It might seem a little strange, outdated even, but I like to build my stories on a good old-fashioned corkboard. I use post-it notes to develop my what-if situation into a structure that includes all the elements of my story.

I have tried apps to replace my board, like Scrivener, but I always come back to the physical corkboard. It might be my version of a security blanket, or a soccer player wearing the same underpants for each match — I am not really sure.

Creating My Board

I have a desktop easel with a cork board mounted on it. The board is divided into the following columns:

  • Characters — As the story grows, so the list of characters grows with it. (See Characters).
  • Events — As possible events come to mind, I write out a post-it and add them to the board. I don’t add them in any order. When I think an event might have some weight I use a different colour.
  • Notes — Anything that comes to mind as I develop the story.
  • Themes — I don’t write with a theme in mind. If a theme presents itself while I build my board, I add it.

Ordering Scenes

When my board is covered with about 120 post-its, I start to think about the order of the events, or, the story structure. Up to this point in my process, the possible events have just been my brainstorming of what I think the story needs: how it might progress. Now, I begin to add structure to it, as well as start to consider the elements of a story arc.

The following are the things I consider while ordering the scenes on my board:

Context — The setting — or time and place — and the context of a story. The context is normal life before the action begins. For Harry Potter it is living with his aunt and uncle, for Boccone (TAM), it is being drummed out of the regiment he loves. For Rachel, it is graduating from the academy in Glynco as valedictorian.

Catalyst — This is often referred to as a trigger or inciting incident. I call it catalyst so it fits into my c-list (doing what I accused others of in the introduction). For Bilbo Baggins it was Gandalf scratching his rune on the front door of Bagend, for Boccone it was the colonel giving him an undercover assignment. For Rachel, it was being sent to Naples in 1979.

Cast — Perhaps the most obvious ingredient of a story is its cast. Without a group of characters, there can be no story. I develop a cast simultaneously with the rest of the story arc. 

Conflict — A story is driven by conflict. Whether internal conflict — such as Rachel’s self-esteem issues in TAM — or external conflict — such as Boccone’s battle with the Scortese — it is what keeps a reader turning the pages. As I order my board I look for areas of conflict.

Causality — Having studied Amazon reviews, the thing modern readers dislike the most is coincidental occurrences. Take The Killing Floor: Jack Reacher, a loner out in the boondocks of rural USA is arrested for murder, the victim of which just happens to be his brother, a man he hasn’t seen or spoken to for years. A very lame deus ex machina picked up on by the accurate reviews posted to Amazon. I don’t think it’s by accident that the Jack Reacher movies skipped the first book. 

Choice — The characters in a story need to make choices, which then cause events to happen. In The Hobbit, Bilbo chose to follow the dwarfs, which led him toward the Lonely Mountain. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf chose to visit Saruman, which led to Frodo being exposed to The Nazgul. Frodo spent the most part of The Fellowship of the Ring trying to decide on a choice, which — when made — signalled the end of the first book. Character choice is linked to causality, the choices made lead to events requiring further choices, and so on.

Climax — The point in the story of the highest stress that resolves the main conflict. The climax is present for the main plot and any subplots that might exist. In The Lord of The Rings, it is Frodo throwing the ring into the lava. In The Alcoholic Mercenary, a subplot climax is a confrontation between Rachel and her ex in her hotel room.

I don’t wait for my corkboard to be completed and reordered before I start to write. For instance, when plotting TAM, I already knew the murder scene in Baia, the characters, the setting, the when and where, so wrote it immediately. In my current WIP, Hammer, I wrote the opening scene in Gauis Suetonius Paulinus’s command tent in East Wales, where Agricola and Paulinus were discussing the invasion of Wales before I started my corkboard.

This is the first instance when I am brutal with my babies, cutting anything that doesn’t fit.

I don’t order the contents of the board based on conventional story arc theory, but rather keep an eye on the various elements and where they might be represented. When I come across something that represents an element of the story, I label a green post-it and slap it on the board.

When the reordering phase is complete, my corkboard should have several green post-its with all the elements of story arc theory covered. If there are any missing, then I need to rethink something.

With the board full of post-its in the right order and with all the elements of a story, I then move to a Spreadsheet.

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