Structuring your novel with the post-it method


I meant to talk about something else, but over the past few weeks I’ve found myself explaining this method so often that I just decided to write it out so I could have a link to post. Here it goes!!

The “post-it method” is, I find, the easiest and most efficient way to come up with an outline for your novel. Its non-linear process helps naturally eliminate surplus or nonessential scenes because you tend not to come up with them in the first place, as opposed to when you’re working in a linear fashion and constantly have to come up with what happens next.

All you need is a pen and a pack of post-its (or masking tape and index card, or sticky tack and cut up pieces of paper, you get the idea… basically something you can stick to a wall and remove and reposition easily, or a software that allows you to do that, even Word with cut and paste works great) and a piece of blank wall. I have used the staircase, the headboard to my bed, my kitchen cabinets… there’s always a space in your house that you can use to do this. And don’t worry about needing to have it up there for a couple of days or more; this method is so easy you should be spending a lot less time on your outlines.

Step 1: timelines

The first thing I want you to do is if you know you’re going to have subplots, divide your space into the amount of “timelines” equivalent to these subplots.

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Behold my kitchen cabinets, and the low-battery induced bad lighting!

Step 2: the best scenes

Next, you should write out your favorite scenes on individual post-its. We all have a few scenes in our heads that we KNOW are going to happen when we come up with a story, the ones we’re excited about. Start with those, they’re likely to be pivotal, and well, you’re excited about them, so you might as well! Don’t write out the full scene; just one sentence summarizing the main action in that scene.

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Behold my horrible handwriting, and more badly lit kitchen cabinets!!

Step 3: filling in the blanks

Put your best scenes up in the timelines where they belong in relative order of causality. Even if you’re doing anti-structure, your outline should be done in order of causality just to make sure you’ve wrapped up anything; you can deconstruct it later.

Once you’ve done that, comes the hardest part (and it’s really not that bad). You need to fill the spaces in between your best scenes so that the reader has all the information that they need to appreciate/understand those scenes (and obviously, the climax, if it wasn’t part of those scenes). That can be events, character development, etc. (If you’re wondering about that, you can read my posts about scenes and my post about exposition.) Come up with all the scenes that you need to fill in that information, and put them up there, until your main plot and all your subplots are wrapped up nicely and there are no loose ends.

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Ok so this is the broad lines of a story whipped up in 15 minutes for the purpose of writing this post. Typically a novel would have around 30-40 post-its (at a rate of one post-it per scene), if you’re going for a 70-80k average.

Step 4: putting it all together

That is the easiest part. Basically, take all your timelines, and put them together in one great timeline, deciding which scenes are merged, which bits of timelines interact with others, etc, creating the natural rhythm of your story. This is also the part where you can deconstruct your timelines, in the case of an anti-structure storyline (as in Memento, Pulp Fiction, etc.)

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Why are some of these post-its stuck on one another? I merged some scenes. You might find that you need to do that too.

Step 5: get that stuff off the wall before your child eats it or your roommate throws it away

If I’m lazy, I usually take down the post-it notes and stick them directly in a book, in the order they go in. Then, because I don’t want to lose that book, eventually I can transcribe that outline to Word (or whatever software you are using) and BACK IT UP. And you have an outline.

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More horrible handwriting! And there’s my lens cover for my no-battery camera!

I hope this is helpful in its very crude and non-witty way.

4 thoughts on “Structuring your novel with the post-it method

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