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Plottr: simple visual story planning, part 2

Plottr is my latest bid to find a story outlining tool that will tame my excesses as a discovery writer and help me to work faster. I’ve looked at how I hoped to use it with three different projects, now it’s time for a deep dive into the experience.

Tags enable Plottr to connect scenes, places and people with metadata.
Tags enable Plottr to connect scenes, places and people with metadata.

Navigating the Plottr interface

When you open a timeline, the main menu bar has tabs for Project, Notes, Characters, Places and Tags. Notes, Characters and Places are self-explanatory, and all include a name or title, short description which will appear in drop-down menus, a category, an image, and notes. There’s a side-bar displaying books and tags for each entry, while Characters also lets you add attributes and templates.

Tags are items of meta-data which can apply to any object in your story. For example, my new project has three time periods: Ancient, 19th century and 21st century. I used tags to indicate which scenes, characters and places are relevant to each time period. As the story developed, I created more tags to indicate themes or parts of my story structure.

Projects takes your Notes, Characters, Places and Tags further, for writers who are working on book series. The project view displays all of the books in a series, and when you add a new book, the characters, places and tags will already be populated with information that you can pick up and adapt to the new story.

My three timelines will interweave in the final story, but I had to understand them before I could start writing. In Plottr’s Project view, I created a book titled “Chronology”, which has a plot line for each period. Once I had established these timelines, I created a new book in the series, called “Novel”, which follows the present-day story. Plottr populated this with the characters and places from the chronology, and I copied my timelines into the new book. Then I chopped them up into revelations which unfold in the present day through dreams, flashbacks, and historic records.

Characters in Plottr can be built up and then added to scenes in the timeline.
A Plottr character created with the Snowflake Method template

Plottr’s template wonderland

Templates are a game-changing feature of Plottr that continue to grow with the platform. I’ve already mentioned the Snowflake method, but there are dozens of other storytelling methods.

Plottr has created more than 30 templates, from the classic Hero’s Journey to modern formulas like Take Off Your Pants and genre recipes such as Romancing The Beat. They include notes explaining how to use them, and you can mix and match as many as you need, combining a classic five-act structure with a dedicated crime novel format, crossed with a romance if that helps you.

You’ll also find templates for individual scenes like Goal, Motivation, Conflict, and character templates such as the infamous Proust questionnaire or a classic Dungeons & Dragons character sheet. Again, you can use several templates for each scene or character, and delete the ones you don’t want to use. If you can’t find the template you want, create your own and share them with other users online.

Plottr offers numerous templates for stories and scenes
Plottr offers numerous templates for stories and scenes

Plottr tutorials

The Plottr team puts a lot of effort into online assistance. Their YouTube channel hosts an extensive library of bite-sized tutorials for beginners that explain the ins and outs (although the narrator’s accent grated on me).

They also host regular webinars about different aspects of the app. Each release of new features is accompanied by a video and a webinar.

Using Plottr with Scrivener and other software

This is a weakness, but one that I expect to be resolved. You can import and export from Plottr into Word or Scrivener, and vice-versa. As yet, it only supports Scrivener 2, so if you’re on the latest version of Scrivener, you’ll have to convert the exported files as you open them.

Unlike Aeon Timeline, there’s no two-way sync between Plottr and Scrivener. It would also have been nice to get an export into the open standard mind-mapping format, OPML.

Syncing between devices

There are currently Windows, Mac, iOS and Android versions of Plottr, although the tablet version has some differences that I’ve yet to get to grips with. There’s no Linux version, but command-line fundamentalists are liable to look at Plottr’s visual interface with disdain, anyway.

The standard version of Plottr uses local storage and syncs via third party services like Dropbox, OneDrive, iCloud and so on. Plottr Pro proprietary cloud storage which automatically syncs between your different devices.

Split screen Plottr, please

I love the split-screen view in Scrivener that enables you to call up character profiles, location details and other research while you’re writing.

At first, the basic story in my new Nightmare Vacations novel was populated with characters called “the king”, “the father” and “the daughter” in basic locations. Eventually, I had to name these folks and develop their personalities, usually at the same time as their stories became more complex. I found myself switching frequently between the Timeline, Place and Character tabs to keep everything consistent and copy-paste the correct spellings. A split-screen view would have made this a lot easier.

I had also compiled a lot of research in Scrivener before I began to create the story. I kept this open on my right-hand monitor as I worked in Plottr on my left screen. Scrivener’s layout is better for organising a lot of notes, but this wouldn’t work if you were working on a single screen.

The wealth of templates is a powerful resource, but it’s frustrating to go through the selection process for each scene you add. I’d prefer Plottr to either add the templates from your previous scene, or allow you to choose certain templates as a default for each project.

Fortunately, the development team are very responsive and open to user input. The development timeline is available online and it’s updated regularly — new features arrived this week that I’ve yet to investigate.

Plottr is a keeper

Plottr is a useful tool if you’re a discovery writer like me, who wants to rein in their worst pantser impulses and make their writing more efficient.

Natural planners will also find it a useful resource and the detailed templates open a valuable library of storytelling methods, and it makes an excellent companion to Scrivener’s strengths in writing and research. Scrivener’s devs are friendly and responsive, but they could probably learn from Plottr’s approach. I’m personally very glad there’s an Android app as well as Mac, Windows and iOS.

Pricing is reasonable and the standard package contains all of the features I’ve discussed, except for online storage and auto-syncing (but it works with Dropbox, OneDrive, etc). I’ll continue to use Plottr and I look forward to watching it develop.

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