The Plotting Grid: a Tool for Plotters and Pantsers
by Chris Mandeville
A “plotting grid” is a physical chart used to lay out the components of a story in a visual way. It often looks a lot like this:
The plotting grid can be useful to anyone at any stage of writing. For writers who like to plot out their stories (“plotters”), the grid is a great tool for charting the storyline before drafting, and again during revisions. For those who write “by the seat of the pants” without plotting first (“pantsers”), the grid can be invaluable when the first draft is complete and the writer is assessing character arcs and plot lines for cohesiveness.
The plotting grid is also a powerful tool when any writer —plotter or pantser— gets stuck, whether that’s during brainstorming, plotting, drafting, or revising. It’s great for illuminating gaps and inconsistencies that may be causing writer’s block; by filling in the grid with the elements you do know, you can gain a new perspective on what you don’t know. At the very least, by looking at the big picture of your story on the grid, you’re reminded there are other parts of the story you can work on while the stuck part simmers in the back of your brain.
Whether you’re stuck or simply trying to create a better story, the grid can help you delve into deeper analysis of your storyline, particularly if you overlay the grid with the components of a story structure like The Hero’s Journey [see my previous post on this here]. By using the grid to compare your story elements with that of a classic story structure, you can easily identify elements that are missing or out of place.
Finally, the grid can be a formidable tool when it comes to writing a synopsis.
Sidenote: In my next blog post I take a look at crafting synopses.
Now that you know why you might use the plotting grid, let’s take a look at how to use this powerful tool.
The layout for the grid I use (pictured above) was introduced to me years ago by author Robin Perini, and consists of twenty squares laid out on a poster board in four rows of five. Each square represents a main plot point. The plot progresses in chronological order from the top left to the bottom right of the board. The squares on the right side are turning points in the story.
At the bottom of my board is a section for the main characters’ GMC (goal, motivation, and conflict, a concept made popular by Debra Dixon’s book of the same name). I chart internal and external GMC for the protagonist and antagonist, as well as a third character. I like to keep these GMC charts next to my grid to remind me where my story is going and why.
If you are lucky enough to see a pre-made plotting grid for sale online or at a writer’s conference, that’s great! Unfortunately they’re not easy to find, so I recommend making your own. Besides, that way you can customize it to your own needs and style.
To get started, draw a grid of twenty squares (four rows of five squares each) on a poster board or piece of card stock. The grid doesn’t have to be huge. In fact, a quick way to procure a grid is to grab a page from an old wall calendar (use all the squares, or black out ones you don’t want). For a convenient portable version, open a manila folder and draw the grid inside. Then you can easily fold it and take it with you.
If you want to include GMC on your board, add this chart one or more times, either below your grid or on the flip side.
To start using the plotting grid, you’ll need a pen, some sticky notes, and a helpful feline companion (optional).
I begin by placing sticky notes of the generic plot elements I want to include, like “inciting incident,” and “climax.” You can write these placeholders directly on the grid, but I like being able to change them and move them. The plot elements you choose and where you place them may differ from mine. I use a hodgepodge of terms I’ve gathered from various sources over the years. Use what works for you. If you’re not sure, you can start by using the twelve plot points of The Hero’s Journey listed and defined here.
“Ordinary world” refers to the protagonist’s normal life, whatever that “normal” is for him/her. Read more about this component of The Hero’s Journey here.
By “inciting incident” I mean “the thing that happens at the start of the story that makes the reader turn the page to find out what happens next.” It doesn’t have to include the protagonist (e.g. in suspense/thrillers, often the inciting incident is a crime taking place before the protagonist becomes aware of it).
The “plot catalyst” is the event that kicks off your story, without which you have no story. For more information, watch literary agent Kristin Nelson’s short vlog.
I like to place the main “turning points” of the story at the far right side of the grid, where you actually turn to continue reading.
By “black moment” I’m referring to the incident that marks the beginning of the end of the story, when it appears that all is lost, and it seems like there’s no way the protagonist can triumph. Author Gwen Hernandez gives a great definition and some examples here.
Once I have the generic plot elements on the grid, I chart GMC for my protagonist. You might not proceed this way, but I personally need to know the main character’s external goal before going further, because the primary plot line consists of the protagonist trying to achieve that goal.
With GMC figured out for my protagonist, I turn back to my grid and add plot points for my story. I start with the easy stuff. For me, even very early in a story’s inception, I usually have an idea where the story is going to start and end, so I can place sticky notes at the “ordinary world” and “climax” points. Often I can fill in “plot catalyst” and “denouement,” too. Then I add whatever other scenes or plot points are rolling around in my head, moving them from place to place on the grid until I’m happy with the order. I may have some blank squares, or I may have more plot points than the grid has room for. It just depends how far along I am in story development.
Important note: don’t be afraid to make decisions. You can change, move, or trash anything at any time. That’s why we use sticky notes!
When you’ve filled in all the plot points you can, if you still have major elements that are blank (like the black moment on my grid), it’s a good time to start thinking about what they might be, even if you’re not ready to make firm decisions. If you’ve opted to include GMC, now is the perfect time to fill in GMC for the antagonist, as well as for another key character, like a love interest, mentor, sidekick, or secondary protagonist.
Even with a somewhat incomplete plotting grid, once the basics are filled in, you can use it for a variety of different purposes: brainstorming, trouble-shooting, posing “what if” scenarios. One of the best uses I’ve found for the grid is as an aid to writing a synopsis, which I cover in my next blog post.
Until then, whether you’re a die-hard plotter, a proud “pantser,” or somewhere in between, I hope you’ll avail yourself of the marvelous and miraculous (well, maybe not technically miraculous, but close) planning tool for your fiction writing: the plotting grid.
Chris Mandeville is the author of 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. She also writes science fiction and fantasy, and is author of Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure. She served for more than ten years on Pikes Peak Writers’ Board of Directors, five of those years as president, and remains an active volunteer in the nonprofit sector helping writers, military families, and service dogs. For information about her books, upcoming events, and tips for writers, see www.chrismandeville.com.