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Sticky Note Organization for Novelists

Someone once said "A dream without a plan is just a wish". 

This is especially true for anyone wanting to write a book, especially if your story goes beyond one novel and runs into a series, like ours does. The motivations of the characters, the plot twists, and the important plot MacGuffins that need to be incorporated can be confusing, and a good writer has these little nuggets all laid out so they can dole them out slowly to the reader. You do not want to have a sharp-minded fan ask about a little plot hole that you overlooked.

There are some great writers who had said that they figure it out as they go. Kudos to them! But we (speaking for my husband and myself) are not that talented, so we have taken to writing these ideas down and building upon them. We have world timelines, histories, and family trees laid out, and to supplement these we use the often-proven Sticky Note Timeline technique.

Why not use lists instead?

Lists are great, don’t get me wrong. They let you lay out ideas, plot twists, and motivations in an easy-to-carry format. I use them all the time. The hard thing about using lists is that they are difficult to move around, and it’s challenging to get the ‘big picture’ of your story when you’re looking at a screen or notebook page. I find that sticky notes allow me to do both things, and since I’m very visually oriented I like seeing where the story is thick with events and where it is slim.

What’s the first step?

The first step in using this technique is to get a bunch of sticky notes (I like different colors for different people and events) and write down all the big things that must happen. Get yourself nice pens and highlighters; it’s important for the ink to flow as quickly as the thoughts do. The example shown is probably the fourth ‘whole series’ timeline I have done for The Storm’s Rising series. When I write these out, I don’t worry about what goes where; I just do a mental download of everything that is important, jotting down the big ideas as they are recalled ad building a little stack of them on the table.

I have a pile of notes. Now what?

Once this step is done, organize them into events, following one trail at a time. For instance, if your heroes need to discover certain information in a certain order, lay out the notes in that order. I find that a roll of sketch paper works well. If you have a huge wall you can dedicate, that works well too. Once you follow one trail to its conclusion work on the next one and adjust the first timeline thread as needed.

Once I begin to get the ‘when does this happen’ locked in place I write the date or season of the chapters in smaller half-sized sticky notes and place them on the roll of drawing paper. There’s only so much that can happen in one year! It’s also important in a long series like this to age your characters appropriately. The young rogue who left his home at nineteen is going to be wiser and older as the stories progress!

Add in the details next

Now is the time to add in the details and Candy Bar Scenes, those scenes that you absolutely love because they are fun to write, and they move the story along. These are written afterwards and fill in the parts of your books where you need to give the reader a bit of a break from the heavy stuff. Some of the scenes are not as timeline-dependent as others, which gives you great flexibility as a writer. You can move entire events around to serve your story’s purpose, and if necessary you can pull events out that don’t quite fit, store them at the end of the roll, and bring them in later when inspiration hits.

I came up with a great idea that isn’t on my list! Now what?

Add it! Shift stuff around, create a new twist and fit the story line around your great idea. The wonderful thing about a sticky note timeline is its great flexibility. If something absolutely must happen it needs to be on your timeline. The worst thing you can do (aside from mixing their/they’re/there) is to publish a book and realize you’ve left out a vital plot line detail that’s needed for the next novel.

So add your new idea in now, highlight it, and finish that amazing series you’ve been working on all these years.

~ * ~

Rose Bishop is one half of the husband and wife writing duo who created the Legends of Cyrradon world. Their debut novel, Storm’s Rising: The Call, was released in May 2020.

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