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Using Trello to plot a NaNoWriMo novel, Save the Cat! Style

I’m a big fan of writing, tools, and writing tools. So as National Novel Writing Month (an annual 30-day challenge to write a 50,000-word novel) appeared on the horizon, I decided to use two of my favorites: Trello to plot, and Scrivener to write. 

Here’s how I used Trello to plot my novel using the Save the Cat! approach, before beginning writing in Scrivener in November.

I chose Trello for my plotting tool because: 

  • I already had a free account and was familiar with it; I like Trello and it is easy and fast
  • Trello’s mobile app for iOS enabled me to plot regardless of which iGadget I happened to have in my hand
  • It allowed me to easily reorder and move scenes by dragging and dropping
  • I hadn’t mastered Scrivener’s cork board / card plotting features, and Scrivener for iOS doesn’t include them
  • With a little effort, I could export cards from Trello into a format that I could transfer into Scrivener.

Save the Cat! is a popular screenwriting book series by Blake Snyder. The Save the Cat! “beat sheet” breaks down all screenplays (or novels) into 15 “beats” or story developments that many successful movies follow. Each beat contains one or more scenes.

In my Trello novel board, each beat became a list (such as Midpoint, Fun and Games, or B Story), with “1” or “M” in the name to denote a single or multiple scene beat. I could have created another list with cards for each character, but chose not to this time.

trello_nano1.jpg

I added “reminder cards” for what the beat accomplishes in the story as well as specific plot points. For example, the Finale beat contains five distinct elements such as “gathering the team” and “high tower surprise.” Cards for each element would remind me to build in those plot points.

trello_nano2.jpg

An individual card represented a single scene. I began adding cards for specific scenes I envisioned, such as “Richard meets Doris at the convenience store” and “Doris looks in the attic.” I dragged each card/scene to the beat where it best supported the story, then ordered them in sequence within the list. I used the Description field on each card to summarize what should happen in that scene.

So far, so good. But there were a couple more things I wanted to track on each card: the characters in each scene, and the story arcs (related scenes that show how the plot progresses or characters change over the course of the story). For example, I wanted to be able to show all the “protagonist” cards to see how Doris came to change her mind about Richard.

Trello offered me a couple ways to do this out of the box using Members and Labels. I tried using Members for my characters so I could use the Labels for story arcs, but the digital overhead to create multiple members with unique email addresses was too complicated. For simplicity, I opted to assign a label and color to each character, so I could see at a glance which characters were in each scene. I could filter by label to review story arcs for specific characters. 

trello_nano5.jpg

I didn’t use the Due Date field to specify a date or time for each scene, but it could certainly be used that way. I also tried using the Custom Fields Power-Up to add metadata about each scene such as tension, location, and POV (point of view), but the digital overhead involved in transferring the metadata to Scrivener was not worth the effort. (It’s worth noting that I was using the free Trello subscription; other Trello users with different subscriptions or Power-Ups may have other options for adding metadata.)

trello_nano3.jpg
Once the beat sheet was complete and every card had a description or synopsis, it was time to transfer the information to a word processor to begin writing. There are a number of ways to do this depending on what Power-Ups and/or extensions and/or other apps you’re using and how many cards/scenes you’ve created. I’m sure there are much easier ways to do it than I did! 

In 2020 I’ll explore integrating Trello with Confluence, but in 2019 my writing app of choice was Scrivener, so my method was dictated by Scrivener’s import constraints:

  • I used a Chrome extension called “CSV Export for Trello” to export my novel board and create a CSV file. (This extension preserves the order of cards on the board.) 
    trello_nano6.jpg
  • I imported the edited CSV file into a customized Aeon Timeline file, then synced that file with a new Scrivener file. (I didn’t have time to learn Aeon Timeline for plotting.)

For writing tools other than Scrivener, such as Microsoft Word, I suggest exporting from Trello to text or CSV via your preferred method, then opening it in the word processor of choice. (I might explore other options in a future post.)

The export/import gymnastics involved to preserve metadata were a lot of work! It was fun to tackle the technical challenge of getting information from Trello into Scrivener without buying another subscription or app, but the time I spent learning how would have been better spent plotting and/or writing.

I’m looking forward to learning how to use Trello and Confluence, two of my favorite tools, together to produce my 2020 NaNoWriMo masterpiece. I’m going to learn how here.

6 comments

What an exciting use of these tools! It s an epic achievement to write a book. Do you hope to publish? Have you published a book before?

Like # people like this

Thank you! I am considering self-publishing this one after it's edited. On a related note, I think some writers use Trello to keep track of their manuscript submissions to agents, etc.

Like # people like this
SriKumar P Atlassian Team Jan 13, 2020

Wow, Thanks for this useful knowledge share 

-Sri

Alison Atlassian Team Jan 22, 2020

This is awesome- super cool to see our products used to tackle such a complex endeavor.

Can you share what your novel is about? :) 

Like Michelle Rau likes this

:-)  It's a "romance" novel...though I have never written in this genre before. It's more like a historical mystery -- not enough squishy stuff.

Richard is a local boy-turned-outsider. Doris is a community leader wary of developers. How can they reconcile their family histories and get past their differences to save the beauty of rural Montana, build a strong community, and nurture and a trusting friendship (or more)?

Like Alison likes this
Alison Atlassian Team Jan 23, 2020

One of my teammates is from Montana! I've never been there but I hope your story paints a vivid picture of what that beauty looks like.

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