Friday, September 26, 2008

The Portable Plotting Board

Thanks to Pam McCutcheon ( and the Pikes Peak Romance Writers ) for being in Seekerville today to share the Portable Plotting Board. We will be giving away a plotting board to one Seekerville guest today.

I have to admit the idea for a plotting board wasn't original to me. I saw a couple of different versions of one at different conferences. Since my critique group meets periodically to brainstorm new ideas, I modified it for our use and added an area for characterization. Since it's difficult to develop plots and characters independently, this allows you to work back and forth between them when brainstorming a story.
Plotting Section: In this area, there are squares numbered from 1 to 20, each representing a chapter. If you plan to have fewer chapters, then ignore the higher numbered squares. If you plan on having more chapters, well...use an additional surface or the back of the board.
You will need several different colored sticky notes (small enough to fit 2-4 in one square) and a pen or marker. Each note color will represent something different in your book. In the photo example, we used the following colors:
Rose: Heroine's characterization and/or scenes
Blue: Hero's characterization and/or scenes
Lavender: Villain's characterization and/or scenes
Peach: A scene showing the development of the romance
Hot Pink: Major plot points and turning points
Bright Green: Subplot points/scenes
Light Green: Suspense plot points/scenes
These are just examples. You could use different colors to track different things according to your needs. For example, you might want to track clues and red herrings, or your historical events timeline, or character growth, or to make sure you have enough action scenes. The purpose of using a variety of colors is so that you can easily see where you're missing something.
For example, if there isn't enough blue, you might need more scenes from your hero's point of view. Or you may realize that you forgot to set up the subplot in the first part of the book, that you need to add in the villain's point of view, that you have too many scenes in one character's point of view and not from another, etc. And the advantage of using sticky notes is that it's easy to move them from one chapter to another if necessary.
The notes in the example were placed randomly--we're not saying this is where they need to go. The actual structure of the novel is, of course, up to you.
Character Section: This is based on Debra Dixon's marvelous book, Goal, Motivation and Conflict, from Gryphon Books for Writers. In case you haven't read it, this is based on the realization that all major characters need goals, motivation, and conflict (GMC) in order to be well-rounded. At its simplest, the goal is what the character wants, the motivation is why she wants it, and the conflict is what's keeping her from achieving it.
Brainstorming: You can brainstorm on your own, with your critique group/partner, or in a larger group such as a chapter. I've done it at workshops and chapter meetings, and it seems to work well, so long as everyone knows the one rule of brainstorming: the author has the final say on what goes into her book. In my critique group, we work back and forth between the plotting section and the character section to make sure we have everything covered. Once the author feels she has enough to go off and work on her own, we stop.
Example: The photo example shows how a portable plotting board might look after it's partially filled in. I find we usually have 3 to 4 sticky notes per chapter. You may have more or fewer, depending on what you're tracking. And if you use smaller notes, you can obviously get more on the board.
After It's Filled In: So, once you have all of the sticky notes on the board and you're happy with the plot and characters, what do you do then? You can use the notes to write a detailed working synopsis, if you choose. Or, you can prop the board up next to your computer each time you write so you're reminded what needs to go into that chapter.
Another option (especially if you need the board to brainstorm another story for someone else), is to take the notes off the board and place them on paper in a notebook. I use separate pages for the hero's GMC, the heroine's GMC, and each chapter. Then, if I get more ideas, I can write them directly on the page and take it with me to work on it. One of my critique group members transfers the information to a Word or Excel document, using tables to set up the chapters (four cells per chapter), then coloring each cell the appropriate color. Again, do what works for you.
Where Can I Get One? When I showed this to Pikes Peak Romance Writers, my local RWA chapter, they decided to make boards for themselves and others to help in their own plotting/brainstorming. So, they have some for sale. There are three sizes available (the one in the photo is the largest one) and each one comes with instructions on how to use it. You can find the information you need here.
Pam McCutcheon is the author of romantic comedies, paranormal romances, fantasy short stories (under the name Pamela Luzier), and how-to books for writers, including the popular Writing the Fiction Synopsis. Her latest foray is into Young Adult urban fantasy, and her next book, Bite Me, comes out from Bell Bridge Books in October 2008 under the name Parker Blue. You can read more about her at

Pikes Peak Romance Writers is a chapter of Romance Writers of America, serving romance writers in the Pikes Peak region around Colorado Springs, CO. It has been in existence since 1991. For more info, visit


  1. Good morning Seekerville.
    Today we are fortunate to have Pam and her fellow PPRW's here to take your questions on the Portable Plotting Board.

    Pam and all are also in Colorado, like myself. Where is it nippy this am so we are serving pumpkin bread and java.


  2. Hi Pam and all Pike's Peak Romance Writers! Welcome to Seekerville!

    I'm fascinated but also a tad overwhelmed by your plotting board. I've used colored markers to show emotion, description, pov, etc. thanks to Margie Lawson, but this is new to me. But I'm willing to give it a try. :-) Thanks for giving us the plotting board in a nutshell!

    Tina, the pumpkin bread is delicious! Perfect for a crisp September morning.


  3. Great tips, Pam!

    Berta Platas and Nancy Knight recently did a workshop on storyboarding for Georgia Romance Writers which prompted me to create one for my next WIP. I LOVE it, because it's so easy to move things around and be able to see your entire novel.

  4. I am always glad to see a new way of plotting presented.
    The potting board sounds interesting.

  5. Welcome ladies, and thank you for bringing your amazing plotting board to Seekerville -- I've been hearing about it for a long time now and am really excited to actually see it and learn about it.

    Like Janet, however, I must admit to being a wee bit overwhelmed by the whole idea. Did any of you feel that way when Pam introduced the board to you?

    Also, I am a seat-of-the-pants writer who never would have even considered a plotting board before. But since I am now on my 4th novel in a series about one family, I'm thinking a plotting board might be a big help. Are all of you ladies plotters or did you have any seat-of-the-pantsters who had to FORCE themselves to use the board? If so, how long did it take to feel comfortable with it?


  6. Okay, seat of your pants writers. I am too. Hi Pam, Tina and Seekers! The plotting board can also be used for us pansters, to make sure we're going in the right direction.

    The Low Country Romance Writers ordered two of these plotting boards for their weekend retreat. I'm hoping they are getting tremendous use from them.

    My CP has her book completed and is in rewrite mode. She's using the plotting board to outline her chapters to see where more is needed. Just wanted to throw in how it can be used, even if the idea of from start to finish is overwhelming for some. Happy writing

  7. What a great idea! It would definitely help with the early stages of writing.

  8. I'm just like Julie. I have my novel in my mind's eye, my plot and characters, a beginning, a middle, and an end. I then just write. I don't know where in my office I would fit the plotting board. It could be downsized, or put in a document file.

  9. The first time I was introduced to a plotting board was by Kinsey Milhone - Sue Grafton's Alphabet series heroine. Kinsey uses one to unravel her mystery. I always thought that was so cool.

    Personally, I have never used one in my writing but would love to give it a shot. I'm open to anything that makes my life easier!

  10. I want one, I want one! But when I clicked on the link it didn't show me. Please send me a link! That's a great idea! I draw all kinds of arrows on HUGE sheets of paper. This is a much "neater" method. LOL.

  11. I've thought of doing this several times after reading GMC but couldn't quite get the design down. Thanks for sharing this.

  12. sadly, the link to view the instructions will not work for me. I'll check back later to see if it is fixed.

  13. Hi ladies, I hope you don't mind a comment from that "other" gender. As Pam says, the concept has been around for a while. But like the writing world we live in, an idea is only part of the thing, it's the execution that makes it work.

    If you ever have an opportunity to see Pam's "in person" presentation on the plotting board, it will be time well spent.

    I've always been a major league white-board, sticky-note guy. During the course of my last project, I ran out of space, so I replaced ALL the bookshelves in my office with white-face storage cabinets. I now have about 150 square feet of plotting board.

    BICHOK ladies!

  14. OK, so 150 SF of plotting board isn't exactly portable.

  15. Hi,

    The link didn't work for me at first, but I removed the last period and it zipped me through.

    I've been working through some sheets from that book by Karen Weisner about getting a first draft in 30 days. I guess she has a new one about getting from draft to novel.

    Anyway, this story board looks simpler and the sticky notes are a great idea.

    I hope I win one!


  16. I love the idea of a plotting board. I'm more of a pantser by nature, but I've recently decided I have to learn how to become more of a plotter and this looks like something that would help me tons.

  17. I agree that this would help with early stages of plotting.Since I don't have available wall space, this would work well for me. I've used the floor before...(and being kinesthetic/auditory, walked and talked through the book.)Maybe I should have a plot rug. (But I would love getting one!)

  18. OOOPS..I fixed the link to the Plotting Board site.

    But here it is again...

  19. There are three sizes:

    From the site

    Each board allows for up to 20 chapters and the Goal-Motivation-Conflict for two main characters. Colored stickies help break out the different parts of your book (hero, heroine, sub-plot, etc.) so you can quickly see where your story may be lacking.

    Large boards are 22" x 28" (14" x 22" when folded): $20.00 plus $9.00 shipping = $29.00 total

    Medium boards are 14" x 33" (11" x 14" when folded): $15.00 plus $7.00 shipping = $22.00 total

    Small boards are 8" x 11" when folded: $10.00 plus $5.00 shipping = $15.00 total

    Shipping will be via priority mail. International buyers should email first to get shipping costs.

  20. Welcome to Seekerville! While I've basically been very much a seat-of-the-panster, earlier this year I came up with a similar board. It works for me, because it's so "high level" it doesn't restrict my creative freedom at all. It does, however, allow me to evaluate what I've brainstormed and helps helped me determine if I have enough key scenes, strategic turning points, etc., to carry my WIP to the end. (I'm ever fearful of ending up with the dreaded "sagging middle.") When I'm satisfied that I have a fairly strong set-up, I transfer the "sticky note" info to an Excel spreadsheet, then modify it to my heart's content as I work my way through the writing phase.

  21. I'm going to jump in here and say, first of all, this makes me faintly sick to my stomach, as I realize what a failure I am at plotting.

    I think I'm kind of a bumblebee writer. You remember that old story where some scientist says a bumblebee is the wrong shape, the wrong weight with the wrong wings to fly. But no one ever told the bumblebee he couldn't fly, so he does.

    Well I'm afraid if I look to close I'll find out I don't have what it takes to be a writer, either, cuz I don't do ANY of this stuff.

    Seriously, plotting, GMC, character sketches. I do none of this stuff.

    But I run into trouble, too, and have to go back and fix it. I know doing this would make things simplers, cleaner, less revision.

    But yesterday, I was writing along and when the next development came along I just got this BAM thing out of the blue how I could really do a change up on the plot and went with it. Now I've got to go back, rewrite, but it's so juicy.

    Anyway, I think I'm doing it the hard way. So go PLOTTING BOARD

  22. OH my gosh. This is an OCD person's dream.

    I-WANNA-WIN-IT!!!! LOL! Just kidding. I want a Seekerville guest to win. But I do plan to get one.

    I saw this at RWA two years in a row at Midnight Madness and drooled over it then too. But didn't know how I'd get it on the plane.

    I used to plot with sticky notes but stopped because they wouldn't stick to the surface I was using (my desk cabinet door).

    Pam, I also like your Synopsis book.

    Welcome to Seekerville.

    And thanks for explaining the plotting board so in-depth. I hadn't thought of using other colors besides pink and blue (to denote hero/heroine's POV) for other important things.

    Brilliant. I'm lovin' it. Puts it all right out there so you can see if you're on target with romance arcs and solid story structure.

    Pumpkin bread!!!! YUMMY.


  23. Great idea! I so wish I had invented it. This will help so many people.

  24. I know, this is so simple and yet so helpful. I want one NOW.

  25. I'm with the other SOTP-ers. The very idea of pre-plotting makes my brain turn to overcooked oatmeal! Like Mary, I'm pretty much an organic writer. I get the general idea, work through some very basic characterizations, and then sit down at the keyboard and let it flow.

    It's hard at times, yes. But I find I CANNOT envision what happens next until I'm living out the story on the page. And like Mary, I often get a HUGE insight long about mid-book and then have to go back and work in the necessary background.

    But actually I LOVE doing it this way. It's an exciting voyage of discovery.

    However, I do see the value of tools like the plotting board to help keep track of the journey. The hard part for me is remembering what happened when so I can make sure it all ties together.

  26. Wow--didn't realize you guys were so active! :-) I think a lot of questions were answered already, but let me see if there are any left unanswered...

    Chicki and Glynna caught the essence of it for me. Being able to move things around, see where you have holes, etc. is what I like most about these boards.

    For those of you who are pantsters, this board can still work. One of our critique group members is a panster but since she's published, she needs to send in a synopsis with three chapters. The board helped her figure out the main turning points of the plot and the ending so she could write the synopsis.

    Personally, I find it easier to use it while brainstorming in a group. Then, you have help to move back and forth between GMC and the plot, decide what the major turning points will be, fill in any scenes you already know about, etc.

    What we usually do is get the skeleton of the plot, get help with whatever we feel we need (for instance, one person wanted to make sure she had enough action scenes) then once we feel we have enough to write the synopsis or get started writing, we stop. Then some of us use paper to continue brainstorming on our own, some of us transfer it to Word or Excel. Whatever works for you.


  27. I just remembered. For those of you who live in Colorado, Debra Dixon is coming to Colorado Springs on October 18 for a full-day workshop on Goal, Motivation and Conflict and the Hero's Journey. She bought one of the plotting boards at the RWA conference this year, so I'm looking forward to seeing how she uses it.


  28. Might help if I gave you the URL for more info, huh? Duh.


  29. I just learned about this method last week when I attended Camy Tang's workshop at the ACFW conference. I plan to give it a try on my WIP.

  30. I like the plotting board but in the past I've felt pretty overwhelmed by it too. Except after reading Debra's book recently, I get the whole GMC so much more and have been tinkering with something like this, on index cards. But I like the visual understanding gotten from the multiple colored stickies.

    It certainly looks like it adds some more fun to the writing process.

  31. Oh boy now the wheels are spinning on how I can get to Deb Dixon's workshop. I have been twice, own the book and every time I glean a new nugget of info. Thanks Pam.

  32. I've always been a seat-of-the-pantser but an author friend challenged me to try plotting this time. Things certainly changed along the way, but I wrote much faster than I did before. I found I liked it and this looks like an incredible tool.

  33. Oops, that last post from Caroline was really from me, Lorna. I didn't notice my daughter, Caroline, was logged in on Google. Sorry.

  34. I do keep a sort of running tally of unfolding events that might add up to a plotting board after the fact.
    At the top of each document I make notes when I hand out a name and description of a lesser character especially.
    Hair and eye color. Name. Any background twists that matter.
    By now I'm at 35,000 words on my WIP and I've got about a full single spaced page on page one of the book giving me little reminders.

    I keep forgetting what I named the parson's wife, stuff like that, when she's maybe only in the book three times. How old her children are. They came west from WHERE exactly. If I throw in tiny details and keep track and can make passing references again, and, if the book is a series, a minor character in book one, could become important in book two, so I need to be able to hunt down those details without having to reread in minute detail the whole book searching for one item.

  35. I do keep a sort of running tally of unfolding events that might add up to a plotting board after the fact.
    At the top of each document I make notes when I hand out a name and description of a lesser character especially.
    Hair and eye color. Name. Any background twists that matter.
    By now I'm at 35,000 words on my WIP and I've got about a full single spaced page on page one of the book giving me little reminders.

    I keep forgetting what I named the parson's wife, stuff like that, when she's maybe only in the book three times. How old her children are. They came west from WHERE exactly. If I throw in tiny details and keep track and can make passing references again, and, if the book is a series, a minor character in book one, could become important in book two, so I need to be able to hunt down those details without having to reread in minute detail the whole book searching for one item.

  36. I can see how handy that plotting board would be. I need to get my hand on one of those. Thanks!

  37. Mary and Myra, and other SOTPers, I'm with you.
    This looks so amazing, but I can't process it.
    I like the bumblebee thing, Mary.

    BZZZZing off,


  38. Thank you so much, Pam and PPRW members ! And welcome to Seekerville!!

    I LOVE this board. I wanted to buy one in San Francisco but couldn't transport it. Thanks for this reminder to go to the chapter website!!

    For those who are pantsters, this could be a good way to visualize your book after you write it. To make sure it flows well and doesn't have holes. I did something similar with notecards while I was revising my last book so I could make sure all flowed smoothly after I had taken it apart and worked on it.


  39. I'm with Cheryl - this looks like an OCD plotters dream. I'd probably get wrapped up in it - literally - and forget to come out and write the story. :)

    Camille (who is new around here, btw, and is very sad to have missed the lively talk about her hero, Jane Austen a few weeks ago. I'm glad I found y'all!)

  40. As a post-it addict who uses her patio door as a plotting wall, this board sure would save me a lot of crazy looks from my neighbors. :)

  41. Hi, Camille, glad you found your way to Seekerville! There's always plenty going on around here. Come join the fun anytime!

  42. Hi there Camille.

    Erica, what a great idea. And congrats on your sale.

    We will be drawing for the PPB at 8 pm MST.

    Pam, thanks so much for being here.

  43. I just ordered my own PPB and I want you all to know I am a pantser. I do not plot.

    But I use sticky notes to help me keep the timeline for my story using a pink or blue for each scene in a chapter according to POV.

    I'm very excited I will now be able to use my bulletin board as a bb again. This is great.

  44. Other plotting board ideas...
    Collages. That's right, pictures. Get your hero in different poses, showing emotions, creating his character arc, etc...

    Sometimes I think so far out of the box that I need lots of boxes to see where I'm going.

    I also use the PP Board to track my "Troublesome" areas during revisions, like too much exposition in chapters 2, 4,5,7,... they get a blue sticky so I know when I go back to revise, i need to change them into action, dialogue, ... Too much of a good thing makes a gluttony of disasters. ;}

    Oh, and if you can't find enough different color stickies.... wait for it.... Highlight the edges with markers. I tested markers, paints, and highlighters and liked the markers the best. Just run the marker around the edges slowly and the color will bleed into the sticky pad.


  45. Missy--what a great idea to use it after you write the book! Since I'm a definite plotter, never thought of that.

    And Sue has an interesting take on it, too. It's always interesting to see how others use it. :-)


  46. Erica, I'm laughing so hard over the sticky notes on the sliding glass door! I love it! :)

    Sue, great idea highlighting the edge of your plain sticky notes. I've done that with plain index cards but will have to try stickies!

    Camille, I'm glad you found us!


  47. It looks like something that might work for me. Love the idea of the colors and checking to see if there are enough of each one to show what's missing.

  48. Crystal Laine Miller is our winner!!

    Congrats Crystal.

    I have emailed you privately.

  49. Great post and plotting aide. I love the use of the different colors to show the different aspects of the story. That way you can see the gaps and holes. Great visual aide.

    Thanks for taking the time to post with us.

  50. Perfect timing as I sit down to plot my new romantic suspense! Am I too late to be in the drawing?

  51. Yes. Gina, but you can still go the website and order your own. I did!!


  52. Hi, Pam, and welcome to Seekerville. The plotting board looks very interesting. Like Janet, I also use colored markers per Margie Lawson, but I like the way this shows the colors at one glance. Thank you for sharing.

    Connie Marquise

  53. I can't believe that I won! I was just thinking that I would order one, and here I win one! Reminds me of back in the day when I used to make learning centers for my classes in elementary school. (Anything elementary is my speed.)

    Thank you so much!!