Reader Question: How to best use a whiteboard as part of the plotting process?

July 11th, 2013 by

Question from Michael,

Hey Scott,

As a young screenwriter, I’ve recently invested in a massive whiteboard to start plotting out my most recent script. Having said that, would you be able to do a feature on the whiteboard being part of the screenwriter’s process? You seem to be able to dig up the best images, snippets of interviews… I’d love to see if you can do anything with it.

Thanks,
Michael

A whiteboard can be quite a helpful tool, but we have to frame this discussion with an obvious point: It’s not the whiteboard itself, but what goes on the whiteboard that is critical. And that means we have to do sufficient work in prep-writing to make sure we have surfaced the raw content necessary to craft a strong narrative.

I am talking research, brainstorming, character development, more character development, even more character development, and so on.

Personally I prefer to do my actual plotting with index cards and the cork board wall I have in my office. There’s just something about the tactile feel of those cards, which I can shuffle around as I try different alignments for the plot, then tack each one up on the wall, so eventually I have this linear version of my story which I can step back and see laid out in front of me — I find that works best.

I should note I like to have visual references for my stories, anything from an image that conjures up a mood or a sense of place in the script to photos of people who I feel may resemble my characters, and they go up on the cork board as well.

I also have a whiteboard and that’s where I do some of brainstorming. The majority of it, I do in a file I call a Master Brainstorming List. That’s where I put down every thought I have along the way as well as all of the character interviews, sit-downs, monologues, key research, a first stab at some scenes, and so on.

When I see a pattern, theme, or motif emerge from my brainstorming, I’ll write that on the whiteboard.

If I have a significant question about the plot, I’ll put that on the whiteboard.

I use character archetypes and I have a visual paradigm for those, so I’ll draw that on the whiteboard, once I figure out the interrelationships between the primary characters.

I also like to draw something like this on my whiteboard during the plotting process:

What I draw is actually a flat horizontal line with two vertical lines, just that. And that gets me thinking about Four Primary Plotline Points: Beginning, end of Act One, end of Act Two, Ending. Key to figure those out as they serve as the backbone of your story structure.

So as I think about it just now, I guess I use the whiteboard as a midpoint between my Master Brainstorming List and the index cards / cork board.

But you know what? There’s no right way to do any of this. Some writers I know hate index cards. I’ve been in writer’s offices where they had a whiteboard filled with chicken scratch I could not begin to figure out, something like this:

Didn’t matter it made no sense to me, it only mattered that it made sense to them! They preferred to do their plotting on the whiteboard.

Whiteboard. Cork board. Legal pad. Evernote. Papyrus. Hey, whatever works!

How about you, GITS readers? Do you use a whiteboard? If so, how? What other tools or practices do you use to plot out your story?

16 thoughts on “Reader Question: How to best use a whiteboard as part of the plotting process?

  1. Sounds crazy and I don’t know any other writers who do this, but i use **gasp** Microsoft excel in lieu of a white board or notecards.

    I too use the master brainstorm word doc where I take my daily mental dump. Once I conjure up nuggets of insight, hilarity, or genius, I start filling out a more structured outline in my excel outline file. You can move cells around like note cards, plus you have additional worksheets in the same file to do character outlines, Things To Work On, notes to yourself, etc…

    1. pgronk says:

      I also use MS Excel to capture and organize notes, list and sort story beats.

      For brainstorming I use Inspiration ver 9.0.

  2. I have a whiteboard on one wall, blackboard paint on another and a cork board sectioned into four to represent Act Breaks on a third.

    Think I love my cork board the most because you can really quickly and easily move stuff around. And especially in the early phase of development you’re going to be moving and changing a lot. So it keeps my hands clean of chalk and marker. ;-)

    The blackboard is good for blocking action scenes and random ideas. The whiteboard I use for tracking projects – kind of like the Murder Board in Homicide Precincts. Gotta turn that red to black!

    1. Scott says:

      The Murder Board in “Homicide”! Love that series, have every episode on DVD. Makes me want to sit down and watch the whole damn thing again! There were about three seasons that really kicked ass.

      1. I watched the entire season over the course of a summer. Fantastic show.

  3. CydM says:

    Try as I might, the index cards don’t work. I may have a garage sale because I’ve got stacks of them. I have used butcher paper in the past and whiteboard with colored markers to keep track of things. Those both started looking like Jackson Pollack paintings. Evernote is an ever favorite, but I like moving around and being physical. Now the corkboards hold photos and notes written on whatever’s handy — napkin, cheapie notebooks parked all over the house. They’re great for tacking up photos and printed out web sites, lists of this and that, outlines and character sketches. Yet with all those options, when I sit down to write everything changes and there continue to be surprises.

    One thing I’m fond of is keeping large sketchbooks I pick up whenever I travel. They’re great as a sort of scrapbook of ideas, pages torn from magazines, and even photos of outlines. Sometimes I’ll do an Asimov dump of words just for yucks and giggles. Those serve as a diary of my imagination to be thumbed through from time to time.

    Whatever floats your boat and keeps the wind in your sails. I like the idea of changing things up now and again and trying new things. It not only scrambles the thinking out of old patterns, but it keeps you prepared for those meetings where you swallow your tongue because they’ve got a system you don’t recognize — you’ll be adaptable and recognize something :-)

    1. Cyd,
      you might want to try out Docear (docear.org).

      It combines mindmapping with document management, lets you export to excel among other things and runs everywhere.

      Otherwise Scrivener is always an option.

  4. Sal says:

    I do all of the above including mud writing, aka ‘free writing’, till I feel i have the characters and plots down. I do that for the outline and usually ended up with a chunk of materials. Then i edit it and usually end up with roughly 10-20 pages of outline of whatever relates to the idea/concepts which inspire the process in the first place.

    Here, i may be repeating:
    It doesn’t matter what tools we use as long as it works. The best tool in the world is you and your will to write a script that YOU ENJOY. Ya don’t need index cards or boards, but ya do need 3-10 hours of focus writing each day, everyday, until you finish 1st draft. Whatever happens next can be consider miracles.

  5. George Speed says:

    all the above…
    I started out with a cork board divided into 4 acts with major plot points highlighted. this worked wonderfully… then I found Save the Cat software today this is my cork board for both MacBook/iPhone…
    I can develop many projects at the same time I’m writing and rewriting… but it really breaks down to whatever gets you to plant your butt in a chair and write Fade In…. whoohoo

  6. That cork board divided in four is a good idea, that’s new to me, thx.
    While i haven’t published anything (yet?) I’ve been using color-coded index cards and yes, i like that ability to move things around AND not be on the computer. I need to see the whole picture and in 3D.
    With the color-coding I can keep better track of characters, themes and story, etc. and i can see movement in each element. Or if one color (theme, perhaps) is absent over an act, I can see I’m likely missing that theme.

  7. I write novels.

    I don’t use a whiteboard, I use Scrivener and its virtual cork board. The screenplay / three act structure (with the appropriate plot points) is embedded the the scrivener template that I use and until I’ve got all of the plot points in their appropriate place, with intro and extro(?) scenes for each point, I don’t even bother writing.

    I also use Excel, Brian, primarily to map time against the scenes / chapters. It helps when a certain scene needs to happen on a Sunday afternoon (for example) – I can map other scenes / chapters for the proper time and day of week.

  8. Larry Barker says:

    The Scrivener cork-board function is really useful. Once all the index card are full and in the right order (or before if you have a scene you really want to get down) you can start writing scenes for each card in a format that then exports to FD for a proper draft, as well as linking photos, web-pages & other media to the index card. Even before that, though, there is another program from the Scrivener people called Scapple, which is a virtual white board/scratchpad that lets you link, nest, prioritise and generally manipulate your first thoughts. I then import this into Scrivener to preserve the ‘one work file’ principle that seems to work well for me.

  9. 14Shari says:

    Hello Scott, would you be able to write about story beats. What is it and how is it related to the use of sequences and how does it differ from scenes?

    Thank you

  10. [...] A whiteboard can be quite a helpful tool, but we have to frame this discussion with an obvious point… [...]

  11. I use a blog. I create one via WordPress. I make it private. I put everything there: potential plot points, character development, research (including links), pics, “soundtrack” jams — everything. Even quotes from McKee. I can print pages as I need them. I do my outline there too, but I switch to Word to type up my treatment for the exploratory draft.

  12. Dean Scott says:

    The only tool I’ve ever used for plotting a story out is a simple word processor such as Word, OpenOffice, or Libre Office which I currently use.

    Anything else seems to distracts me… I did use scrivner for a while, then I played about with the export feature, and accidentally ended up in Libra Office again!! oops

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