Plots & Jigsaw Puzzles


Having finished the first draft of Corpus, I’m now onto the first round of edits. This includes a major restructuring of the first third, as I decided to restrict the protagonist’s movements in order to create tension. That meant that certain pieces of information needed to be delivered by different people, or at different times, or under completely different circumstances. I’d made lots of notes but when it came to chopping up and moving chunks of text around, I started to get quite confused. Could Conversation B happen before Conversation A? Could Character X believably deliver lines that had originally been given to Character Y? 

In the end, following a technique I used to use professionally to write conference programmes, I resorted to index cards and post-it notes. The index cards were the physical scenes – the protagonist in a particular place, a bar fight, a road trip, a meeting in someone’s office, etc. The post-it notes were pieces of information that conveyed plot points, history, character motivations and so on. I could then move information between scenes, working out at a glance what order certain pieces needed to be conveyed in and what order the scenes themselves needed to be in.  The post-it notes were also colour-coded to work out how the various (sub)plots were woven together.

This proved really helpful in clarifying things, but it’s not hugely transportable. Apart from anything else, post-it notes aren’t that great at staying put. The raptor pointed me towards a website called Trello which does something very similar. Trello was originally designed as a project management tool but it works quite well for plot management. You can divide things into ‘cards’, then list points of information and colour-code them. You can also include pictures, weblinks, quotes and so on. It isn’t quite as physical as index cards but it is more portable and can contain lots of extra detail.

List of scenes on the left, with details and colour-coding; Details of one conversation on the right, with list of points and quote

Left – lists of scenes with sections + colour-coding; Right – details of one section with quote + list of points

Everyone has their own process for this sort of thing and there’s tons of software programmes that can help. I think Scrivener is the most common one that’s specifically designed for writers but really it’s about what you’re comfortable with using. I don’t think I’ll ever completely move away from the physical jigsaw-puzzle approach of cards and post-its, but being able to then translate that basic architecture into greater on-line detail that I can refer to is very handy.

So I’ve shown you my technique. What’s yours?


One response »

  1. I’m a scrivener fan, but then I’m also a big pre-planner and haven’t yet faced such major structural re-writes, so I don’t know how good it would be for that. Certainly it does some of the post-it/card stuff.

    Like you, I find it’s also helpful to use physical bits of paper from time to time. This was as true when I was managing projects as it is for my writing. Sure it’s less convenient to cart that stuff around, but I think the physical movement, the experience of touching something outside the virtual world, helps your brain to get moving in different ways.

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