Novelist Sarah K. Stephens shares her secret for how to plot your novel.
As an author of psychological thrillers, determining when and how to reveal clues to my readers is one of the biggest challenges I face. Psychological thrillers place readers in an uncertain position. Characters are often purposefully misrepresented. Essential plot details may become apparent for one character, but other actors in the story remain unaware until later on. And then there’s misdirection, with seemingly important information referenced in the story only revealed later as meaningless—your classic red herring. All these tactics help make compelling tales that keep readers turning pages to find out what happens. Unfortunately, they also amount to a colossal headache for the author! As we write, we need to keep these moving parts in proper sequence without letting clues slip in until the exact right time. But also, of course, we can’t shortchange the reader by failing to provide foreshadowing along the way. It’s enough to make you reach for the ibuprofen.
Not to fear, though. If you find yourself in similar circumstances, I have a solution that might resolve your plot-driven existential angst: Post-its. I know, I know. These little office beauties aren’t sentient and certainly won’t reorder your character arcs for you. Still, they do come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and are easily transferable from relatively any surface.
Which is precisely the point.
When I find myself struggling to get my plot in good working order, I sit down at my kitchen table with a box of Post-it notes and set to work.
First, I typically select colors to represent the moving pieces I need to track. I might choose different color Post-its for each character, especially if my novel alternates between character viewpoints, as in A Flash of Red, where the story unfolded from the perspective of psychologist Anna’s increasingly distorted sense of reality, her husband Sean’s perception of their marriage, and undergraduate student Bard’s growing paranoia that Anna was in mortal danger. Or I might choose different colors to represent the separate timelines that are interwoven in the story, shifting between past and present, such as It Was Always You, where Morgan’s pursuit to prove her innocence in the death of her boyfriend, and unraveling the web of lies surrounding his past, involved her looking back at key points in their relationship. You can get as detailed and systematic as you want, although two colors usually do the trick for me.
Next, I review the novel and sketch out the relevant scenes for each character or timeline. One Post-it note equals one scene. Or, for really complicated scenes, I’ll break them down into multiple Post-its that I’ll line up back-to-back, stacked against each other. The main benefit of this particular step is that I am visualizing the timeline of my novel, piece by piece. I also usually write down key revelations or clues included in a scene. Sometimes I even identify the character who learns the information (which is crucial if other main characters are still in the dark on a particular plot point).
Finally, I lay the Post-its out on a flat surface to see how my plot holds together. You can organize your layout horizontally, as though you’re reading the book line-by-line, scene-by-scene, or use another arrangement if you prefer. My most recent novel, The Anniversary, is organized along three separate days of a couple’s honeymoon. I used Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3 headers at the top, and then laid out the relevant scenes beneath.
Once you have your novel laid out in this way, it’s time to assess the situation. How do your clues track with the rest of the story? Is everything lining up the way you want? If you notice issues with when you reveal a particular back story or character’s ill intent, the beauty of the Post-it note becomes self-evident. You can move them around, stick them in different places, and make new ones to replace the old, all without disrupting the core elements of your story. My past attempts to address timeline and plotting issues, such as writing out a physical timeline or using a marker board to draft a story web, were never as successful. For three novels now (with another in progress), I’ve found my Post-it technique to work the best.
I like the physical aspect of being able to move a scene from point A to point B and the ease with which I can do it without erasing other parts of my visual tool. The rearrangement of scenes is a snap—or a peel if we want to get literal!—and viewing your entire book at a glance is no small added benefit. Sometimes I want to stand back and look over the whole plot as it unfolds, and I can do that with this technique, scene-by-scene, Post-it-by-Post-it. This system allows me to have a more organized sense of tension and characterization over time. It also helps me to catch clues that are misplaced—either revealed too early or missing from the background of a character’s (and the reader’s) experience.
And best of all, the tools, space, and time needed for this approach are all fairly minimal and easily accessible. You don’t need a fancy whiteboard or author corner of your home. In essence, just a kitchen table and (at least in my case) a few teenage children willing to ignore their mother’s ‘sexy hot-tub scene’ Post-it sitting next to the pile of today’s mail.
So what are you waiting for? Get plotting!
Sarah K. Stephens
Sarah K. Stephens is a developmental psychologist and a senior lecturer at Penn State University. Although Fall and Spring find her in the classroom, she remains a writer year-round. Her short stories and essays have appeared in LitHub, The Millions, National Book Critics Circle: Critical Mass, Five on the Fifth, The Indianola Review, and (parenthetical). Her third novel, The Anniversary, was released in March 2020 by Bloodhound Books.