Extra: Collage and Story Grid Examples


I didn’t want to garbage up the Outlining post with a lot of images, especially since collage is a pretty minor part of that process for most people, but I know people like examples (Hello, Erika!) and I think it’s worth showing the different ways collage can help.

Good old paper and paste

The classic way to collage, cut stuff out and glue it down on a foam core backing.  This one is for You Again, a mystery I’ve been working on for over ten years. Both the book and the collage need more work.

You Again Collage 2 copy

Notice how yellow parts of this are?  That’s the drawback of using magazines.  If your book drags on for years, you’re going to get color shifts.  Still, paper and paste collage and assemblage are a lot more evocative than digital.  Digital, however, is easy to manipulate for color and mood, easy to change images, and easy to make larger or smaller.  It’s just easier all the way around, plus avoiding that annoying paste-everywhere problem.

Digital Collage

This is the computer collage for the same book, You Again.  Lots more control over mood, color, and image, not as much thinking about the content because it’s faster and less labor intensive.   

You Again 2016 copy 2

Assemblage (Paper and Paste and Objects in 3D)

This one’s for a work in progress called Monday Street, an alternate history romance set at the turn of the century on this one street in the bad part of this imaginary town.

Monday Street Collage 3 copy 2

Yes, it’s huge, it’s heavy, and the framework is wood.  Sometimes I lose my grip.  This is what the framework looked like before I started filling it in:

MS Collage 6 Street Upright copy

But for most books, I start simple with the major characters, the setting, and the major motifs.  Then again I lose my grip and things become enormously complicated, but it doesn’t matter because it’s the process that matters, not what the final collage looks like.  I’ve thrown most of the collages away after the books are published, they’re not art works.  They’re visual outlining, and when the book is done, so are they.

Here’s the digital collage (and story) that I’ve got in its earliest stages.  In fact, Surprise Lily will probably never be a book (shut up, Argh people), it’s just something I was playing with on my blog to entertain people.  But it’s a good touchstone for the noodling around I’m doing right now.

Surprise Lily June 2020 Collage

All I need to do to find my way into the world of one of my books in progress is look at the collage.  They’re a visual gateway that takes me back to writing in that world right away.


The only thing I’ve done the same for every book I’ve written is what I call a story grid. I covered it in the original blog, but I do a few things differently now. First, I learned I can color code an Excel spreadsheet– the font and/or the block (I know– I am so tech savvy it scares Cool Gus). That gives me a visual. It is not an outline. It is what I fill out as I write the book. It gives me a single page on which I can see every scene I’ve done so far. Each row is a scene. I do add notes further down on future scenes as they occur to me. Below is the start of my most recent book, Hell of a Town.

Screen Shot 2020-06-20 at 2.59.16 PM

From left to right:

Column 1: The date and time of day.   Column 2: Start page number. So I can find things quickly.     Column 3: End page number.

Column 4: Location. Note some are color coded. The blue box is every morning when the protagonist, Will Kane, starts his day (or ends his night) in the diner he co-owns on the corner of Gansevoort and Washington in the Meatpacking District. The gold box is unique to this story because it’s underground scenes where the bad guys have let loose tributes they are hunting.

Column 5: I list which main characters were in the scene.

Column 6: A brief summary of what happens. Most of it might not make sense to you, but since it’s already written, it does to me. This is a living document that I fill out as I write each scene. There is material to the right where I make notes on loops that need to be closed, what needs to be rewritten.

I can keep track of the time flow of the story. Oh yes. MOST important. The black box? That’s a FLASHBACK! To 20 June 1969. The book is actually set in December 1978. Because books must have flashbacks. And they must have prologues, if you can get one in there.

Further right, and not shown, is my daily word count. Here’s something I’ve learned. I project out for five days a week, not seven like I used to. Seven is silly and undoable even though I write almost every day. Five days gives me slack and allows me to make up my average. If we set our bar too hard, we’ll frustrate ourselves.

The key to collaging and spreadsheeting and scrivener (tried it but have to read instructions and I’m a guy and that’s too hard) and whatever tool you use? It’s an externalization to help you with your process. Something that your brain can’t conjure up on its own.

Of course the flashback box is black.  That’s because the story DIED there.

3 thoughts on “Extra: Collage and Story Grid Examples

  1. It is SO AWESOME to see other writers working in a similar fashion to me. It makes me feel like part of a team. I’m in the Bob camp. My Excel spreadsheet isn’t quite so detailed, but I’ve started doing the same thing – making a table that summarizes every scene as I write them (and looks ahead to future scenes as I realize I need them). I’ve also started using One Note and every time I create a new character or describe one, I add the notes there so I don’t have to find out whether so-and-so had blue eyes the next time I write about them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I used to make collages (very crude–nothing as gorgeous and elaborate as yours), but I don’t do them anymore. I make story maps. Over all these years, I’ve developed a prewriting process where I flesh out the important stuff–GMC, plot points, romantic conflicts, stuff like that. Won’t start writing until the story’s very clear. Does it help? Today’s not a good to ask since this first draft is not flowing AT ALL.


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