Keeping Track of Story, or My New Toy


Over the years I’ve used a variety of techniques for keeping track of my novels as I write them. This includes what I’ve actually done, as well as plotting out the books. Some of been successful, others less so. They include:

1. I have typed out a synopsis and tried to follow it, but of course, changes happen very rapidly as I write and so I end up making piles of notes, which turn into a mess. I don’t want to take a lot of time to type in changes, especially since there will be more and it feels like I spend too much time writing out the plot than working on the book.

2. I’ve taken a manila folder and opened it fully, and on the inside drawn columns for each character and listed their plots and motivations with lines to show where each connect. That actually worked nicely for me to make sure of pacing and to pull things together, but it still suffered from the problems of changes and how to modify it.

3. I’ve used accounting tape (the 3 inch wide paper strips) and hung them on the walls to track plots and various threads, but they are very difficult to change and they frequently become a mess.

4. I’ve tried a wiki program, but I need something that I can look at all together. Wikis are great for keeping track of characters and world building details, but less so for plotting.

5. I’ve taken a big pad of sketching paper and tried a flow chart style to try to follow the plot threads. But that’s a static picture and when things change, I have to redraw the whole thing. Back to taking too much time.

6. I’ve taken notepaper and done a chapter by chapter outline on each page and left rooms for comments and changes (I did that on an airplane) and that worked well for revision, but less so for drafting

All in all, I’ve never felt that any of these techniques was a good system, for whatever reasons. Mostly they don’t allow for quick changes and for me to see the big picture in one go. I wanted to try something like Scrivener, but I didn’t want the learning curve because at the moment, I can’t afford the time.

That brings me to my new toy.

I bought a big magnetic whiteboard. It’s six feet wide on a stand and it barely fits in my office. It’s in the middle of the room because there’s no other place to put it and frankly it makes the place a little claustrophobic. But it’s proving to be effective so far. I’m using it at the moment to plot out revisions on a work that’s required some real taking apart and re-assembly. The board (I call it my murder board) allows me to easily erase and move things, allows me to add notes on paper with the magnets, draw pictures and arrows, and to color code. It let’s me write reminders for myself that I can check and erase as they go away, and I can flip the board and use both sides. This means that I can see the whole pictures all at once and I know I can put it all in one spot.

I’ve not had it long enough to use it for plotting a fresh story (I’ve only had it a few weeks) but so far, it’s turning out to be a terrific investment, and one that I hope will prove useful during my entire career.

What about you? Do you have any really good techniques you want to share for working out plots and keeping track of the story?


15 comments to Keeping Track of Story, or My New Toy

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Oooohhh. A magnetic whiteboard sounds positively lovely. My last go at revisions plotting involved several lines of string and notes movable with scotch tape. Excellent for a bad “plot threads” joke, but not exactly clean and organized. When things aren’t moving around quite so much though, I use excel. It’s not fabulous, because you can really only put a cryptic note about each plot-point in a cell, but you can assign a different column for each character or plot-line, and add or delete rows or cells to keep everything lined up properly with respect to each other and move things around when you want. I then have to keep a separate word file for the chapter outline for notes about what I need where and such, but the excel system DOES work well for being about to look at the whole picture. If you’re organized. I still have scraps of notes floating everywhere.

  • The white board — I LOVE “Murder Board” — sounds like a terrific idea, Di. I tend to make notes as I need them, because then I get to check things off my list of things to do, and I find that very satisfying. But I also have to admit that I keep plot lines in my head. Even when I was working on the Winds of the Forelands series, with all those threads, I did it all in my head. I’m a bit of a freak, I think.

  • I just keep a series of different word docs in my WIP folder: outline, notes etc. involving charts of characters, subplots, ideas. It’s a mess, frankly, but it’s how I work and I haven’t found anything better for me.

  • englishpixie

    I use a board too, but I actually write each plot point or idea onto a post-it and then stick them on the board in whatever order I like. That way I can just move the post-its around as much as I like and don’t have to erase and rewrite anything, and I can’t accidentally rub something important off with my elbow when I’m not paying attention! I only started using the board recently and I’ve found it really helpful as a tool, but a little like David a lot of my plot points are solely in my head.

  • I love the idea of a huge whiteboard. I often use one to think out loud at my day job. Unfortunately, I don’t have a dedicated space at home to set one up. Practicality over preference.

    I’ve tried a number of different approaches for organization from using Microsoft Excel to cutting out little slips of paper (enforced brevity) so I can easily arrange and rearrange plotlines at will. None of these really worked out the way I’d hoped. I like the idea of Scriviner, but fear of the learning curve has kept me away as well.

    What DOES work for me is Microsoft OneNote. It has all the advantages of a digital notebook and whiteboard. Plus, I can embed or link chapter documents and use the clip feature to quickly capture on-line research notes. (I have quite a few of Magical Words content snippets in there!) It has many useful, integrated features I use in my day job, but I don’t waste time using them at home since they would only distract me from thinking creatively. Because I don’t have a fully dedicated “space” for writing at home, I also use the MobileNoter and DocToGo apps on my iPod Touch to manage and edit everything on-the-go. Finally, I use DropBox to keep everything synced up with my laptop and the family PC. That way I always have the latest of everything ready to hand whenever inspiration (or a few spare minutes) strikes.

    Of course another great advantage to using a physical whiteboard is still being able to work by candlelight in case of a power outage. πŸ˜‰

  • I usually use a notebook for plotting. I’ll outline the overall piece either as a chapter list or as a flowchart (if it’s really complicated) and then I use a checklist format for the detailed outlining. Character backgrounds, world-building, etc are done on the computer. So, it looks like I’m all over the place. πŸ™‚

  • Unicorn

    David, if you’re a freak, at least there are two of us. I do it in my head, too. However, if my thoughts get tangled, I open a new Word document and write and write until I have something approaching an outlien of the tangled part, which helps to clear my thoughts and wake them up a a bit.
    John, I so get the power outage problem. Every time we have a thunderstorm my computer makes a very sad infuriating sound and, alongside the rest of the electricity, switches off. Maddening!
    Diana, thank you for the post. I love the Murder Board idea. And the name, too.

  • tuckg

    If you want to do this on a PC and want to be able to make changes then I suggest trying out a Mindmap. These are very useful and allow tracking interconnections and story flows in parallel. There are several good free mind map applications available so try a few to fin the one that works best.
    I have found the learning curve to be pretty low for getting started.
    Also there ie an author publishing Excel for authors with regularly updated templates to use for this type of thing ( ad go to Author resources)

  • I’ve used poster board and colored markers. Now I use files on the PC. So far so good. Until I forget something I already forgot to insert… Sigh.

  • A number of people comment on the learning curve of Scrivener (, but I found the curve virtually flat; I just jumped in and started using it. Granted, I am by no means taking advantage of all of its features, but it works well as a project managing, and I recommend it. (In fact, I just upgraded to version 2, which has expanded features I have yet to check out.)

  • Sarah

    I’m all over the place. I make notes in a notebook when I’ve first gotten an idea and am just pouring out random thoughts. I scrawl plot arcs across a big whiteboard. (This works for developing article arguments too.) I write Word files with outlines and marginal comments. What works best for me in plotting is, after the initial notebook scribbling, is using 3×5 cards. I write a short scene summary at the top (Harvey goes to bar, Jan dies, Ice Demon appears in yard) identifying the scene’s principal character, main action and location. Then I bullet point underneath that what the scene needs to accomplish in terms of plot and character development.

    I really like this method because 3×5 cards aren’t hard to carry around so they’re also handy. They make me compress each scene to its essentials so I can find scenes that are overloaded or not useful. And I can spread the cards all over the living room floor and shuffle them at will to play with my plot structure and find gaps in the story. The greatest thing about them is that they are a ward against writer’s block. Once I’ve got cards written I never have an excuse that I don’t know what to write next. I just pick a card and make myself write it. When the scene’s done what it needs to then it’s done and I move on to another scene. (It’s all very neat and orderly in theory. In reality it’s still pretty messy, but it does help a lot.)

  • I have a single word doc where I write my outline, characters and stream of consciousness type stuff. As I write the story and things start to diverge from the outline I go back and rewrite as required. I don’t have any discipline with my writing in the outline doc, I just hammer away without concern for spelling, punctuation or anything else. I mainly use it to keep a record of my thoughts, not as a document for general consumption and so it tends to look like my thoughts. I find it good because when I return to work on the next chapter / scene, I go back and read the outline doc and because it is written like I think it, I can get straight back into my train of thought as if I hadn’t left it.
    I’ve tried being more organised about it, but every time I try to create more structure I find myself moving away from the passion and imagination because I am trying to put my thoughts in a foreign form. It almost sounds like there are two (at least) ways of thinking when it comes to creation. One way starts from a pigeon holed, post-it notes and lines structure and another is a formless stream of brain vomit. I’m in the latter camp.

  • Mikaela

    I wish I had a whiteboard, but I don’t have space for it.
    I am testing Scrivener instead. So far, I love it.
    I can outline and shuffle the scenes around. Without losing any notecards! πŸ˜€ I have all my research notes in one place, making it easy to check something up. It is easy to add notes about things you need to fix. It isn’t perfect, though. I am using the Windows beta which means there some bugs, but only minor things. πŸ™‚ I definitely plan to keep on using it!

  • Young_Writer

    I need to get one of those boards! All of my notes are piled into a cabinet…

  • Terry Odell

    I can’t plot to save my life, so I developed my own tracking system using the story board and post-it notes I’d bought thinking that if I had them, I could plot my next book. Rather than try to explain here, there’s a handout on my website (Plotting for Non-Plotters) that explains and illustrates what I found works for me.

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery