Kira Brady

Sep 24
How to Plot a Novel: The Plotting Board Method

For all the writers reading this blog, here’s my cheat sheet for the Plotting Board Method of plotting, which I learned from Cherry Adair. The Cherry Plotters formed in April 2009 as a group of 10 women writers who gather every couple months to help plot each other’s books. Hearts of Darkness was almost complete when I joined, but Hearts of Shadow started off on a blank plotting board just like the one pictured below at Cherry’s lakefront cabin. For Hearts of Chaos, my critique partner and I used a simpler method with fewer post it note colors. It’s worked really well for us. At the end we usually have a very detailed first half and a loose second half of a book. We’ve decided that we need two plotting sessions: one to start and one half way through writing the manuscript to replot the second half. Ideally, I think three people are needed for a good plotting session: one to bring the idea, one to write sticky notes, and one to record all the discussion and ideas in more detail.

To begin, you’ll need a basic understanding of Story Structure, also referred to as the Hero’s Journey (named and studied by Joseph Campbell). His is pretty complicated with Goddesses and elixirs and such. I’d recommend picking up a copy of Save the Cat! by the late great screenwriter Blake Snyder. I had the good fortune of attending a workshop by Blake when I first started out writing. He boiled the hero’s journey down into 15 “beats”, which he could apply to everything from movies to novels to Tide commercials. I had pretty excellent notes up on my old blog, but I recently deleted all my content. *head desk*

Classic Story Structure is divided into three Acts. Act 2 is usually twice as long as Act 1 and Act 3, hence it gets TWO LINES on the plotting board. (Note: if you see me referring on twitter to Act 3 and Act 4, I actually mean lines 3 and 4 on the plotting board. Sorry.) The story starts out in the beginning world. Our hero and heroine are introduced to the reader. Each has a goal, motivation for wanting to achieve that goal, and something that stands in their way (conflict). Each has a moment where they metaphorically “save the cat”–they provide help to someone or something that allows the reader to root for them. Each has a moment where they are offered a “quest”–the transformative journey that will take them from the caterpillar that they are now to the butterfly they will become at the end of the story. Without transformation, there is no story. Initially the hero & heroine will have doubts about going on the quest (refusal of the call), but will eventually accept. In a romance novel, the hero and heroine ‘s goals conflict with each other. This provides tension and keeps each from getting an easy solution to his or her problem. Though their goals conflict, the journey is one they take together. Their LOVE is the transformative process that allows them to grow and metamorphose.

Other important elements of story structure: There needs to be a false victory or false defeat at the end of each line of the plotting board, or the end of Act 1 (chapter 5), midpoint (Act 2, chapter 10), and end of Act 2 (chapter 15). These are called Turning Points. They should each throw a big wrench in the hero and heroine’s plans. The third turning point is a defeat, the biggest and baddest yet, after which both the hero and heroine appear to be worse off than they were when they started the book. This is called the “All is Lost” or “Black Moment” and usually happens around Chapter 16 or 17). It motivates the hero or heroine for one last push through the climax to achieve their victory and resolution.

Armed with your knowledge of story structure, you gather your supplies.

Essential Supplies for Plotting:

  1. poster board divided into five columns and four rows, labeled chapters 1-20. (see photo #1)
  2. pens
  3. sticky notes in many colors. Minimum: purple, blue, yellow, green, orange, hot pink
  4. a notebook or computer
  5. two amazing critique partners or plotting pals with similar communication styles who know the way you think (invaluable. They don’t have to write in your genre, but they have to understand your thought processes enough that you don’t waste all your time trying to explain your ideas.)

After you’ve drawn your chapter grid and labeled each box 1-20, it’s time to pick your sticky notes. You can choose any colors you want to represent whatever, but if you all start using the same colors for the same things, it’s easier. Here is Cherry Adair’s usual list. She often uses different shades of green, one to represent each different setting. Add more sticky notes if you have more characters who have point of view scenes or are major players.

  • Light Purple: Heroine’s internal thoughts/background/journey
  • Dark Purple: Heroine’s external actions
  • Light Blue: Hero’s internal thoughts/background/journey
  • Dark Blue: Hero’s external actions
  • Yellow: Villain (internal and external)
  • Orange: Danger
  • Hot Pink: Sex (kissing/touching/light fluffy stuff included)
  • Green: Setting

Cherry Adair always starts with danger (orange). She recommends plotting the villain’s movements and motivations first. People throw out ideas and sticky notes go up. Colors get layered on top of each other and spread out into multiple scenes per chapter. Often times a book starts out as the spark of an idea, with maybe a climax and a single turning point. I love this part of writing–ideas are the easy part! Don’t feel the need to go in chronological order. It’s often best to figure out the turning points and the dark moment, then fill in the scenes in between to figure out how hero/heroine get from point A to point B. Also, don’t be afraid of “bad” ideas. Throw them all out there as they come to you when you’re brainstorming, the crazier, the better. Try to think outside the box, because the first thought that pops out is often the cliche answer or one you’ve read before. Sticky notes will go up, jump around, and come back down. The whole point is that they are movable.

Always keep in mind: Goal, Motivation, Conflict. At each Turning Point, your characters’ immediate goals will be forced to change. As they adopt new ones, they take another step on their transformative journey. Change is good, but keep it in character. Try plotting by color: throw up your villain’s decisions first, then your sexual tension. Plot your heroine’s inner character arc before tackling her external actions. Switch it up. See how the colors meld together. Do you have holes where there are no orange sticky notes? Stick some up there and leave them blank. You know you need something to up the stakes in those locations–use the colored notes as place holders. As you switch around one character’s colors, other character’s actions will become clear.

This is play. Have fun with it. Make sure someone is typing up all the ideas people say, because you will never remember it later. The sticky notes only get the fast and dirty version.

Speaking of the fast and dirty version, at my recent plotting retreat, my CP and I only used dark purple and dark blue sticky notes. Basically they stood for alternating hero and heroine point of view scenes, and we moved across the board mostly chronologically. For her, we were replotting the second half of her novel after she’d written the first half. For me, we were plotting a whole new book. I had a lot of big ideas and turning points in my head already, but I also had a lot of holes. What we did was to throw up stickies for the scenes we knew needed to be in there, ie the heroine travels into the New World (very Joseph Campbell) needed to go at the end of Chapter 5. Knowing story structure allows you to start with a few pivotal moments and build from there.

Another day I’ll write how I went from a dedicated “No Plot, No Problem” Pantser to a plotting convert. Hearts of Darkness was not plotted out before hand, except I had a vague beginning and end in my head.

Questions? How do you plot?


4 comments to “How to Plot a Novel: The Plotting Board Method”

  1. Monica Britt
      · September 24th, 2012 at 2:56 pm · Link

    I use an Excel chart to keep track of my word count, with chapters marked along the way. Also use a column to leave myself notes – Eyes are BROWN!! :) I also title each chapter line with the basics of the scene. It works pretty well but can’t get an overview of the story like this storyboard system. Thank you so much for posting Kira!!

  2. Kira Brady
      · September 24th, 2012 at 3:00 pm · Link

    Thanks Monica! This is a really great system for visual thinkers. Cherry has a background in interior design, so she often starts plotting simply by throwing up colored sticky notes with nothing on them. She goes by feel–where it looks like there needs to be certain colors. Later she fills them in. I write in Scrivener, which is fantastic for organizing my writing scenes and chapters, but it doesn’t have the same visual help for “seeing” the story structure. Please let me know if it works for you or if you have any other questions!

  3. Lisa Hendrix
      · September 25th, 2012 at 10:15 pm · Link

    Hope Ramsay just did a great post on how she plots in Scrivener over at Ruby Slipper Sisterhood, and her method actually *does* let you see the structure.

  4. Ella Quinn
      · September 30th, 2012 at 8:52 am · Link

    I really like the way you explained this. It makes a lot of sense.


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