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Plottr: simple visual story planning, part 1

I’ve been away for a while [DRUM ROLL] writing a new novel in my Nightmare Vacations series. It’s also been an opportunity to test drive Plottr, a visual tool for story planning.

For a lazy pantser like me, outlining can be a chore that gets in the way of turning that great new idea into a story. I want to scribble down a few notes and set off for the exciting territory of writing my first draft. The truth is that without a map, it’s easy to get lost.

Not all pantsers are lazy. Some are genuine discovery writers who can wing it from idea to first draft. They don’t mind the extra editing and rewrites that come from following your imagination as words land on the page. Some pantsers are naturally good enough to create a coherent first draft on the fly. I salute you!

I’m a better when I have a strong outline, deep research and well-drawn characters to guide me. Things still change when the characters begin to interact in the magical way that makes writing a joy, but they will be more consistent and I won’t lose so much time on research and plotting tangents.

The main dashboard for Plottr
Plottr dashboard shows your current projects and lets you access settings.

My journey in story outlining

I write in Scrivener, using the corkboard to mimic the note cards many writers use to organise their stories. When I’m developing the story, I like to create a timeline of events that shows me how the story fits together. It’s useful if you have several story arcs, or timelines that might appear out of sequence in your narrative.

When I wrote and revised Blood River, I used the mind-mapping tool Xmind to outline the story and draw a character circle that showed the relationships and how they changed. I still use Xmind for general mind-mapping, but I want a bespoke tool for outlining.

I developed In Machina, my sci-fi WIP, using two pieces of outlining software that I hadn’t tried before: Scapple and Aeon Timeline 2. Scapple is the official mind-mapping companion app to Scrivener; Aeon Timeline is a powerful timeline-mapping tool, now on its third generation.

Scapple was too basic for my needs, while Aeon Timeline is the opposite, so rich with features that the learning curve felt like it would never end. I looked at several outlining tools in Planning tools for writing novels.

I’ve tried Plottr with two new projects: a second novel in the Nightmare Vacations universe and a short story to refresh my palate. I’m also rebuilding the synopsis of In Machina as I edit, to create a clean outline for a project that threatens to outstay its creative welcome.

Hopefully, Plottr will be a happy place between general-purpose mind maps and Aeon Timeline’s feature overload.

Book series can be grouped in Plottr's project view.
Book series can be grouped in Plottr’s project view.

Plottr’s visual experience

Plottr presents a simple visual timeline interface. You build multiple plot lines that scroll across the screen, each one colour-coded. Detail the main plot of your story, break it down into story arcs, or use individual plots for each character. I like to have a plot line which just shows the date or time as your story develops.

There are three zoom levels — useful for a typical novel with around 30 chapters — and fast scroll buttons for Beginning, Middle and End. You can also choose between horizontal and vertical scrolling.

Each plot line is broken into chapters, which are sub-divided into scenes and grouped together into Acts and Parts. Chapters can be renamed as Beats or named individually. When you add a scene to a plot line, you give it a title and flesh it out with a synopsis.

Different timelines can be expanded or hidden in Plottr's timeline view.
Different timelines can be expanded or hidden in Plottr’s timeline view.

The snowflake story method

This is one of Plottr’s strengths: it’s designed around the Snowflake storytelling method. You begin with a one-sentence outline and build up your synopsis until you’re ready to write. With Plottr, you can write a single synopsis for each chapter, add more scenes to break it down, or detail the chapter via distinct plot lines. Or you can do all of these.

You can also view and edit your story in the text-only Outline mode, which lists your chapter titles on the left, with dots showing which plot lines are active in each chapter. Your chapter synopsis and the scenes within it scroll vertically on the right.

Each scene has a title, description, attributes and template options. The description can be as long as you want and fully formatted with pictures, links and bullet points. Attributes can be anything you want, from data points such as date and time, to plot information like character motivations or the dramatic structure of the scene.

A sidebar on the left of each scene window indicates which book it’s from, and the plotline, chapter, characters, places and tags involved. You can assign colours to the background and outline of each scene as it appears in your Timeline view. I like to show where it is in the writing process: unwritten, first draft, awaiting feedback, revised, and so on.

Intermission alert

I’ve taken a different approach with each project: Nightmare Vacations #2 is a Snowflake outline; my short story uses Lester Dent’s classic pulp outline; and In Machina is a linear process where I’m simply adding chapters as I work through the book.

The Nightmare Vacations outline would power me through a 50,000-word sprint in April, so it had to be well-organised. The short story needed less detail: Dent’s punchy outline breaks it up into sections of about 300 words. In Machina is about understanding a 110,000-word story — the first part of a trilogy — as I go through beta reader feedback.

Each project has been creatively productive so far, and they’ve shown me strengths and flaws in Plottr. It looks like a good fit for me.

In Part 2, I dig deeper into the experience of using Plottr alongside Scrivener and across different devices.

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3 replies on “Plottr: simple visual story planning, part 1”

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  • 2023: a year in posts | Alexander Lane
  • Planning tools for writing novels: Scrivener, Scapple, Xmind, Aeon Timeline and Trello | Alexander Lane
  • Plottr: simple visual story planning, part 2 | Alexander Lane

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