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How to Find Your Way Out Of the Plot Maze Using Trello

Plotting is not my strong point. I’m a very character-oriented writer, and I tend to follow my protagonists around to see what they’re going to do. This often means backtracking when my characters have led me into a dead end instead of the center of the maze of their story and sometimes it means staring at a blank page because I have NO IDEA whatsoever what is going to happen next.

I’ve found Trello to be a helpful tool tohelp me find my way out of the plot maze. (In case you don’t know what Trello is, it’s a planning software that people use for all sorts of purposes.)

I’d like to share with you how to find your way out of the plot maze using Trello.

find your way out of the plot maze

Step One: Create a Trello board for your novel.

Trello works by allowing you to create different boards within your account (which is free, though there is a paid option. I’m not sure what’s in the paid option besides being able to create an unlimited number of “team” boards that you share with others. You can create as many private boards as you want in the free version and 10 team boards.)

Once you’ve signed up with Trello, it’s time to create a board for your novel! Just click on the plus sign in the corner to create a new board and you’re off and running. 


Trello home page - first step to find your way out of a plot maze

My Trello home page. As you can see, there is a plus sign in the right hand corner that you click to create a new Trello board.

You’ll need to choose a name for your board.  Your Novel Planning Board is a good bet, though you can use whatever you want.

You’ll notice that all of my boards have custom backgrounds. When you create a new board it offers you the choice of choosing a solid color or a photo for the background. Trello has a large database of photos that you can search to find the perfect background for your board. Personally, I think choosing a photo makes the board more fun, and I’m more likely to use boards that are fun.

Step 2: Create a master list of subplots.

This is where the work begins. As you’re writing, you’ll notice your story going in several different directions. This is perfectly okay — in fact, it’s normal. First drafts are for experimenting and figuring out your story so if you have five stories in one, that’s cool.

Your finished novel will probably have one main plot and at least two subplots. Subplots are related stories that happen during the course of your novel. You probably have several of them already! Now you need to make a list in Trello so that you can begin to see what you’re doing.

To create a list, scroll to the right edge of your board. You’ll see a box with a plus sign and a label “Add another list.”  Click on it and input a name for your list.

Don't get creative or fancy with your list names. The creative stuff comes later when you are working on your content. Use list names to tell you what each list is. #TrelloForWriters Click To Tweet

Now for the fun part! Create a card in your list for each subplot or subplot idea you have. (You do this by clicking “Add another card” at the bottom of the list). Write a few sentences and click SAVE to save the card.


find way out of plot maze - subplot list example

Partial list of my subplots from Reinventing Hannah

I’ve included this partial list from Reinventing Hannah so you can see what a subplot list looks like. (I edited the list so that I wouldn’t give everything away — after all, I want you to read the book!) As you can see, I’ve written a few sentences describing each subplot in general terms.

The colored lines on the top of each card are LABELS. You can create labels by opening any card and clicking the option marked ADD LABEL on the side. This is important because in the next step you’re going to be organizing what you’ve written already by subplot so that you can see where you’re going.

I like to list my subplots as A, B,C etc because my background is in screenwriting, where that convention is used to mark major and minor storylines in a movie or TV show. But you can use whatever feels comfortable to you.

Step 3: Track what you’ve written already.

The good news about being lost in your plot is that you’ve already written quite a bit. You can use what you’ve written to find your way out of your plot maze when you hit a dead end.

This part of the process is time consuming, but worth it. Once you’ve tracked what you’ve written already, you can, if you want, get in the habit of entering new scenes as you write them so that you have a complete plot outline you can look at whenever you get stuck.

To track:

  1. Create a new list. Title it PLOT or some such thing.
  2. Read a scene you’ve written. Create a new card and write 1 – 2 sentences summarizing the scene.
  3. Assign the correct subplot label for the scene and save the card.
  4.  Repeat steps 2 and 3 for each scene you’ve written.

I usually divide my plot tracker into chapters so that I can easily see what happens where. You can either create a new list for each chapter or you can divide your list by creating a card that contains the new chapter title to use as a divider between chapters. (If your novel includes multiple points of view, you can also upload a photo to each chapter title card to remind you of which character you’re working with in this chapter.)

find your way out of the plot maze - chapter card

You can create a chapter title card so that you can keep track of POV and what plot points happen where.

Step 4: Retrace your steps using checklists.

Now that you have everything in Trello, you can use checklists to retrace your steps and find your way out of the plot maze. To create a checklist, open any card and click ADD CHECKLIST on the side.

To find your way out of the plot maze:

  1. Open the card and create a checklist called PURPOSE. List each purpose of the scene as an item on the list.
  2. Create a second checklist called CAUSES. Use this list to record prior events in your story that led to the events of this scene.
  3. Finally, create a third checklist called EFFECTS. Use this list to record the way this scene will impact your character and what future events in your story may result from the events in this scene.

If you find it difficult to figure out anything to put on one or more of these lists, that’s a red flag that there’s a problem in that scene somewhere. It can be helpful to look at the cards for the scenes before and after the problem scene if this happens. Ask yourself what follows logically from the scene before or could cause the events of the scene after. This can give you an idea of what needs to happen in the problem spot.

Here’s a sample card with purpose filled out:

find your way out of a plot maze - sample card

I left cause and effect blank because this is just an example. But if this were a real card and I couldn’t figure out what to put in either of those checklists, I would look at the cards surrounding it to get ideas.

Trello is a great program for writers to use for a lot of reasons and there’s a lot that can be done with it. You can move cards around, add pictures to each card, and even add due dates to some of your scene cards if you’re on a deadline. But if you’re looking to get out of a plot maze, the steps above are the best way I’ve found to do it.

Have you used Trello to help you get unlost when you’re lost in your work in progress? Share your ideas and experiences in the comments!

And if you’d like one-on-one help, email me or get ahold of me on Twitter.


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