A Minimalistic & Iterative Approach to Researching, Plotting and Drafting your Novel
I’m a pantser at heart, and that’s worked reasonably well to up until now, as I’ve primarily focused on writing articles and short stories of up to about five thousand words.
Left to my own devices, I tend to draft, research, and plot, all at the same time. And if my muse, Serendipity, decides to show up, I will happily follow her to whichever rabbit hole she leads me into.
But this is not very scalable, now that I’m taking on longer projects. My bottleneck is research. I like to write stories that require quite a bit of it, and following this flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants approach means that I am constantly interrupting my writing to Google this, Wikipedia that, or even read whole books in between paragraphs. As you can imagine, this kills momentum and makes for very tortuous progress.
I have a day job. Life happens. The longer the project, the more interruptions. Hey! What’s that bright light over there.
Interruptions are a writer’s bane.
Luckily, my day job is all about planning by managing interruptions and priorities. This inspired me to enlist one of my favorite tools at work to assist me in my writerly pursuits. Call it synergy.
Trello is a project management tool created to facilitate collaboration within teams, but I’ve also found it to be an ideal tool for more solitary pursuits, such as planning a novel-length piece of fiction.
Some Key Concepts in Trello
For those that aren’t familiarized with it, let’s take a few moments to do so with the key Trello concepts that we’ll be using.
- At its core, Trello is a list management tool. Its most basic element is the Card.
- The next concept in Trello is the List, a column that allows you to collect and combine cards. Both cards and lists can be dragged and dropped.
- A collection of lists makes up a Board. Today, we will be creating two boards to help us manage plotting and researching.
- Finally, Labels are a way to classify cards by attributes that cut across lists.
Staying true to my pantser roots, I try to keep my planning and structure to a minimum. The goal is to tighten the focus of my research, not so much that it squeezes the creativity out of it, but just enough, so that it does not interfere with my flow while I’m writing.
To start plotting, we create a board and name it Plot. Then, we create a list and name it descriptively after a scene. Within this list, we create a card for each of the following:
- The main POV character in the scene (John),
- each one of the supporting characters (Mary),
- the gist of the action in the scene (John proposes to Mary),
- the gist of the dialog (“Let me think about it,” Mary says),
- the setting, (Paris in Wintertime).
Following, we create the labels: Character, Action, Dialog, Setting, Symbol, and Theme. Color-code them for easier identification and manipulation, and label the cards appropriately. We then start a new scene in a new list and repeat this process until we feel we have enough scenes to form a story arc to start a round of research.
You can also create other labels, such as complications or obstacles. Just make sure you don’t have too many, otherwise it’ll defeat their purpose of organizing and aggregating your cards.
To organize our research, we create a second board named Research, and organize the lists into Characters, Settings, Themes, and Symbols. Then we create a new set of cards for each unique character and setting found in the Plot board, and place them in the appropriate list. Note that we may have the same characters or settings showing up in different scenes in our Plot board, but we should not repeat them in our Research board.
As we research, we add our research notes on the back of the appropriate card. For example, if after browsing pictures of Paris in Wintertime, we decide to set the proposal scene on the skating rink at Hôtel de Ville, then put our notes, links, and photos in a card called Hôtel de Ville, and place it in the list named Setting.
We similarly create a card for each one of our characters.
In short, the Plot board is where we plot. The Research board is where we document and organize our research.
Why Use Trello
So far, so vanilla.
One of the reasons I like to plot in Trello is that it lays out a bird’s eye view of the structure of my story. Another is how easy it is to plot by dragging and dropping cards and lists in Trello. It’s a little bit like musicians gravitating towards the piano when they write music, because their experience and control over the process of composition are enhanced by having all the notes visually displayed in front of them and accessible by their fingertips.
Having this overall view helps me organize my research, and decide whether I have enough to start writing my first draft. Efficiency in researching is accomplished by organizing it by character and setting so that it is always serving the story. There may be a small tradeoff in terms of missed serendipitous findings, but I think there still are plenty of opportunities for this to happen, be them within this structure, from a serious writer’s obligatory off-project reading, or even from daily life.
Once I am satisfied with my research, I start drafting. Adjusting cards and lists to reflect any structural changes introduced as I draft. I also start moving scenes into a single list, forming a mini-arc. Now the list contains a full chapter, instead of a single scene.
This is where Trello’s strengths come into play. You can easily drag and drop cards within or between lists, or rearrange whole list the same way. Plotting becomes a very visual and almost tactile experience, which I find builds something of a muscle memory of the story.
This tactile and visual connection between writer and story can be further enhanced by customizing the appearance of a board’s background or a card’s cover so that they convey more information at a glance.
Writing is Revising
But what do we do with the labels and lists we named Symbol and Theme when we started?
I’m with Stephen King on this. As he writes in On Writing, I usually don’t think much about symbols or themes until late into revision, which is when they should start to become apparent as one revises. Granted, it has happened that an image (symbol), or a situation (theme) comes first and stays with me until it develops into a story. In that case, you may want to write them down someplace at the beginning, which is what the Symbol and Theme labels in the Plot board and their eponymous Lists in the Research board are for.
Ultimately, whether I start focusing on symbols and themes at the beginning or the end is of less consequence than a system’s ability to accommodate the need for doing several iterative rounds of revisions and research.
I’m sure there are more structured and thorough ways to plan, plot, and research a novel, but for me, this one does the trick: Light enough that I will stick with it. Structured enough to focus my research. And flexible enough to evolve and keep up with multiple rounds of additions and revisions.
- Pigeons in front of Eiffel Tower: Photo by Fabrizio Verrecchia on Unsplash
- John: Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash
- Proposes: Photo by Trym Nilsen on Unsplash
- Mary: Photo by Samuel Dixon on Unsplash
- Hotel de Ville skating rink: Photo by Daniil Silantev on Unsplash
- Let me think about it: Photo by Allan Filipe Santos Dias on Unsplash
- Heartbreak: Photo by Trym Nilsen on Unsplash
- On Plane: Photo by Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash
Original Article first Published in Medium.