post-it plotting

Filed under: writing

I’ve spent the last two mornings outlining my entire novel with six different colours of Post-It notes.

At this point of the process, I find outlining like this to be both necessary and immensely satisfying. Some people plan out their novels in detail before they write the draft; I find it more useful to diagram out my novel in detail after I’ve written the draft. For me, writing the crappy draft is a discovery process, to find out what happens where and why, and it’s only when I’m done that I know what I really should have put in. But then I’ve got this big sloppy 500+ page manuscript, and it’s almost impossible to deal with.

So I sit down with the post-its and a pen and the manuscript, and I produce a detailed outline of each scene in the book—not necessarily how I originally wrote it, but how it should be. I do it on Post-Its because you can move them around. I use different colours for each major story strand. (Six colours is a record for me, and is probably one of the reasons why this book has been a little tricky to write.)

After two days of work, this is what I’ve come up with:

Post-It Plotting 1

It’s rather beautiful, isn’t it? (I mean the colours, not the story, which is impossible for anyone but me to understand from these notes.) You “read” it like a comic book, starting at the top left of each sheet of A4 and reading across then down to the bottom of the page, then onto the next page. 18 panels per page, which is (in total) 126 scenes or scene sections (the more important scenes have whole series of Post-Its, one for each major bit of action). Here’s a closer view of one sheet:

Post-It Plotting 2

You can see that some Post-Its have other Post-Its of different colours underneath them. That’s when a single scene or scene section contains two or more major plot threads in it.

This is such a useful thing for me to do. I can see the entire novel at a glance, and make sure I haven’t neglected any plot threads. As this novel is constructed around weekends (every bit of pink you see, happens on Saturday or Sunday), it also means I can count how many weeks it takes up and understand what happens where. I knew I had several scenes I’d left out, but didn’t know where to put them; seeing it this way, I could slot them in immediately, sometimes replacing a lacklustre scene with something I like better, or changing the focus of what’s already there to something more relevant.

These sheets are my maps for revisions now. I’ll go through the file scene by scene, amending, cutting, and adding new stuff to fit this plan. Or, if the plan doesn’t work, I’ll move the Post-Its around and replace them if necessary.

And I know I have a last scene to write, which should somehow, involve all six colours. Not sure about how to do that bit yet…

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  1. I have to say, Julie, that your post-it system is impressive and looks pretty, too. A master class in plotting and pacing . . .

  2. Post its! Love em! But wow Julie! It’s pretty and impressive and fabulous! Who wouldn’t want to spend 2 days with post its? 🙂

  3. I love it! I have post-its all over (love the new post-it labels)but this level of organization and order is impressive! (Also–admit squinting to see if I can get a sneak peek at the new book…haha!)

  4. Dear dog, I need a drink just looking at that…

  5. I never used to have to do this with the shorter books I wrote—I can hold about 80,000 words in my head, apparently. But since I’ve been writing books over 100,000 words I’ve had to start doing this, because otherwise I’ll never keep track and my head will explode.

    Especially as I can only write part-time, on morning weekdays. In a perfect world I could immerse myself in revisions and figure it out more organically, but with only concentrated burst of work-time, I tend to forget how everything hangs together. So two mornings of Post-It work now, means my next two weeks’ work will go much more smoothly, because I only need to follow the map.

    And yes, Kim, I did have a drink afterwards last night. 🙂

    Peggy, if you can figure out anything about the plot from these photos, I will be very surprised!

  6. I can’t shut my mouth; I’m so impressed with your work. It’s a fantastic idea and I’m surprised it only took you two days! Thanks for sharing this.

  7. What a tidy way of working. I do the same using index cards which descend into bits of torn up paper strewn all over my bed. And I’ve never managed colour coding, so I’m dead impressed.

  8. I do a similar thing, Julie, but using post its on a flip chart. Great until one of them falls off! I also use a notebook and write a scene on each page, detailing what the emotion is at the scene beginning and scene end… but like you I write it after I’ve written the scenes, and so I can see where I’m lacking.

  9. Wow. Total respect to you. I find it hard to use my “pretty things”, will make more of an effort. Had a lot of blu-tac once, but the dog thinks is’s dog chewing gum. .she eats stickers too.

  10. I think I just broke out in hives with fear – scarily awesome!

  11. Wow, that looks so pretty! I admit I adapted your idea when I was trying to figure out how to fix one of my books–the massive monster that I referred to for years as Kett’s Book because the hideous thing wouldn’t even give me a title.

    I used a spreadsheet instead of Post-Its, though, and with one column for what happened in each scene, I added a box by the side with a colour for each plot element or theme occurring in that scene. It helped me figure out which scenes were useless, and where I’d got too many similar scenes in a row–lots of angst with no laughs, or a complete lack of sex for several chapters (this isn’t ideal when you’re writing erotic romance).

    A massive help in wrestling the book into submission, so thanks for the idea!

  12. Ye Gads.
    I bow and scrape at your feet, my friend. That is truly awe-inspiring. I think if I ever write something more than, oh, 35K I’ll have to use some sort of system like that.

    Especially because it’s so pretty. And I love Post-Its. 🙂

  13. Oh I love the post-it idea. I may try it out myself. And I confess – I too tried to read what was written on them! LOL. Caroline x

  14. Love it!
    I have coloured post-its too but haven’t yet been disciplined enough to use them effectively.

    I saw enough to see a Leo in there.
    Dear to my heart, that’s my eldest son’s name 🙂

  15. Thank you, Sarah C. I may well make you do something similar next week, if we have time.

    Sarah D, I am far, far too anally retentive to plot using scraps of paper. I need beautiful, pristine Post-Its or index cards or similar. They must be uniform and clean. And colour-coded, otherwise I can’t keep track of the story threads.

    Very visual. That’s me.

  16. Sally, I’d like to use a flip chart too as it’s bigger, but with a little guy in the house, A4 is more portable and also can be hidden away. Also the Post-Its are less likely to fall off (as are horizontal).

    I used to do the emotion charting thing too, when I was starting out and knew I had some problems creating emotional intensity. I think it really helped.

  17. Lara, keep the dog away from the Blu-Tak!!

    Nell, no hives necessary, I actually find this fun. Your ability to write two books at once brings me out in hives; I can’t imagine having enough brain space for more than one book.

  18. Yes, I liked your spreadsheet, Kate, especially as it charted so many different aspects. Personally I spend so much time on my computer anyway (and suffer physically because of it), that I need to do something with paper and pen, to save my eyes, back and wrists. Plus I just find it easier to move a Post-It than to cut and paste.

  19. Kris, it is a really good excuse to buy Post-Its in six different colours!

  20. Thanks for visiting, Caroline. I doubt you could see much plot in that photo, but you’re welcome to try and hopefully it piques your interest. 😉 Good luck with yours.

  21. Annie, I do love the name Leo. This is the second character I’ve named that (though the first one was killed off). And I hope this Leo lives up to the gorgeousness of his name. 🙂

  22. I do exactly the same thing with my novels! Yay.

  23. I am definitely going to do this and have just spent a very happy ten minutes on Amazon ordering up post-its.

    I’ve found Sarah D’s post cards method really helpful – now I will move onto added colours and stickiness – it’s a stationery lover’s dream!

    Thank you 🙂

  24. […] a click through led me to Julie Cohen’s flowery and fabulous blog (where I discovered this Post-It planning thing I am DYING to try – just need to finish the first draft first) where I then discovered Book […]

  25. Thank you for posting this. I am a visual person and have been looking for a fun and visual way to layout my novel. I, too, avoid outlining beforehand.
    Thanks for sharing!

  26. Courtney, I hope it helps you! Let us know how it works for you.

  27. […] a photo of this strategy and read Cohen’s own description of it, see her blog post, “Post-It Plotting” […]

  28. […] I’ve just stopped fussing and carried on writing, hoping that some post-it plotting (as recommended by the very wonderful Julie Cohen) would help me see whether the different voices were at least placed in a way that makes sense and […]

  29. […] a similar method to what I use, although I have to give credit to Julie Cohen for that idea so it appears I’ve learnt from two masters!  But there seemed to be a common thread approach to […]

  30. […] For those who really love the idea of plotting with Real Life post it’s check out Julie Cohen’s blog […]

  31. I’ve been looking for a system – preferably using post- its – and this looks like it might work for me. Though I want to add inthe tmeline somehow and some sort of system to tell me which scenes I have written and which I have yet to write – any ideas howIcan incorporate this?

  32. Also – where did you find all those different colours for small post its? I only ever seem to find the same three…

  33. Easy question first: I haunt stationery shops. Whenever I see different colours I buy them. I suppose you could cut bigger ones in half.

    As for adding the timeline: well, I suppose you could do that lots of ways. One would be to write notes on the sheet you’re sticking the post-its on. I do mine in chronological order, left to right and top to bottom, and I tend to write the times of the scenes on the actual post-its themselves, eg:

    A & B argue
    C burns turkey

    (in the bottom photo above, you can see where I’ve written SAT and SUN on some post-its to show the day)

    …but I do my more complex timelines, when I have to pinpoint actual days, on a blank calendar. Then I put them side-by-side and look at them. Or, you could do your post-its on a calendar! You could just make one yourself on your computer, print it out, and stick the post-its on.

    Scenes you’ve written and have yet to write…again, there are several different ways of doing this. Maybe put a star sticker or something on the scenes I haven’t written yet? Or just put TBW (to be written) on the top? Generally, though, I tend to remember it if I haven’t written a scene, without making a note.

    I hope it works for you, Claire! Let me know.

  34. Why did I not think about cutting big ones in half?

    Thanks so much for taking the time to share for your thoughts on this..

    I had a brainwave during the night and remembered something I’ve seen online – the upshot is I think that for each month (or week) of the timeline I will have two facing pages – one with already written scenes and one with the ones to write, which I can then transfer over once I’ve done them.

    I’ll use an Atoma notebook, in which pages can be torn out and then put back elsewhere, too, so if some months turn out to need more pages that won’t be a problem.

    I originally did have my post its on a printed out Outlook calendar, but they didn’t quite ffit and there was no room for subplot – although I suppose another strategy might be to print out week per view version… Or to find a diary which has a week on one page and a blank facing page – they do exist – but the added difficulty there is I need one for 2011 as well as 2012.

    Phew … I’m not obsessive compulsive, honest!! I’ll take a picture of mine and share the link with you when it’s done.

    Thanks so much!

  35. […] a Google search of “planning my novel with Post-Its”. I discovered Julie Cohen’s blog, and her solution seemed to work well for me. Best of all, she was doing it with Post-Its and […]

  36. […] of my most popular posts on this blog is Post-It Plotting, but as one writer pointed out, my normal Post-It plots don’t include any sort of a calendar […]

  37. aposter191212.txt;7;9

  38. […] also talked about how she plans her novels – and you can read about her advice on post-it plotting on her website. When looking at how she plans, I realised I had more sub-plots than I […]

  39. […] we’re not going to discuss:  This is not going to be about a scary looking thing like Post-it Plotting.  There’s going to be no mapping of scenes on Post-its, or anything even remotely related to […]

  40. […] (check out this awesome blog post about Post-it Plotting by Julie Cohen, it’s […]

  41. Thank you so much! Is a very good idea. Impressive!😃

  42. […] easier and enjoyable the re-write could be with post its and coloured pens.  She’s got a great blog post about it so I don’t need to embarrass myself here by attempting to explain it as brilliantly as […]

  43. […] And why have I given this blog its title, Juxtapose, Just Suppose? Because I am at that stage in my first draft when anything can be possible in my story. I’m constantly asking myself “What If?” and throwing in curve balls.  Julie Cohen in her fascinating talk on writing, on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, answered my query about “saggy middles” in novels, suggesting I think about mid-point reversal. A point in the middle of the novel when, suddenly, everything changes: the goals of a main character shift and change and what he/she felt is no longer the way they now feel. Something flips everything and there is a major protagonist shift. Interesting… She is also responsible for all the coloured post-it notes  littered across my notice-board… Check her out: she’s an excellent creative writing tutor. […]

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