Son of Plotting Board

Happy Independence Day, readers in the U.S.A.! Boy, did we show those Brits, huh? Having lived in a bunch of different places, I am fascinated by the way folks in various regions of the country celebrate this holiday. Growing up in Florida, it seemed mostly like an excuse to go to the beach for our fireworks (but maybe that was because I was a kid). In Boston, it seemed to bring out the pugilistic side of the residents. They all sat around talking about how kickass the colonists were during the Tea Party and oh, those Adams boys! In D.C., it almost always sparks philosophical discussions about the “American experiment” and what the founding fathers were really saying with that brassy Declaration of theirs. I swear, it’s like I stumbled into an episode of The West Wing around here. I love this town.

Today, Sailor Boy and I (and a bunch of our friends, and two puppies) are celebrating our independence in a most Marylander fashion: we’re eating a bushel of blue crabs. And, um, talking about democracy.

Also, thanks everyone for delurking yesterday. It was really nice to meet some new folks, and confirm that, in fact, the evil biumvirate of Shannon McKelden and Gena Showalter have been spying on me. Watch out for those two, guys. They are completely sneaky. At times, I’ve been known to read one of their books and even miss my train stop. So you see how they can’t be trusted.

The winner of the Susan Kearney Giveaway is: THE ANTI-WIFE. Please email me at the email address listed at right with your address to receive your prize.

And I do want to clarify something that came up in the comments yesterday: I have no expectation that anyone hanging out on the blog has read my books. Naturally, it would be lovely if you did, but if not, that’s cool too. Either way is fine. There are blogs I read written by authors whose books aren’t my thing. (And, um, whenever I feel guilty about it I just recommend the book in question to someone who DOES like the genre the blogger is writing. And then everyone is happy.)

Okay, moving on. Yesterday, in the comments section, barratt, who thinks I should watch The Black Donnellys (is it on Netflix yet?), asked:

How does a fledgling writer/plotter get started with plot boards? I know that making one would help my writing, but I just can’t figure out a good way to do it. How did you start using your current system, and do you have any advice for writers trying to come up with their own?

Actually, I recommend jumping in and making one. It’s really one of those things where explaining all the different methods is not going to work half as well as you just sitting down and giving it a whirl. It’s kind of like a few weeks ago, where I insisted up down and backwards that collaging didn’t work for me, and then I tried it and I really loved it. Green eggs and ham, indeed. (Unfortunately, I have yet to solve the problem that the collage revealed, but hey, knowing is half the battle, right?) It’s a pretty cheap project, luckily, so you don’t have to invest much if it turns out that the boards don’t work for you. So: Grab a poster board (or “whiteboard”/dry-erase board) and some colored pens and a couple of post it notes and just start playing around. I can’t really tell you what you’re going to need once you get in there with the story. But I bet you’ll be able to figure it out once the materials are in your hands and you start scribbling stuff down.

Barratt says, “I know that making one would help my writing, but I just can’t figure out a good way to do it.” I’m not quite sure what you mean. Have you tried making them before and they didn’t work, or you aren’t sure how to start?

Everyone I know who uses plotting boards uses them differently. There really is no wrong way. It’s just a tool to help you look at your work in a more visual or graphical manner, like collages. Julie Leto color codes by POV characters, Rachel Vincent writes down all the story elements she wants in her book, arranges them by color, and then figures out what order they should go in, I write each scene, then analyze each by color code to see if my plot has been properly integrated… my friend CL Wilson does hers on computer, using a program called Writer’s Blocks.

The above link to Julie Leto sends you to her awesome plotting workshop,which I think will work at any level. The way I do it, I’ve already got a basic idea of the plot progression, and have actually written the scenes, so the following instructions may not be as helpful if you haven’t started writing yet. (I do most of my planning free-form.) Maybe, to make a sample, you might try making a plotting board for a book or movie you already know and love. I recently made one for a workshop I gave on Pride & Prejudice, and I thought it turned out great, and taught me even more about the book and about good subplots.


1. Figure out the basic storyline of your novel. If you have ideas for certain scenes, great! If not, try to get just the basic turning points, the climax, stuff like that.

2. Write a synopsis. Assign a color of post-it note to each plotline or subplotline you think will be a big deal in your novel.

3. Start writing.

4. After you have written a scene, go back and quickly write down what happens in the scene on the corresponding subplot color, for each plot/subplot that is dealt with in that scene. This should only take a moment or two (you don’t want to lose your momentum!) For instance, if you are plot-boarding Pride and Prejudice, and recapping the scene where Lizzie first meets Mr. Darcy at the dance, you might write down on a pink note (pink=love story between Mr. Darcy and Lizzie): “Darcy refuses to dance with Elizabeth and ridicules her within earshot; she laughs it off, surprising him.” Then you might write down on a green note (green=Bingley and Jane’s romance): “Bingley is immediately taken with Jane; dances with her twice.” Try to limit your use of post-its to those that are really developed in the scene. If we get a bit of important info, or something happens that puts the progression of that storyline in a different place, note it. Otherwise, skip it. Just because Lydia is there that night doesn’t mean her plot line gets very far. Wickham hasn’t even moved to town yet!

5. Divide your posterboard into squares, one for each scene of the novel. Place the notes of various colors inside the appropriate squares. Some squares will have more colors than others. That’s okay. In fact, it’s great! If a square has only one color, however, it should be a short scene, or it should be a very important moment within that subplot (when Mr. Darcy meets Lizzie at Pemberley, there’s only one thing going on. But it’s a big enough deal to stand on its own, for it’s Darcy’s moment to prove he’s changed his tune.)

6. If you can’t figure out what color/s a scene should be described in, ask yourself if the scene is really moving the story forward. How and why are important questions to ask here. Maybe it is, but you haven’t assigned a color to that subplot. That’s okay. Get another color (if you run out of post its, use colored pens to differentiate). For instance, maybe you didn’t think to assign a post-it note color to Mr. Collins.

7. As you are writing, you may realize that a subplot you thought would be important is turning out to not be a big part of the story (who cares what becomes of Kitty?) whereas some other thing starts to make up an important part of the story (that nice soldier Wickham who befriends Lizzie). This is also okay. Subplots don’t need to start and end at the same time.

8. As you are plot-boarding each scene, keep an eye on the entire board. If it helps, stand back from time to time and squint, until you can just see the colors. Is there any place on the board where there is a dearth of a particular color? Once a color appears, does it show up regularly until that storyline has reached a conclusion? You’re going to see a few gaps, and that’s just fine. But the more important a plot line is to the story, the fewer the gaps should be.

9. Go back to the scene where gaps are showing. Is there any way you can punch it up a notch, re-integrate the part that’s missing?

That’s how I do it. It may work for you, it may not. Maybe Rachel or Julie’s method works better for you. Maybe none of them work for you, but a combo of all three works just dandy. But it’s one of those things where you won’t really know until you try. How did I get started? I sat down with my plotting board and went: “I need to make sure I am keeping all the subplot balls in the air” and away I went.

Good luck!

Posted in giveaway winners, plot board, writing advice

12 Responses to Son of Plotting Board

  1. Jessica Burkhart says:

    Happy 4th, Diana! 🙂 I’m saving your description of your plot board. Mine, compared to yours, is quite sad! 😉

  2. Shannon Stacey says:

    Yesterday, in the comments section, barratt, who thinks I should watch The Black Donnellys (is it on Netflix yet?), asked:

    Unless they’re putting the unaired episodes from the season on the DVD, don’t do it. You’ll have just enough to become invested and engaged and then – BAM! There’s no more.

  3. Jacqueline T Lynch says:

    Fascinating plot board using Pride & Prejudice. Never thought of using one before. Usually just write notes to myself on the backs of envelopes from ultility bills and stuff them in my pockets. Your way is better. Using this classic novel to illustrate made your description very clear. Thanks.

  4. Annie says:

    Happy Independence Day! I’m drooling at the thought of your steamed crabs. (I’ve yet to have any this season… what is wrong with me.)

    Enjoy your day!!

  5. bitter in kansas says:

    we’re eating a bushel of blue crabs. And, um, talking about democracy.

    that shouldn’t take long considering how it is dying a slow death in this country.

  6. barratt miller says:

    Confession: I haven’t actually watched all of The Black Donnellys (full episodes are online at The pilot stands alone beautifully as a complete story, in my mind.

    I just finished a draft of a novel (first time I’d ever actually made it to “The End”), and realized that I was NOT a pantser. Now that I know I’m a plotter, I’m trying something new, I just wasn’t sure how to approach the whole idea of plot boards. Thank you very much for your tips and links! All were very helpful.

  7. Robin Brande says:

    Diana, the rest of the post is lovely, but I couldn’t concentrate past the “and two puppies” part.

    PUPPIES??!! Did you say puppies? Are they yours? Do you finally get to have dogs??

  8. Diana Peterfreund says:

    Alas, no, they are “niece” and “nephew” puppies. The dogs of friends. And not so much puppies, since one is 8 and the other 17. But, DOGGIES! Dogggies!!!! Yay!

    Last night, SB asked me when I wanted to move out of our apartment, and I said, “As soon as possible?”

  9. Mystery Robin says:

    Diana, I was at Barnes and Noble on the 4th and saw your book on the new fiction table right by the register. What great placement!!

  10. The Anti-Wife says:

    I won! WooHoo! Thanks!

    E-mail is on its way!

  11. Robin Brande says:

    New book deal = house = puppies.

    Everyone knows that math. Doesn’t SB?

  12. Carolyn Bahm says:

    Thanks for the plotboard inspiration! I’ve got notes on how I used this great technique last night in today’s post at my writing blog, Drops of Blood. I wouldn’t already have 95% of my mystery’s plot mapped out without this inspired method. THANK YOU!