In this three-part series, we 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 tri-fold cardboard display board serves as a visual representation of the important story beats of your novel. Using colored Post-it® notes to arrange the scenes up on the board, you can see at a glance whose point of view the scene is in, the major plot points, and whether there is enough romance, conflict, or action, depending on the genre of your story.
Act One is the left-hand side of the board. In this section, there can be pictures of the scenery, models or actors that represent your characters, and brief character sketches on color coordinated Post-its. Choose a color for the protagonists and a different one for the antagonists. In the Act One section, there will be sticky notes concerning the beginning, the inciting incident that starts the story, and the first major stumbling block for the characters, which is the first plot point.
Act Two is the large middle section of the board. It’s where your character will explore his new world and experiences. While you’re putting notes on world building and introducing secondary characters, make sure you have plenty of ups and downs to keep the readers interested in what’s going to happen next. You want them wondering how the characters will get out of the mess you’ve put them in. At the end of Act Two, the worst thing that possibly could happen to your character does happen.
And that leads to Act Three. This final act is depicted on the right-hand side of the plot board. In this act, put Post-its labeled climax, resolution, and denouement, where things wrap up.
At this point, you’re going to want to look over the plot board and ask these questions:
1. How has the protagonist changed from Act One to now?
Here you can look and see if you can add more clues or experiences in Act One and Act Two to make the resolution believable and satisfactory for the reader. The character starts in what he believes is his identity. Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz wants to leave Kansas because she feels her aunt and uncle don’t understand her. But in the end, she realizes there’s no place like home and now she exists in her essence, her soul’s contentment. In Star Wars, Luke dreams of becoming a pilot for the rebellion. In the end, he becomes a hero of the rebellion and he lives in his essence as a Jedi knight. In The Matrix, Neo goes from being a battery, charging up the machines in a virtual world, to a warrior who lives in both the real world and the Matrix, who can defeat the agents at their own game. His essence is fulfilling his destiny and becoming The One.
2. Is there enough conflict?
This is where the colored Post-it notes come in handy. If you marked your conflict scenes with a yellow sticky, count how many are in each act. If you see a gap, it’s easy at this point to add another note to keep the conflict going strong. Keep an eye out for ways to add plot twists. Twists don’t have to happen just at the midpoint mark.
3. Are you meeting the expectations of your genre?
For example, if you are writing a mystery, are there enough clues and red herrings? If you’re writing a romance, do you have equal point of view chapters for the male and female protagonist? Again, if you’ve designated them blue and pink (or another set of colors for each),
After you’re satisfied that everything in the previous acts have built up to this point, add a Post-it note called The Climax. This is the final battle, the final confrontation, after which everything will have changed. There should be a winner and a loser. If you’re writing a mystery, this is where the killer is engaged. In a thriller, the villain’s plan has been diverted. In a romance, there is usually a grand gesture and all is forgiven.
The next sticky note is the Resolution. You have to tie up all the loose ends for this book. During this wrap up, you can seed characters in for a sequel. Think about what a satisfying ending would be. It’s nice to come full circle with the beginning of the book.
The last Post-it note in this section is the Denouement. This is what happens afterwards. You can seed in hints about the sequel, but you’re really showing your characters living in their essence. They get to be happy or satisfied after the roller coaster ride they’ve been on.
There are many ways to complete your plot board. Some people start with just the colored stickies and a few words. Others write on full index cards, detailing what’s going on. I like to start with the minimum I can get away with on the board. This gives me a map to follow, but not necessarily having it all written out.
When the first draft of the novel is written. I go back and redo the plot board putting in the beats and scenes as I wrote them. Then I can step back and look at the whole plot on that one board. I can see right away if I need more romance in Act Two or more conflict in Act One. I can see where to add in scenes to further the characters’ arcs or keep up the tension.
Getting started with a plot board can be a bit overwhelming, but keep in mind this is a tool to help you organize and develop your story. There is no wrong way to do it. Whether you write detailed sticky notes or paste up ones that have one or two words on them, if it gets you thinking about developing your story, you’re doing it right.
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.