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Tools of the Trade: Whiteboard Wonders


At bare minimum, all you need to write is either paper and ink, or a computer. Somehow that does not stop writers from coveting additional physical tools of the trade. Indeed, I’ve yet to meet a writer who doesn’t drool over office supplies. Can’t write without gel pens or stickies or a classic Moleskin? I thought so. Well, I’m here to lobby for my favorite writing accessory: the whiteboard.

Here are some ways I put my whiteboard to work:

Brainstorming. A blank sheet of paper or a blinking cursor on a white screen can be daunting, because it screams, Write something! But a whiteboard is not for writing per se, so its open expanse is more inviting than intimidating. Its simplest use is for spit-balling. Looking for a great title for your book? List the themes on the whiteboard and let your imagination run amok. Working on characters and relationships? Seeing the cast as an array, rather than a list, may help you make connections between them you hadn’t considered, or allow you to eliminate minor characters you really don’t need. I also use the whiteboard for creating character names and profiles. I can see how they look together, how they partition the space within the story to become memorable.

Here I am backpacking in Portugal, taking a moment to jot down some random thoughts.

Sketching the Plot. Like most writers, I’ve employed all sorts of strategies to develop plot, including winging it. (Reformed pantser here!) I’ve dabbled in Save The Cat, Story Genius, and the like, but they only get me so far. As a visual person, I need to see the dimensions of the plot, to examine the scaffolding and judge whether it will bear weight over 350 pages.

Here’s an example from my WIP. Time runs horizontally, just like in math class. On the vertical I’ve listed the ways I’m making trouble for my main character. Using this format, I can see how the plot threads relate to each other and which characters are involved, so I can balance the events, keeping the rhythm strong and the narrative tight. I’d have trouble fitting this on a sheet of paper.

Pro-tip: Give your characters names starting with different first letters for extreme shorthanding. Readers will also appreciate the differentiation.

Developing Key Scenes. My favorite scenes to write have tons of characters in them. I love the way all the personalities and conflicts come alive when everyone is thrown together. Busy scenes cry out for scripting.

The opening scene of my WIP involves all four main characters. I barely know these people and I’ve invited them to eat together. Here I use my trusty whiteboard to map out the characters and their relationships, and to explore themes that might or might not be woven into the story.

The same prescription can help with scripting complex plot points. Near the end of the story, plot threads must be braided together, and keeping track of it all makes my cortex ache. The whiteboard is my crutch, and my savior.

Creating Character Matrices. Writers focus heavily on character arcs, with good reason. We also attend to relationships between characters, and how they develop. While writing my third novel, I realized I could intertwine these concepts. Check out this grid.

(This idea might not be original; please tell me if you’ve seen it elsewhere.)

TRUE PLACES, my new release, has five POVs. To track characters arcs and ensure balance, I wrote down how each character viewed each of the other characters at the beginning, middle, and end of the story. In a sense, I took the temperature of each paired relationship, from the two perspectives, as the story unfolded.

Pro-tip: Take photos of your whiteboard so you can use it again and again during a single project.

I stick by the truism that the only way a book gets written is by putting words on the page. Still, seeing your ideas in a different format can facilitate the process. The whiteboard is–for me and perhaps for you–a safe place to explore your work away from the page.

What physical tools do you use in your writing? Do any of them share features with my beloved whiteboard?

About Sonja Yoerg [2]

Sonja Yoerg [3] grew up in Stowe, Vermont, where she financed her college education by waitressing at the Trapp Family Lodge. She earned a Ph.D. in biological psychology from the University of California, Berkeley and wrote a nonfiction book about animal intelligence, Clever as a Fox (Bloomsbury USA, 2001) and four novels: House Broken, Middle of Somewhere, All the Best People, and the upcoming True Places (1/19). Sonja lives with her husband in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.