I remember it well: February, Provo, Utah, at the Life, the Universe, and Everything conference. We were getting ready to leave, my requisite haul of friends’ books straining the straps of my backpack, my head full of things I’d learned over the past few days, and the vendors packing up the dealer room.
My friend, Jim Lambert (no relation) came out of the dealer room, equally laden with his backpack, nearly panting.
“Hey, man,” he told me. “There is this cool new software they are demoing and selling right over there. You need to go check it out.”
In the corner, Cameron Sutter had a Mac set up showing what looked to me like a beautiful and simple visual outlining software called Plottr. A heavy Scrivener user and a “software junkie” I was doubtful about adding yet another tool to my writer arsenal. Another tool to learn, another thing to master. Bah!
But only $20? (At the time) Sign me up! I handed over a credit card, got an email with the link and eagerly awaited trying it. But first, I had a five hour drive home.
By the following day, I was hooked. The software was easy to use, the inevitable idea I came home with after a conference was plotted, and beautifully. This was before some of the new features like export abilities to Scrivener (love) and photos in character and setting cards.
What about Scrivener and tables? What about Word, and using the navigation pane, what about creating timelines in Excel? What about other outlining programs? Let’s get started with a review where we’ll talk about all of this and more.
For those who aren’t software developers, an MVP is a minimum viable product, or the starter product you can offer to customers, but you know it is not perfect yet. You don’t have all the features added, but you can get feedback from real users on things they want rather than just guessing or putting what you want into it.
Much like the Scrivener story though, Plottr was developed by writers for writers. So the MVP was pretty darn good. The program was useable from the start. The most important feature, at least for me, was the timeline and the simplicity of adding text to the cards.
A sample timeline, or plot line if you will, is the one below, a timeline I have been using as an example in webinars and presentations.
The plotline of “Dancing with Cthulhu” an as-yet-unwritten romantic thriller.
You’ll note the headings at the top are labeled by “Chapter” or “Beat” in this case, but you can call them anything you want. All the plot lines are for are to help you outline your story visually without being an Excel expert or having other diagram programs. (I used to use FreeMind, a mind mapping program, and Dia, an open-source flow chart software).
The problem with other programs is that they are either not easy to learn, or they are not powerful enough to do the things I wanted them to do. The ability to add text to these cards and “describe” my scenes and to house character, setting, everything else, in one place was simply amazing.
But the program didn’t stay at that early stage for long. Changes started happening right away.
The Evolution of Features
First, one of the five-star features of Plottr is the responsiveness of the team. Frankly, if you have an issue, you’ll get an answer, usually within a few hours even on the weekend. And the people behind Plottr are real people, so you know they have lives: kids, wives, their own writing work.
Another top feature is a community of users. There are several hundred now, there is a Facebook group, and pros and amateurs alike are using this program to plot better and enhance their productivity. If you answer a question in the community, it’s likely someone there will have an answer or a workaround for you.
In addition, the community gives you an opportunity to offer real-time feedback. Want a new feature or an enhancement to a current one? Ask. If there is enough demand or if it is just a great idea, your idea could get added to the development roadmap.
And that’s the other thing. The development roadmap is 100% transparent. It’s on the Plottr website, linked often in the group, and you can see exactly when and where new features are being worked on. If there’s a bug, it gets fixed with a swiftness Microsoft and Apple could both learn from.
Updates are easily found and executed with a single touch (hello, Microsoft and Apple, again) and are quick and easy to install. And if you have another issue like a corrupted file or you lost some work? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and if it can be fixed, they will fix it for you and send back your repaired file.
One of the best features of Plottr is constant updates, the community, and the team. But that’s not all. Let’s dive into where we are now.
Templates, Templates Everywhere
So with Plottr, you start with a simple timeline, but you can start with more than that. When you start a new file, you can select “new from template.” There are several templates, all common plot formulas, and they provide a great roadmap for using Plottr. From Romancing the Beat to Save the Cat to the 12 Chapter Mystery formula, there are templates for everyone.
What if your favorite is not there, or you want to enhance one of them to meet the needs of your story? You can save your own templates, thus creating your own plot outlines that you can use over and over.
Where is this most useful? Perhaps in a series, where the stories you write may be rather formulaic, but each has unique things about it. This is the method I use for my Capital City Murders series (with several now in audio format). I took the 12 chapter mystery method and enhanced it with series details, then saved it as a custom template. Now each time I start one of those stories, I have a template to start with.
It’s not just about plot though. What about characters? We often build deep personal histories and other facts about our characters, and here is where Plottr can help.
From a standard bio to Meyers-Briggs, Plottr helps you develop your character in several ways. Want to go deeper or combine more than one method? You can create your own character template and use it over and over. Because of the flexibility, you can use a different template for each. So minor characters might not merit the full cognitive distortion analysis, but your main character might.
When you are working on a series, you can tag which books a character will appear in, and which they won’t. It’s a great way to keep track, and to determine what characters show up when you open up individual book files. More on that and the Series Bible feature in a moment.
When it comes to setting, you can add custom attributes like climate, the location in space, or pretty much any other attribute you want to add. The ability to add detailed descriptions and even a photo is a huge benefit.
There are improvements to this coming, and we will talk about those in a moment. First, let’s talk about the Series Bible.
Plotting a Series Using Plottr
When Plottr first started out, there were two primary wishes I had, and we will talk about those in a moment, but one of the ones top on the list was a Series Bible. That would enable me to plot several books in the series in the same file, and also to create a series plotline as well, so I could map the underlying B-Plot of the series.
This came about fairly quickly, and let’s explore it just a little bit so you understand just how powerful a Series Bible can be. Here is the screenshot of part of my Capital City Murders Series from the book perspective. As you create or get book covers, you can add those as well.
The series timeline looks like this. In this case, I am simply showing the character arc over this section of books, so that explains (and spoils, so I have hidden some information) why the series will change at that point.
Note in the upper left-hand corner that we are looking at the entire project, which is the series. I can then change that and look at each individual book file, which looks like this:
But wait, there’s more. (Does this sound like a late-night infomercial yet. You shouldn’t know. You should be writing rather than watching infomercials. Shame on you.)
Under each character, you can choose which books they will appear in. Like this example of the character Nick O’Flannigan, our main character in this series:
Note the photo of Nick as well. If you have a large cast of characters, you can also use tags as well as the designation provided by the category. The great thing about Plottr is that you can get as deep or stay as shallow as you want.
Note also that you can choose settings based on the book as well. For example, one book in the Capital City Murders series is Axed in Austin. The book is set in Austin, Texas. I can make setting cards for each place Nick visits in that town or a general one like this. I can add photos, tags, and designate which book this setting is in.
This is very helpful, as in this series, and most others, the setting will change with each book. So I don’t need the Austin setting when I am writing Mutilated in Madison.
Okay, we’re only going to talk about this for a second, and then we will move on, because everyone understands tags, but not everyone understands how powerful they can be. Anything not covered by the character or setting type, or if you want to label your scenes by the writing stage they are in, you can do it with tags. Change the color for different meanings, whatever you need.
This is similar to what can be done in Scrivener too, a cue to let you know “I need to write this, First Draft, Revision One, or Ready for Export.” You can use your own tags, and they will certainly be different from mine.
The key is that the tags in Plottr can be used to tag almost anything. Characters, settings, scene cards, everything.
The Outline Tab
So you have outlined everything in your story. Great, you have a visual, but what if you want to just see an outline in pretty standard format to make sure you have not missed anything? Easy, peasy. Just head over to the outline tab.
In this case, the first three points in the outline are just my notes, and then the story actually starts. To the right of this view, you will be able to look at whatever part you have clicked on to see your notes and what that looks like. Note that you can filter by plotline, and the little colors to the right of the chapter tell you what plotlines are in that chapter.
This is super useful, right? The beauty of this is that you can export your files to another format, the format you usually write in. But we need to cover one more thing first: notes.
Okay, so there are things that fit on your plotline and others that don’t. When I first started the Capital City Murders series, I was working with another author, and so we would exchange notes in this section when we sent files back and forth. It worked exceptionally well.
The beauty is you can tag and organize your notes. So you can do notes about a character, a place, related to a tag, and only related to a certain book. It’s a simple way to keep your thoughts organized, but thoughts that don’t fit neatly somewhere else in your Plottr.
Wish list #2 for me was export to Scrivener. This seemed like a great idea because at first, I was exporting my note cards manually to Scrivener, where I write, with copy and paste. It worked, but it took time.
For others who write in Word or another program, an export to Word which enables you to use the navigation pane is also desirable. And technically there was a workaround to import your Word file to Scrivener (provided you format it properly).
But a direct export to Scrivener? That would be gorgeous, and now it has been added as a feature, and it works beautifully. The notes you export go into each section or card, and even tags export well, should you decide to use them in Scrivener as well.
The export to Word has always been good. Your chapters appear as headings along with your plotline sections. For those who use this method, this is a big feature as well.
Here’s the thing: if you do this right, it makes you much more productive. You create your plot or essentially outline in Plottr. You can be as detailed as you want or as loose as you want. Then you export your file to your favorite writing software. (Scrivener. If it isn’t your favorite, it should be. Just kidding. You’re welcome to use inferior methods if you want.)
From there, you are just writing to the ideas you have already created. For many people, this is just the thing you need to avoid writer’s block and other pesky problems that might come along.
Five Stars and High Hopes
What’s the conclusion? So I give Plottr high-five stars. Great program, innovative, great features, and constant improvements. The transparent roadmap is fabulous and promises future greatness as well.
Hold on a second, though. I don’t want you to leave this review thinking I don’t have a wish list, because I do. And by the time you read this, that list may have changed. The roadmap shows some of those things coming, some sooner rather than later.
First, a web version where two or more authors could collaborate on the file at the same time would also be grand. This would be great for coaching, editing, and other purposes.
Little things: the ability to add more than one photo to the character file other than in the notes, a carousel ability to look at those photos, same with setting cards, more templates (always more templates), and a way to combine character templates without creating a custom one (so I could use Myers-Briggs and Cognitive distortions for the same character), and little things like that would be great additions as well.
As it stands, Plottr is a solid product and one that can make you more productive no matter who you are or what kind of writer or outliner you are.
Head over and grab your copy today (affiliate link here), look me up in the Facebook group, and let me know what you think.