In this last article on plot development I want to talk briefly about tools you can use for outlining your novels. There are any number of tools you can use, from low-tech to high-tech, depending on your preference. You can simply write or type an outline. You can use some kind of graphical computer program to create a visual picture of the structure. Or you can use an in-depth charting tool. In writing Consequences, I actually used Microsoft Project because I had a lot of dependencies that I needed to keep up with so that the timing worked to build the suspense and tension as the story progressed. But that’s overkill. You don’t need anything that complex to outline a novel.
The method I prefer is actually very low-tech…multi-colored index cards (or large post-it notes) and poster boards. This is easy to use and provides a great big-picture, visual depiction of your plot. Here’s what I do. I use different colored cards for the MP and SPs and red dots to signify the “hooks.” Hooks are simply points where I want to provide surprises or throw out something that will keep the reader turning pages. On each card I write a quick note explaining what happens in that chapter. Then I stick the card on the poster board. If the chapter includes both MP and SP content then I’ll put the SP card below the MP card on the board. You can accomplish the same thing by using the same colored cards and writing the info on them in different colors. But I prefer different colored cards because it really jumps out at you when you stand back and look at it. You can also lay the cards out on the floor and shuffle them around. I prefer putting them on poster boards taped to the wall because I’d rather work standing up than crawling around on the floor. It also keeps my cats from sitting on the cards or batting them around and getting them out of order.
This poster board with the cards attached works kind of like the storyboards they use for movies. It makes it very easy to survey your plot to make sure everything is flowing like you want it to, that the SPs are woven through the story at the proper intervals, and that you’re providing enough hooks at the right places to keep the reader interested. You can easily shuffle things around if you find gaps or problems with the sequencing of events. You can add hooks if you identify any slow areas that need a boost. And you can quickly see where you’re repeating yourself or putting in scenes that aren’t really needed. Remember that you don’t have to write out your chapter cards in order, either. You can write the cards as the chapter ideas come to you, then shuffle them around to see how they best fit together.
If you’ve never used this technique before I highly recommend it. I think you’ll be surprised how helpful it is. It’s cheap and easy and doesn’t require any hardware or software or other technical junk that can get in the way. And, if for some reason you don’t find it useful, you haven’t invested a bunch of money. As a matter of fact, you probably already have the materials you need to give it a try.