You settle into your desk for a writing session, but instead you end up hopping from chapter to chapter, trying to remind yourself what happens and when. You notice that a character’s earlier actions don’t align with his future, and you begin to get overwhelmed. How can you make the constantly moving parts fit together without leaving gaps?
Advance planning may feel unnatural or even demotivating if you’re a pantser. But stories that receive extra forethought often turn out to be the most compelling. Spontaneity nurtures creativity, and order harnesses it. You need both to guide your plot.
One of my favorite methods for sorting ideas (and maintaining my sanity) is a Post-It board. You can rearrange, remove, and replace the notes at will, so the process offers plenty of flexibility while enabling you to see the flow of events at a glance. Variations in sizes and colors can signify everything from pivotal scenes to recurring themes to subplots you’re worried you’ll forget to tie off. And if you prefer your layout to be digital, programs like Miro can accomplish the same task.
Once you’ve gathered your materials, you need to decide which aspects of your story warrant a row on your storyboard. You should focus on at least three categories (and types of Post-Its), with a fourth or more being optional.
1. Major Events
How are your chapters divided? More specifically, which incidents upend your characters’ lives? The start of a war would classify. So would a Saturday visit to the laundromat if it presents new information or a challenge. Any moment that provides your characters with an opportunity to change and reveal who they are requires a header. I recommend jumbo Post-Its (the ones with the dimensions of a standard piece of paper) for this purpose, like in the images below.
You must identify these beats first because the next couple categories will nest underneath, and you won’t have any sense of direction without dots to connect.
2. Character Development
What lies are your characters struggling with, and how do they progress through the lessons they’re learning? Switch Post-It size and color and record your answers as chronologically as possible. When you finish, you can assess whether the character development leans too heavily toward the beginning, middle, or end. Maybe your pacing is even already—or you might realize that readers will have difficulty accepting your protagonist’s sudden reversal of habits. Since awareness constitutes half the work of repairing an issue, exposing an unrealistic transition can save you hours of revisions later.
You shouldn’t track only heroes and heroines, however. Villains deserve attention too, plus their own Post-It color. Even if you never disclose all of their schemes to readers (or the rest of the cast), you must train yourself to think like the omniscient creator of your world. Then, when the villains and heroes collide in the climax, it won’t be a random encounter. You’ll know the motivations that led each side to oppose the other.
Worldbuilding might seem irrelevant to your outline—it’s inanimate, after all—but it matters for two reasons. First, you’re liable to have more inspiration than you can cram in, but if you don’t jot down any of it, you can’t differentiate the elements that are worthy of inclusion. Second, whether your genre is imagination-based or fact-based, the culture you portray contributes to your story’s overall plausibility and influences your characters’ beliefs. A magic system with inconsistent rules and a famous figure with an inaccurate political stance can both undermine your plot.
If you’re writing speculative fiction, the Post-It notes might help you figure out how to explain complicated technology and magical powers without resorting to info dumps. If you’re writing historical fiction, you might uncover additional areas you need to research. And if you’re writing suspense or a thriller, you might realize that the murderer is toting weapons he doesn’t actually understand how to operate.
X Marks the Spot
After you assemble the important details in each category, you’ll be staring at a very colorful and cluttered wall (or computer screen) of Post-Its. Now comes the fun yet also confusing step: shuffling the notes to accommodate improvements you need to make and new angles you want to test.
Have you spent a chunk of time on the project and feel satisfied with the results? Then you can start treating your storyboard as a reference for your first draft. Since you won’t have to second-guess your characters’ destinations, you’ll push forward with more confidence.
Joshua Barrera was born in a little town in upstate New York. From an early age, he thoroughly enjoyed imaginative play with his brother, utilizing whatever was around him to create new worlds in which they were the heroes. At around ten years old, he developed an interest in writing those fantasies down and crafting them into stories. Thus began his endeavor to become a writer.
Joshua loves to read (oftentimes narrating out loud for his family!), and some of his favorite authors are J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Timothy Zahn. He enjoys writing either fantasy or science fiction, occasionally dabbling in other genres to gain more experience and skill as a writer. Other than reading and writing, his hobbies include entertaining card games, playing musical instruments, and spending time with his wife and three crazy kids.