In this three-part series, we will go over how to set up a plot board to develop your story from an idea into a tailor-made synopsis that is as detailed or sparse as you want it to be. A plot board is a visual representation of your plot. It’s used to organize your story into manageable chunks, as well as allowing you to see at a glance how the story flows. I use two types when I’m developing a story. The first one helps me construct my novel. The second is done after the novel is finished. It helps me check to see if I have enough tension, conflict, and romance.
Materials needed to start developing your story with a plot board:
• A tri-fold cardboard display, like the ones you see at student’s science fairs. I find the 28″ x 40″ size fits my needs in terms of storage and use, but they’re available in larger and smaller sizes.
• Post-it® notes. You will need several colors. At the very basic: Pink (or another color of your preference) for female protagonist. Blue (or another color of your preference) for male protagonist. Yellow for conflict. Green for subplot or back story. You can get creative and buy special colors and shapes. I’ve used flip flop shaped Post-it notes for my beach novels, and lip-shaped ones to designate romantic scenes. Have fun picking out colors and shapes. You want this board to be pleasing to look at and to spark creativity.
• Permanent markers. Sharpie brand fine point is what I use.
• Tape. Sometimes the adhesive on the Post-it notes don’t stick as well as they should.
• Old magazines, pictures, maps — anything that sparks an idea or interest about your story.
There are several ways to set up a plot board, depending on which plotting device you prefer: Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beats, or Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot structure. The structure you choose will help you keep on track of where things go in your story. I like to use a slightly modified version of a screenwriting technique called the three-act structure because I’m using a tri-fold board.
Using that as the example, at the top of each folded cardboard section you’ll write in permanent marker: Act One, Act Two, and Act Three. Act Two will be the big middle part, which works out perfectly for plotting.
Act One is the left-hand flap. Act One will take up the first quarter of your novel. If you’re writing a 60,000-word novel, this will be about 10,000-15,000 words. Of course, novels don’t have to be this rigidly structured. Remember at this point in story development, this plot board is for brainstorming. There are no wrong answers. That’s why you’re going to use sticky notes. Nothing at this point is permanent—unless you want it to be. If it doesn’t work, peel the note off and start over. Think of the plot board and sticky notes as a jigsaw puzzle. You have the pieces in your mind of how you want the story to go. Using the notes and plot board is one way of getting the important turning points of your story fitted together.
The first thing I like to do is find a picture of a model or an actor who reminds me of my main character. Print or cut out the picture and tape it to your board in Act One. Then, write the following phrases with a two sticky note space between them:
• The Beginning
• Inciting Incident
• Plot Point One
The Beginning is exactly that. Using your color-of-choice Post-it note (depending on the gender of your character), put down the character’s name and jot down a few things you know about them. If you know the setting, you can choose a different color Post-it note and describe it. Or tape up a picture instead. If you know how you want the book to start, you can add more sticky notes, setting up the meet cute or introducing the characters’ background. Jot down an idea or a scene on the appropriately colored Post-it note. You want to hook the reader in this session, so add some thoughts on the Post-its on how to do that. This is the “before” section, before your character’s life is about to change forever. It leads into the Inciting Incident.
The Inciting Incident is where you break out the yellow Post-it notes, because here comes the conflict that starts the book. This is the catalyst that will push your hero/heroine out of their comfort zone and propel them through the rest of the novel. Joseph Campbell calls this the “Call to Adventure.” Eventually, that will lead them to the first plot point where they must make an important decision.
The first plot point is the point of no return. It’s now or never. The decision to accept the call to adventure, whether it’s a literal adventure or just a life changing decision. It’s when in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle are dead and he’s decided to go with Obi Wan Kenobi and learn the ways of the force. It’s when Jack wins a ticket for the luxury ship, Titanic, in a card game and decides to get on the boat. But it’s also when Clarice agrees to meet Hannibal Lechter for the first time, and when Shelby in Steel Magnolias decides to have a child, even though her medical condition puts her at risk. Dig through your Post-it notes and coordinate color-wise who is making this decision, what conflict does it bring, and if there are anyone or anything opposing the choice.
Next week, we’ll go over Act Two and what you can expect to put on your plot board to boost the dreaded “sagging middle” of the book.
USA Today bestselling author, Jamie K. Schmidt, writes erotic contemporary love stories and paranormal romances. Her steamy, romantic comedy, Life’s a Beach, reached #65 on USA Today, #2 on Barnes & Noble and #9 on Amazon and iBooks. Her Club Inferno series from Random House’s Loveswept line has hit both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble top one hundred lists. The first book in the series, Heat, put her on the USA Today bestseller list for the first time, and is a #1 Amazon bestseller. Her book Stud is a 2018 Romance Writers of America Rita® Finalist in Erotica. Her dragon paranormal romance series has been called “fun and quirky” and “endearing.” Partnered with New York Times bestselling author and actress, Jenna Jameson, Jamie’s hardcover debut, SPICE, continues Jenna’s FATE trilogy.