi, Beth,

      One of the things my daughter is great at is pulling on a plot thread to see what unravels, and telling me when my main character is doing something out of character. And she accomplishes this with the same word she used to drive me crazy with as a toddler.

      “WHY?”

  14. Oh how I envy the plotters! I want to be one, but I feel just a bit like the poor people staring in the window at Emma Bovary in that famous poor/rich people scene Flaubert wrote. Will I ever achieve that plotter status? Or will it even work for me. Novel number two is the testing ground.

    • Hi, Elaine, Try it, and if it doesn’t work for you, don’t sweat it. Lots of folks write books without articulating the plot or working out every detail.

  15. I have never heard of a plot board. I did like the concept. I suppose I am a pantster. I have never been on to sit and plan. I usually get the idea and I am unable to stop until I get as much as I can written down. Thank you I have learned a lot and will try your concept. Thank you for sharing with us. I really appreciate it.
    Glenda Parker

    • Hi, Glenda, sometimes you have to strike while the iron’s hot. Get what you have in mind written, then see where it needs to go from there. πŸ™‚

  16. As a confirmed panster… I just had something icky crawl up my spine as I read that and contemplated the idea of completely plotting my novel up front. HA HA HA! Admittedly, though, I’m trying to do at least a wee bit of plotting up front now, but still, usually I’m a few chapters in when I stop and do this. I just think best while I write for some reason. My ahead-of-the-game ideas are always drab or dumb, HA!

    Yet… i can totally see the value in this for those who are plotters. And I can see the value for us plotters, when we are stick in the middle because we HAVEN’T plotted… to take a step back and put a visual like this together to see where we might have gone off the deep end and flatlined our story.

    Thanks for sharing Erica!!!!

    • Hi, Krista, I love that we all have different methods and ways of plotting, pantsing, and Plantsing/plontsing our stories.

      I used to get the screaming mimi’s when I tried to write out an outline or fill in spreadsheets, and the Snowflake Method made me want to poke my eyes out, but for some reason, this plot board works for me. πŸ™‚

  17. I always wondered how well those index cards (post-it notes) worked, Erica. Thanks! Right now, a bunch of the large index cards are spread out on my dining room table. Last week, I decided to try this method when I got confused trying to decide the order of certain scenes.

    I consider myself half-plotter/half-pantser, but your system intrigues me. I think I’ll try some version of it for the rest of the book.

    • Hi, Sandra, I hope the plot board helps you out and that you can tweak this method to work for you. And you have a great excuse to buy some fun-colored post its. πŸ˜€

  18. Great post, Erica.

    I definitely lean panster, but I do some plotting ahead of time. I write a synopsis, do character “interviews”, and use general guidelines like big lie, dark moment, three act structure, etc.

    I seem to do my best thinking with a keyboard under my fingers, either piano or typing. πŸ™‚ For some reason, the ideas flow when I type or play. I’ve just about given up on trying to force myself to write longhand or use post it notes. I know it works best for others, but for me, when the fingers move, so does the brain.

    Thanks for sharing your photos and ideas! It’s neat to read everyone’s responses, too.

    • Hi, Gwen, my ideas seem to flow best when I’m in the shower or driving. Or that wonderful twilight time between awake and asleep. Anywhere I am that I don’t have a pencil. πŸ™‚

      I love hearing everyone’s responses too. Writers’ processes are fascinating to me.

  19. Love your post, Erica! I’ve done this in the past and think I need to do it again for my current story. I’m a little stck. LOL! Plus I plan to use this method to plan a Bible study. I got this great app called Corkulos that’s virtual post it notes on a virtual cork board. It’s great iDVD you want to take your board with you but there’s just something about moving those post its around by hand… πŸ™‚

    • Hi, Dineen! I agree, there’s just something about the tactile experience of moving the papers around that helps me organize my thoughts and clarify what I want to say. πŸ™‚

  20. I like this. Thanks for sharing – the plot board is perfect for me. It’s kinetic, visual, and if I have my daughter in the room with me – it’s auditory. Perfect.

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