5 Visual Strategies for Plotting Your Novel

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Woman hands envisioning

I don’t know about you, but for me, plotting a full-length novel is one of the most difficult aspects of writing.

I tend to come up with a great premise, but turning that into a plot becomes a lot of work. I don’t usually get it right the first time, either.

Personally, what works best for me during this outlining process is to have plenty of visual material on hand. If I can see the story taking shape, I can make all sorts of subconscious connections that wouldn’t otherwise surface.

Here are 5 visual strategies I have used for outlining:

1. Picture File

Pictures are a great way to visualize your plot, setting, and characters. I find this works best in the very early planning stages, when your story is mostly just a bunch of thoughts roaming around your head.

You can keep either a digital file of pictures on your computer (taken yourself with a digital camera, or ones you find on the internet), or a real file with film pictures/magazine cutouts. Maybe you’ll even include pertinent or inspiring YouTube videos if you choose digital over print.

Whichever you use, make sure you hold onto them for when you start actually writing. You’ll need them for inspiration.

2. Writing Software

There are a few different types of writing software on the market, all of which help you organize your projects into bite-sized pieces for ease of writing and revising.

I use Scrivener, which is one of the best investments I’ve made for my writing, considering it was inexpensive and I use it every day. It took a bit of getting used to at first, but now I can’t imagine going back to writing in a regular word processor.

Whatever software you use, make sure you can save chapters and/or scenes as separate files, so during the outlining stage you can simply plug a few key words into each file as a sort of placeholder.

Scrivener also has a visual tool where you can see an excerpt of each chapter or scene on a series of digital index cards.

3. Index Cards

If you prefer more concrete methods of plotting to digital ones, try the good ol’ index card system.

It doesn’t get much cheaper or more simple than this.

You need a large pack of lined index cards, plus a photo album or small file box to keep the cards in order. On each card, write a short description of what action and/or characters a chapter/scene will need to include, and continue to do this until you have an skeleton for your story. You can doodle on the backs, paste on pictures, or add whatever you like. It’s also easy to shuffle them around, if need be.

When it’s time to begin writing, just keep your cards on hand for reference as you flesh out each section.

4. Whiteboard

On the t.v. series House, a medical team uses a whiteboard to brainstorm things that might be causing their patients’ dreadful illnesses.

A whiteboard is an excellent tool for the brainstorming stages of writing, because you can quickly jot down notes, or draw pictures and diagrams, then erase them at will (and start all over again, if necessary).

Of course, it’s not ideal for writing down information you wish to keep, unless you plan to transcribe your ideas onto paper, or your computer, later on. But, it’s still useful for helping envision ideas and see how you can make them fit together.

5. Timeline

I’ve always found it helpful to make a rough timeline of events that happen in my story. Making a list of plot points works too, but a timeline is simply visual representation of the same thing.

Using this strategy can help you quickly identify how the action of your story unfolds, and whether or not you need to rearrange, add, or omit certain events to improve flow.

Visualize Your Plot

Using any of these strategies, or other similar ones, during the outlining phase of your novel can help save you a lot of grief during the writing stages. You’ll more easily identify logic holes, make connections between events, spot opportunities to foreshadow, as well as keep your work organized.

Although these are great for planning novels, they can be adapted to writing non-fiction books and articles, too.

Which of these strategies have you used, or will you consider using in the future? What other visual strategies have you used to help plan your writing?

{ 18 comments }

Christopher February 15, 2010 at 11:27 pm

I really like using Index Cards to try and keep a hold on what is going on. I’m really having to use this technique for my WIP, my first proper attempt at a novel (I don’t count NaNoWriMo) because I usually write short stories where I can just take one idea and one scene and delve right in.

Besides my basic premise my plot is coming together with difficulty. I’m writing little bits here there and everywhere, so the Index Card technique is proving very useful in keeping track of everything, as my structure slowly begins to come together.

I love brainstorming too, but don’t have a whiteboard unfortunately. I just use a pad of paper, so I can use a sheet per brainstorm then just throw it away or file it if necessary.

Great article Suzannah, thanks!
.-= Read Christopher´s last article ..Like Ghosts =-.

suzannah February 16, 2010 at 4:35 am

Christopher,

Sounds like you’re a bit of pantser in the writing department–am I correct? You say your plot is coming together with difficulty, so I’m wondering if that’s because you’re plotting as you go.

If you like the freedom of pantsing, but you want to ensure your plot still works out in the end, you could always just plan your premise, inciting incident, and ending ahead of time. That way, you still pants your way from point A to point B, but you have an ultimate destination.

Of course, maybe you’re already doing that. Getting from A to B is still a challenge!

Thanks :)

Christopher February 16, 2010 at 10:55 am

Yeah, I really am a pantser when it comes to writing. I tend to agree with Stephen King, who talks about uncovering a story (and the plot) as you write, like uncovering a fossil in the ground.

I just find planning and plotting, beyond brainstormed ideas and jotted notes, incredibly difficult and counter-productive. Whenever I plan something too much it usually just stops me from actually writing the story!
.-= Read Christopher´s last article ..Like Ghosts =-.

suzannah February 17, 2010 at 8:09 am

Christopher,

I would agree that planning and plotting are both “incredibly difficult,” even if you think it’s the best way to go! Like I said in the opening of this article, it’s one of the most difficult aspects of writing for me. Often I revamp my plans dozens of times before I get anywhere near something that will work. But, this is always done with the knowledge that if I DON’T do it (painful as it is), I’ll never finish writing the thing.

I see it as a necessary evil, for me at least. Thanks!
.-= Read suzannah´s last article ..5 Visual Strategies for Plotting Your Novel =-.

Margaret February 17, 2010 at 6:54 am

I’ll have to look into that software. My dad and aunt who each had many published book both used the index card method and whiteboard. Neither works that well for me so the software might be just the trick. I always love your suggestions.
.-= Read Margaret´s last article ..Random Tuesday- Rip off Candy Hearts- Olympics and Teleprompters =-.

suzannah February 17, 2010 at 8:12 am

Margaret,

I haven’t really trialled any other writing software, but if you have a Mac, Scrivener is the way to go. It is just so easy to use and has a lot of great features.

Hope you try it one day. You can download a 30 day version for free, I think.
.-= Read suzannah´s last article ..5 Visual Strategies for Plotting Your Novel =-.

Southpaw February 16, 2010 at 12:16 am

Timeline, visualizing, and a sort of index card method. I use a word program, then cut and paste to move stuff around. Index cards would be easier, but when I can, I don’t use paper.
.-= Read Southpaw´s last article ..Bleeding Heart for Valentine’s Day =-.

suzannah February 16, 2010 at 4:30 am

Southpaw,

I once tried to write a novel in a word processor, and when I got my first draft finished (60,000 words), I wanted to shuffle scenes around and flesh them out a bit more. In the end, I found this utterly impossible, and ultimately gave up on the piece.

I’m glad I did, because it wasn’t really that good :) But, I still think one day I will take the sane story idea and try to rewrite it again using proper writing software, without actually looking at the original copy.

How do you manage to cut/paste stuff and move it around in a normal word processor?? It drove me nuts trying until I finally gave up!

Lydia Sharp February 18, 2010 at 9:15 am

Suzannah,
I’m currently in the middle of a complete rearranging/rewriting of my first novel that I wrote almost two years ago, and I’m doing it mostly through what I “see” in my head. I know exactly what scenes/chapters I need to use as they are, which ones to rewrite, and which ones to leave out. Everything is saved in a file, so I just started a new file, and transfer stuff as I need it. I had to cut an entire section (several chapters worth) and then move stuff around, and keep other stuff in the same place. I’m able to keep it all straight in my head with just a few notes scribbled down on paper. But maybe I’m not normal. :)
.-= Read Lydia Sharp´s last article ..A BIG THANK YOU! =-.

suzannah February 18, 2010 at 9:50 pm

No Lydia, you’re not normal ;)

It drove me nuts just trying to find the scenes I was looking for, never mind cutting and pasting. I did it for a while, but it just wasn’t working for me.

But hey, if you can work it all out in your head, that’s great!
.-= Read suzannah´s last article ..5 Visual Strategies for Plotting Your Novel =-.

techquestioner March 4, 2010 at 6:27 am

RE Shuffling things around in a word processor: Locate the drag-and-drop editing feature and make sure that it is OFF! When the feature is ON, anytime your mouse jiggles while you are scrolling from one page to another, you can inadvertently pick up a block of text and drag it somewhere else. When drag-and-drop is OFF, you have to deliberately CUT and PASTE paragraphs from one location to another. This reduces the insanity-inducing effect of word processors considerably.

suzannah March 5, 2010 at 2:28 am

Ooh, good point! Thank you :)

winnie February 17, 2010 at 10:53 am

Pictures are great and that is why i made a book trailer good job thanks for this.

suzannah February 18, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Don’t know much about making book trailers, but I hear they’re becoming increasingly popular.
.-= Read suzannah´s last article ..5 Visual Strategies for Plotting Your Novel =-.

Lydia Sharp February 18, 2010 at 9:04 am

I’ve done the whiteboard trick, except mine is a chalkboard. I’m also a big proponent of timelines.
Pictures are good for setting but not characters, in my opinion. I can never find a picture of a person who matches what is in my head. And it’s more frustrating than what it’s worth. However, I can say, this character looks like a cross between so-and-so actor and so-and-so musician, or something like that, if I’m trying to convey it to someone else.
Characters almost always come first for me when a new story idea sparks, so I’m rather picky about them. Haha.
.-= Read Lydia Sharp´s last article ..A BIG THANK YOU! =-.

suzannah February 18, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Yeah, pictures are generally better for settings than for characters. Once in a while I see a picture and think, “Oh, that’s exactly how I imagined him/her!” But not usually.

Using a chalkboard is a good idea, too. Thanks!
.-= Read suzannah´s last article ..5 Visual Strategies for Plotting Your Novel =-.

claire March 4, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Awesome, Suzannah!
loved, loved, loved this piece. I’m a very visual person (love lots of colour and movement ;-)). So, academic writing –which is what i’m mainly doing these days–has always seemed a bit dry to me. Word just doesn’t have the colour and movement I crave. Will Scrivener hit the spot?
Their introductory video is brilliant. Easy to follow. Love the creator’s accent. 30-day trial, here i come!

thanks again and hope you’re having a wonderful day!

suzannah March 5, 2010 at 2:27 am

Thanks, Claire :) I think most people will love Scrivener whether they’re visual learners or not. It’s just an all-around amazing program! I love its full page mode where you can black out everything but the text on a white page (which happens to kind of look like a book page). For me, it’s visually appealing and doesn’t distract. Still, I sometimes just use it in normal mode, and that’s great too.

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