Apr 9, 2010

Charting Your Story

by Joan Sowards

I took a job in my young adult days in the purchasing and billing department of a lumber company. The training was one-on-one, learning several tasks, but for some reason I just didn’t get it. I felt lost, as if wandering around in the dark.

Finally, a few days into the training, it all clicked, and I realized that what they were teaching me wasn’t merely a bunch of different tasks, but the steps a bill goes through—start to finish. (Had the trainer told me up front?)

Knowing this one little fact turned on the light. I made a diagram so that I would remember the process order.

When writing a novel, we may find ourselves wandering in the dark, so-to-speak, and losing track of the events of the story. After writing 60,000 words we could become confused about what happened when. Spreadsheets, outlines, 3 X 5 cards taped to the wall or spread across the living room floor are a few methods that may help.

While writing my novel Haunts Haven, I got to the point I felt that I was wandering around in the dark trying to get the timing of the events correct. The story takes place over a few weeks. I pulled out 3 X 5 cards and started listing scenes in order and then put them vertically in their weeks until I literally created a visual of my story. I made a few adjustments, found places I needed to fill in the story, and made sure everything happened in order—not getting the cart before the horse. (Please excuse the cliché, but it is a great visual here.)

If you have a method that helps you keep track of your story, please leave a comment explaining what works for you.


  1. Good method to track Joan. I wrote much of my dragon novel as my Creative writing class project and we had to jump around and complete various types of scenes. So, it was much like a story board of a movie all jumbled up. Then it too a massive effort to order the scnes and write connecting scenes. It ended out to be 200,000 words and I had to chop it in half and make two books out of it. I am writing another faery tale, and I am writing from start to finish just to see which works best for me. Stephen King and Brandon Snaderson write a start to finish sloppy copy thing, then go back and grind it out. That is what I'm trying to do this time.

  2. Very interesting. I love how everyone has their own way of visualizing. I used to have to do the 3x5 card thing for VTing routes...could never see it on the computer or on separated pieces of paper. I think i will try that method with my wip. Thanks Joan1

  3. I need to do this better. Thanks!

  4. I discovered Writer's Cafe'. It is software that works to help make your scene cards, chart your story, flesh out your characters. It goes on a pin board and you can move the scenes around where you want them to fit. I love it. It only cost $65.00. When I'm done I can print out the report and I have a synopsis, outline - everything. The technical support is great. It gives pop up writer prompts every time I open up the program. I just finished writing my illustrated book Elsie goes to the Hospital and it worked great to make my storyboard with.
    It has a scrapbook function where you can upload images. There is a journal function where you write notes and thoughts. I've tried other software programs, I tried charting things out in excel, and I tried the old 3 x 5 card system. None work as well as the Writer's Cafe'.
    I finally discovered (after a year of using it) how to transfer the data into my word processor so I can use it there without having to re-enter the same data. It is worth every penny and then some.

  5. What great ideas. I'm new at this but for my current wip I had to outline it in word using a table, one column for the chapter number, one for the scene number, another column for the day, date and time (of the scene in the book). This helped me tremendously. Thanks for the ideas.

  6. Hi, Joan, I know this feeling well. My first young adult novel, TAKEN BY STORM (Penguin/Razorbill 2009) is written in a collage of poems, dive log journal-type entries, and online chats. All of the entries are DATED--with a year. So I had to create calendar and put all the events on it. I made up a fictional calendar and hand write it all out so I can see and feel it, but I know authors who use iCal or Outlook. When I wrote TAKEN BY STORM's sequel last fall, I went back to that same calendar. When I write historical fiction, I use a historical calendar and tag each chapter with a date. Helps me and the reader keep it all straight.

  7. I hadn't thought of using an actual calendar. What a great idea.


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