The Power of Sticky Notes

Pile of sticky notes with writing on them

I’m in the process of writing my first novel. I’m a meticulous planner, so I’d bullet-pointed a large chunk of the plot before I began writing the story. As the characters and my ideas developed, I added to the bullet-pointed list.

From the beginning, I had a vision of the final scene. I knew roughly where I wanted the story to end, but I couldn’t see a way through the final act. For months, I’d been struggling. I’d made a few notes here and there, but as the story progressed, different ideas came and went.

I got to the end of my bullet-pointed list (which was 18 pages long by this point) and thought, Now what?

And I kept on thinking that, barely adding to the story for weeks.

Until I had a better idea. The plot points were all mixed up in different bullet-pointed lists on my laptop. I realised I needed to see them all side-by-side and organise them into some kind of order. I opened up a notebook, but I quickly realised no notebook would be big enough to contain all my ideas on a single page.

Instead, I pulled out a stack of sticky notes. I copied out all of the bullet points that had any relevance to the end of the plot. There were things I knew the main characters had to do to fulfil their goals. There were things I wanted to put in their way. I’d introduced some the minor characters near the beginning, and I knew I wanted them to return at the end. Some of the sticky notes were detailed, some of them were simply a character’s name with ‘returns’ next to it.

Once I was done, there were so many sticky notes, I had to find a blank wall large enough to contain them all, much to my husband’s amusement.

I stuck the sticky notes in rough chronological order. Originally, I had come up with two or three different ways for the characters to achieve their goal. I had stalled over which one to pick and which to discard. Sticking all of the ideas next to each other was the best thing I could do. I realised the characters could work towards one of the methods, and then I could cruelly block their way, so they had to find an alternative.

I also had a short list of characters I wanted to reappear. I could slip their names in with a particular plot point and explore how they contribute to that scenario.

In the end, there was little I had to throw away. All of the ideas I’d generated over the last year-or-so came together to make one complex ending that I hope will tie up most of the subplots in the story, leaving one particular question to be answered in a sequel.

I spent most of the day working on the plot – another five pages of bullet points. My daily word count is low (I’m aiming for 1000 a day over the summer), but now I have a clear path to the end, which is going to make the coming days much easier. Some of the bullet points are actually large chunks of story or extracts of dialogue that I will simply copy and paste into the correct position when needed.

My urge to write had started to stagnate, but those sticky notes have kindled a fire inside me.

4 responses to “The Power of Sticky Notes”

  1. I’m not sure if meticulous planning of a novel is the best way to write one. I’ve written two novels now, and though I knew where I wanted them to go, writing them would often lead me to other places I hadn’t expected. The narrative will often follow it’s own course and it is very hard and not advisable to constrain that. “The tale grew in the telling.” as Tolkien stated about the Lord of the Rings. Everyone has their own writing style of course, but I’ve always found the best thing is to sit down and write it. You can always work out where it’s going along the way…

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    • I agree that you should let a story unfold organically. The list of bullet points I have are not set in stone and there have been lots of times where I’ve changed them or added to them as the story goes on. Some of them are really vague, like ‘They go to the farm.’ Then when I come to write that part of the story in full, I’ll add in details and obstacles that feel right at the time.

      I’ve found that bullet-pointing my ideas helps the story to flow more because I can see the series of cause and effect more clearly. Some of the bullet points are full prose in places where I’ve felt a spark of inspiration or a particularly good idea, and then I use some or all of what I’ve written in the story-proper when I get to that part.

      I also like novels that are tightly interwoven. I love it when something you half-remembered from the third chapter plays a big role in the final climax. Now that I’m coming to the end of my own novel, I’m relying on my plan even more to make sure all the loose ends are tied up.

      Because of my job, I don’t have a regular writing routine. Sometimes I’ll have week or two where I can write every day, but often I only have time at weekends. Sometimes weeks will go by before I get chance to work on the story. If I didn’t have a structure mapped out, I’d forget things and get mixed up, and the story would be disjointed. It’s taken almost a year to write 50,000 words. I’ve managed half a novel in the time it takes some people to write two. Without the bullet points, there’s no way I’d remember the ideas I had six or eight months ago. Before I wrote all of these post-its, I really struggled to get anything down. Without the plan, I waste time staring at the page thinking ‘what could happen next?’ I need something to go from, even if I change my mind in the end.

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