How to Make a Plot Board for Your Novel

The one tool that changed the way I write.

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, 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.

One of my plot boards, ready to fill.

To make your plot board you’ll need:

A tri-fold cardboard.

Think science fair project. The size I like the best is 28 inches by 40 inches. Anything smaller than that might be too small and larger is hard to manage.

It’s come to my attention that a tri-fold board isn’t as common everywhere as it is in the US. Any flat surface you can attach notes to will work. White boards, cardboard, even just a window or a wall.

A Sharpie.

Or any other fine point (not the ultra-fine writing point) permanent black marker.

If you’re using a wall or window, you might try washi or masking tape.

A pack of sticky notes.

I just use whatever I have. Usually yellow, because they’re cheaper. You can color code if you want to — a different color for each plot line or for each character, for instance, or one for each type of scene (action, dialogue, etc.), but we’re not going to do that during this series. Pick a color you like or use a rainbow, it doesn’t matter. But you will be looking at these things a lot, so you might as well make them nice to look at.

That’s it. To make your board, use your marker to divide your board into eight parts. I made a video about a thousand years ago showing you how to do it.

To make your plot board:

Bend each folding side up a little and draw a line in the crease.

Fold one of the sides completely and use it as a guide for your center line so you have four sections.

Locate the center of the board and use the corrugation in the cardboard to help you draw a line bisecting the board so you now how have eight sections — four on the top half and four on the bottom.

Now, about three-inches from the bottom and the mid-line, draw another line across the width of the board that leaves a box at the bottom of each section. You’ll keep your climatic sequence-ending scenes in these boxes.

Label your Acts across the top…Act I, Act II-1, Act II-2, and Act III.

Label your sequences starting in the right corner and going up and down. (Sequences one and two are in Act I, Sequences three and four are in Act II-1, etc.)

A plot board belonging to one of my students.

Using your plot board

To use your plot board, you’re going to write a few words about each scene in your book on a sticky note and put it where it belongs in your story on the board.

For instance, if you’re writing a scene with a romance story line, at some point your hero and heroine are going to meet. So, you’ll write ‘Mary meets John’ on a sticky note and put that where you think it’ll happen in the story (probably in sequence one.)

If you know that a side character is going to die, write “Jane dies” on a note and put that where it belongs (probably in Act II somewhere.)

I’m sure there are definitely things that you know have to happen for your story to work, even before you write a word.

The great thing about sticky notes is that they are not permanent. You can move them around or even throw them away as you make your way through your story.

My favorite thing about having such a visual representation of my stories is that I can easily see if I have a log jam of scenes slowing things down . If I have 20 scenes in sequence 6, then I know I’m past due for getting a big climatic scene in there and moving on.

I have a free class that thousands of Ninja Writers have used to learn how to use their plot boards. You can sign up for The Plotting Workshop here.

Here’s my secret weapon for sticking with whatever your thing is.

Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.