plotting and pacing photos

Filed under: writing

I meant to post some photos of my plotting process, to show what I do. The thing is (there’s always a thing), that process has got a bit derailed for several different reasons. But, hopefully it can be useful or interesting anyway.

First, I collected together several indispensible aids: a glass of wine, a bar of Hotel Chocolat chocolate, and a CD of Robert Downey Jr singing.

plotting aids

Next, I laid out my index cards. I created these last month, in a cafe in Dorset whilst drinking a gorgeously strong decaff latte. I basically wrote down anything I could think of that might happen, each event on a different card.

I find that plotting on index cards, rather than on paper, makes everything feel looser and less permanent. I can add or discard at will, without messing anything up. Here are the cards:

step 1

My next step was to do this all again, but this time on coloured cards. This might seem a bit repetitive, but in fact it’s really useful. For one thing, I have two major story strands in this book, and it helps me a lot to have them colour-coded. I can see the structure and pacing, and how the two strands work together. And because this was a second session, and I was thinking about the strands separately as well as together, I could add more elements to the plot, which is why I have more coloured cards than white cards in the next picture:

step 2

This stuff really helps with plotting. For example, if you come up with Episode A, the next logical step will be Episode B. Or you can back-engineer events, because if Episode B is going to happen, Episode A needs to lead up to it. At this point, for me, the nearer/earlier events are much more detailed than the events at the end of the book. I’ll have settings, some snippets of dialogue, or notes on the earlier events, but the end events will be much, much broader, like “C gets together with D”. I have no idea how C and D will get together yet. I have to go through more of the journey with the characters to figure it out.

The next step is generally to sort these events into some sort of chronological order, and put them up on my Plotting Door. That didn’t really work this time, and I only got a few scenes in order before I gave up. One reason is because I’m having a lot of trouble fitting one particular scene into the story, but I know it needs to go somewhere. But the main reasons are because my research has inspired me. Now that I know more about how a country house open to the public operates, I’m requiring certain scenes. And a conversation with one of my lovely former editors has led me to change the heroine’s profession entirely.

However, I have done some of it, as you can see from below, and even this little bit has really helped me. I can see the story structure quite a bit more easily now, which allows me to make some decisions about the logistics of the story’s world.


How about you? Do you do things similarly to this? Or differently? Any top tips?

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  1. I was with you through the wine, the chocolate and RDJr.

    As soon as you broke out color-coded index cards, my pantser brain short-circuited.


  2. Yes. The thing is, I never used to be able to do this. The whole idea made me come out in hives.

    But I’m finding the longer my books get, the more I need to do it. It seems that I can keep the plot of a 60,000-word book in my head, but not a 150,000-word book. My brain is just not that large.

    Believe it or not, I still consider myself at least half a pantser, in that I’m already 1/3 of the way through the book before I do this, and despite all this, I still have no idea how it will actually end.


  3. Brill. Thanks for that Julie. I assume you’re using post-its and not banging in nails to afix index card to plotting door..?


  4. Post-its fall down, and nails make too much mess. I use Blu-tack. It’s wonderful stuff. 🙂

    The small coloured cards, I actually made a poor participant in one of my Cornerstones courses cut up for me, so I could make the participants use them to plot their own novels. But they didn’t all get used, so I’m still using them myself.


  5. It’s a really great process 🙂 I bet the door will look fabulous when you’re finished. Do you find you pretty much stick to the plot or do you switch scenes around often?


  6. I’m really liking the idea of plotting on cards…might convert me from mind mapping…


  7. I use index cards for plotting all the time, and in pretty much the same way except I always use them in landscape-style and you’ve got them laid out portrait-style. And your writing is much neater. And you use colours which has always defeated me. But apart from that…identical!


  8. Lacey, the thing is, I usually do all this work and then I totally never look at it again for the rest of the book, unless there’s a problem with structure. It’s like doing the index cards imprints it all on my brain, and I can go forward without them.

    That said, yes, when I look afterwards sometimes the scenes and events have changed. Writing is such an organic thing that sometimes it takes you in different directions than you’d expected.


  9. I like mind mapping too, Liz, but I find that when I’m juggling several story lines, one piece of paper is just too static. And you have probably noticed, but I am totally anal about how things look, so a really messy mind map with lines all over it connecting different things would require me to do it over again more neatly and attractively, which just takes up even more time.

    I have done mind maps for several books, and I tend to do it at a chapter/scene/small problem level in a notebook as I go along.


  10. Sarah, if I had a big wall to put them the cards up on instead of a single door, I’d do landscape-style too. But it fits better on the door up and down.

    I’m glad to know this method works for you, too! I must be doing something right, then.


  11. hey Julie! My plan for world-wide internet fame though loaned objects moves on apace!

    Nice to see RDJr’s singing talents recognised. Although for a while there I thought you had WICKED COOL wine glasses with great big round red feet, but I think you were being sensible and using a coaster.

    I plot, well, in my head I’m afraid, which as you point out, could in the end be limiting … although there’s plenty of space in there not doing much.


  12. Right, I’m off to B and Q for a door, then Smiths for some index cards.


  13. I wish I had a door I could do this on, but my office door is covered with a large poster of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, glowering sexily at me, life-size. For, you know, inspiration. Ahem.

    I have been known to use spreadsheets for a similar purpose, however. Writing down plot events in one column, then a column each for who it involves, which story strands, and also whether it’s a funny bit, a sexy bit, an angry bit (the last book I did this for had a very angry heroine) etc, and also for what was being revealed, and to whom.

    I wanted to make sure I didn’t have any massive long gloomy bits, or lots of action with no humour, or lots of humour with no plot. Also, I realised I’d kept a lot back from the reader that could be gradually revealed, rather than in one massive infodump near the end.

    I did this for a big, complex book that really needed lots of post-work on it. But I’ still terrible at doing any pre-plotting more complex than some scribbled notes and the occasional text to myself!


  14. You can plot on Spike’s chest, Kate! Get the poster laminated and then you can put Blu-tack on it!

    Anyway, a wall works just as well. Or the floor. Or a cork board. I just happen to have a door.

    I can do the spreadsheet type of thing you mention, but only after the book is finished. It’s too linear for planning, for me, but I find that technique really useful for analysing a first draft to see what needs to be rearranged or changed.


  15. Lara, you don’t need a door…all you need is Spike’s chest! I’m sure Kate would be happy to lend him to you…er, maybe not.


  16. Josh, that is a coaster, though my wine glasses are actually wicked cool as they have red going through them. But they break very, very easily. I should probably stick to plastic.

    And thank you for RDJ crooning!


  17. Hello, Julie! The closest I get to plotting is a sheet with beginning, middle, and end written on it. Each heading has a large block under it that I fill in with events I see taking place in them. Sometimes I don’t do the ending right away, because I have no idea what’s going to happen.



  18. I love the plotting door (although a plotting hot-man’s-chest sounds even better).
    I’m trying to stop being such a pantser and trying out different methods of plotting. Diane Doubtfire’s 1 -30 method is pretty good, but I find what I write ends up totally different to my original outline.
    The index cards sounds more flexible. I’m off to buy some blu-tac. And a poster of Hugh Jackman.


  19. Yes, but Blu-Tacking to Spike would mean I’d have a book full of holes in, er, strategic places. Um.

    And as for the floor, that would assume that a) I’m tidy and b) Spike’s feline namesake doesn’t try to help me. He’s not a fan of organised plots, to judge by his rearrangements.

    Now: writing a book as plotted by my cat, there’s a challenge!


  20. […] So you know how I got all into making my little index cards for events in my story and then putting them up in order on my plotting…? […]


  21. I’d love to use your process, as I’m very into visual stuff. Unfortunately, because I write in at least three different locations, it all has to be portable. So I use Excel; with one worksheet for my plot notes (I can also shuffle them around if I want by cutting and pasting), one for character summaries (inc photos), one for chapter list with wordcounts and pace chart (colour coded, thank you Julie for your tutorial at RNA conference 2008) and one for timeline. I also have Word docs which go into greater detail on character histories, star signs etc.

    BTW, just finished reading Nina and loved it so much I didn’t want it to end. IMHO, your best yet.


  22. For my last novel, Jan, I used small coloured post-its and just stuck them to several pages of A4 paper. It’s more portable than a door.

    Excel is a great idea, and I know it works for lots of authors, but I fear that I’d spend more time on the software than planning. Lo-tech is more my style sometimes.

    And I’m very glad you liked Nina Jones! Hooray!


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