How to Make a Plot Board

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We were going talk about how to use a plot board soon–but when I started to write that post, I realized that there was just so much information I wanted to put in it. To keep things neater and easier I’m going to introduce you to the plot board today so that you can make yours and be all ready to go.

I even made you a video!

The Plot Board

A plot board is deceptively simple. It packs way more of a punch in your writing than you would expect from a piece of tri-fold cardboard and some sticky notes. I learned about this tool from the amazing Alexandra Sokoloff, who was kind enough to give me permission to teach it–but plotting is obviously something that many writers do in many ways. I don’t plot in exactly the same way as Alexandra does, and once you get the hang of this, you’ll develop your own style.

This is the way that’s worked for me, and it’s the way that’s going to be referenced through out this series.

To make your plot board you’ll need:

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A Novel Idea: The Big Idea

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If your goal is to write a novel, it all starts with an idea. You need something you can boil down to a single sentence, so that when someone asks you what your book is about you can pull that out.

My idea for my first published novel, Viral Nation, was to tell the story of a brother and sister living in a post-apocolyptic Utopian society, who accidentally start a second American Revolution.

Obviously there’s a lot more to my story than that one sentence. There’s a whole band of kids, for instance, that call themselves The Freaks. There’s also time travel, which you can’t tell from that one sentence (and which I didn’t know when I started writing!) But, it’s a start. A seed. I bet you could guess from that one sentence that my story has some adventure and some history in it and that it’s speculative.

The book that you’re going to write needs a big idea that encompasses the same three things that mine for Viral Nation did: character, setting, and situation.


Think about who your story is about. Who is your main, point-of-view character? Take out your notebook and start writing about them. What do they look like? How old are they? Who do they live with? Who do they love? Who do they hate? What do they do with their days? What is their family like?

What do they want? What do they need?


Once you have a good handle on your character or characters, think about where they are. You can start big–with a country (or even a planet!) and then narrow it down. My stories almost always happen in the US, in Nevada. Viral Nation took place around Reno for the most part. The Reno in my book has a wall all the way around it, which really affects my characters and how they do what they do in the story.

Where does your story happen? What does it feel like there? What does it look like? How does the setting affect the characters?


Finally, what are your characters going to do in their setting? Do you have just a tiny bit of a start of an idea for a situation? You don’t have to know exactly what the entire story will be yet, but you need an entrance point. I usually start with a beginning–I’m super linear that way. I know some writers have an idea of where they want their characters to be at the end of the story and work backwards from there.

I love this quote by C.S. Lewis, because it’s so true. It’s important to remember, when you’re thinking about your big idea, that you’re not bound by — anything. You get to use your whole imagination, and that’s a big, grand thing.

You can make anything by writing. -- C.S. Lewis

Where to Start

If your mind is boggling right now, don’t worry. That’s normal. A book is a big undertaking and the thought that you have to have the core idea of it before you even get started can be daunting. Here’s a method for getting to that core idea that might help.

Once you know something about your main character, spend some time thinking about their normal life. What does an average day look like for them? Obviously, this is going to be one thing if your character is a middle-American housewife and something completely different if your character is a serial killer, right? Stay in the head of that character and figure out their normal.

Now, think about the first thing that happens to them in your story that is out of their normal. For your middle-American housewife, spending the day taking care of a baby is probably par for the course (even if it isn’t their baby.) But your serial killer? Maybe having someone knock on the door with a baby they mean to leave with them for the day is their first really strange moment. Conversely, your serial killer sitting in a parked car watching their next victim is probably pretty normal for them–but conducting an amateur stake-out is probably not so normal for the housewife.

You get the idea.

Try to pinpoint the moment when your character does something or has something done to them that’s totally unusual for them. That’s your entrance into the story, and that’s really one of the most important moments in your whole book.

This week

Spend some time this week thinking about your story’s big idea. Also, put your writing time into your calendar or planner and STICK TO IT. It’ll help get you in the habit of writing and will keep the first official week of A Novel Idea from sneaking up on you. I’ve made a Story Idea Development worksheet and put in on the Super Secret Page, which you can access by subscribing to What is a Plot.

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A Novel Idea

A Novel Idea: 26 weeks to your book's first draft. If you've always wanted to write a book, but you weren't sure how to start or you keep getting stuck writing the first few pages over and over--this is the program for you!

I can’t remember a time when ‘Write a Novel’ wasn’t the very first goal on my New Year’s Resolution list. Maybe since sixth grade when Tomie Dipaola came to give a talk at my school. I can still remember how electric I felt, realizing for the first time that books came from regular people. I’m not sure where I thought they came from–not a guy who wrote first drafts on yellow legal pads with Sharpie markers. (Those were my tools of choice for a very long time after.)

Certainly since high school.

It took me a long time to finally actually do it. Years. Decades, even. I was 33 years old when I finished the first draft of my first novel. It was truly, truly awful–but I finished it and I knew that if I could write a bad novel, then I could learn how to write a good one. I went to school and studied writing. I went to writer’s conferences. I wrote more books, each less awful than the last. Maybe most importantly I put my work out there (I’m talking about that awful first first draft) and I found the world’s most amazing critique partner. I really hit the lottery with that one.

For eight more years ‘Publish a Book’ was first on my New Year’s Resolution list. And then in 2013 that happened. 

Being published isn’t exactly what I thought it would be. It isn’t the pinnacle. It’s not the end game. It’s like reaching the top of the mountain only to find that it’s actually the bottom of the next mountain. And sometimes I’ve found myself stuck. My whole life I’ve just written what I wanted to write with a vague idea in the back of my mind that it would be awesome to be published someday. But I wrote for the love of writing. I wrote despite knowing that I might never be published. I wrote to tell my stories.

And then I reached a point where, if I was going to make a living as a writer, I had to learn to do things a little differently.

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