You might be scratching your head at this topic. We all know the scene I’m talking about. It’s most commonly found in heist stories, but it’s any scene where characters discuss the plan before setting off to do said plan.
This strategy meeting sometimes involves the use of a literal whiteboard or chalkboard to write out key tactics.
Think of the scene from the movie Mean Girls. It’s just after the Halloween party and Cady storms in, ready to take down Regina George. She then sits with Janis and Damian to map out their attack strategy using a chalkboard.
What is the purpose of the whiteboard scene?
When writing, you might want to cut to the chase. You might want to show the knight storming the castle to rescue the princess without first walking the reader through his step-by-step plans.
Yes, the whiteboard scene can slow down the story’s pacing, but it displays your characters educated rationale for how they are going to go solve their problem. This helps when you want to develop characters that seem capable and intuitive. It shows them taking their internal and external motivations and pairing them with strategy.
If you consider the Mean Girls example, the chalkboard scene set three very clear checkpoints to hit on the path of Regina’s destruction. Because we witnessed that scene prior to viewing Cady’s sabotaging antics, the viewer has a mental ticker to keep track of her progress toward the success or failure of her goal.
Keep in mind, the most important part of the whiteboard scene (don’t worry I will repeat this several times) is that the plan must go wrong. It’s extraordinarily boring to sit through characters discussing a plan, then have it play out exactly how they planned it. At that point, you’re telling your reader the same story twice. Chances are, they won’t finish it the second time.
Emphasize the goal
The whiteboard scene is the processing moment when characters pair motivation (goals) with strategy. Though the way the plan is laid out can vary, one thing that should be included is what the characters are hoping for as an ideal outcome.
Keep in mind that characters should have external and internal goals, sometimes referred to as a want or a need. The hero might want to save the city from destruction (external), but he might need to prove to himself that he is more than just his superpowers (internal).
Generally, the whiteboard scene will emphasize the external want, but this is a great opportunity to show what the protagonist lacks internally.
In our Mean Girls example, Cady has just witnessed Regina kissing the boy she’s been crushing on. She clearly articulates that her goal is to bring down Regina. What the viewer also gets reminded of is Cady’s need (internal goal) to find acceptance and belonging.
Set up the stakes
Han Solo may prefer never to be told the odds, but your readers want to hear it. During the planning scene, your characters can enhance the stakes and tension of their quest by discussing what could go wrong or what could be lost.
Have characters discuss what’s at risk and have them consider what the worst-case scenario would look like. Ticking time clocks and the inclusion of other uncertainties are great ways to add tension to the stakes.
Remember, you don’t have to tell the reader everything during this scene. They should understand generally what the plan is, but if things are intentionally left obscured, it has the reader left asking questions and reading on to have those questions answered.
In Mean Girls, the stakes come down to the rise and fall of Cady. It is believed, should Regina fall, Cady will rise.
Rules or limitations are discussed
Similar to how magic systems become more intriguing when they have specific sets of rules or limitations, plan-making scenes should have guidelines that must be followed. These will be obstacles that are foreseen by the characters.
Are your characters breaching a fortress and have intel about the layout, locked passages, and an estimated number of guards? Great! These set factors are the rules they will have to play by, as well as foreseen obstacles the characters (and by extension, the reader) will face.
Leave obstacles unforeseen
The whiteboard scene is a great tool for some sleight of hand, so to speak. This scene will clue in readers and distract them with the things you tell them to pay attention to, thus leaving the upcoming events more of a surprise. The element of surprise will leave your readers with physical tension when they run into obstacles the characters did not foresee. It will provide a very satisfying payoff when those obstacles are overcome, especially when the solution is a clever one.
The plan should have several complications in execution. These unforeseen obstacles will be much more effective for tension than the complications your characters had thought of. Or it can add tension by having a planned solution for an obstacle go terribly wrong. Remember, the plan should go wrong.
Back to Mean Girls, there are several unforeseen obstacles, but most notably comes in the form of the Burn Book. This is the moment when the antagonist plays back, she stirs chaos and gains points of sympathy. Overall, the Burn Book scene is showing the regression of the protagonist toward their ultimate goal.
Foreshadow eventual solutions
The whiteboard scene can foreshadow what might be the ultimate solution to the problem, but remember, the plan must go wrong. The solution that is discussed during the whiteboard scene should not be the ultimate solution, or at least, it should be the solution but lack a crucial piece. Sometimes there may truly be only one way to solve the problem. Or the solution is shared, but the way that solution comes about is not as anyone had anticipated (i.e. Frodo taking the ring into Mordor only to slip it on in the final hour and have Gollum bite off a finger).
The ultimate solution can be teased upon, but the way that solution comes about should not align with the exact course of action discussed during the whiteboard scene.
The plan must go wrong
I told you this was going to come back!
This doesn’t mean that the protagonist fails to achieve their goal, but it won’t be achieved according to the plan you had laid out during the whiteboard scene. This is when unforeseen obstacles and challenges come in.
This is effectively done when you give readers enough information to allow them to ask questions and formulate hypotheses to try to answer those questions, but you save a few tricks up your sleeve. By withholding information or introducing unforeseen elements, you can give your writing a satisfying plot twist or heart-palpitating tension.
In Mean Girls, Regina George gets hit by a bus. This ultimately gives her tons of sympathy and outcasts Cady further. So, despite crossing off all the checkboxes (things going according to plan) the end goal was not met (the plan going wrong). Not to fear, the whiteboard scene doesn’t account for the full plot, and the story often continues after what is foreseen during the planning session.
The whiteboard scene does not require a literal whiteboard
It can be as simple as a few lines of dialogue between two characters discussing their plan, or it can be a complex layering of efforts that maps out charts and figures to demonstrate how complicated and challenging the plan is.
The whiteboard scene is not exclusive to action or heist stories
Since my main example during this post has been Mean Girls, I think I’ve proven that this is not a genre-specific device.
I’ve read many rom-com novels in which there is a whiteboard scene. Two friends discussing a plan on how they are going to get a date. Perhaps even a fake dating pact that goes disastrously wrong. So long as a plan is discussed, and the plan goes wrong.
I’ve read this scene in mysteries, where about midway through a detective or someone close to the case relays a theory that seems to provide a fairly logical solution. Of course, that solution is wrong. What it does is tangle a web of what we think we know and the novel spends the rest of the time untangling that web to reveal the real truth.
The whiteboard scene can be found in any genre of fiction.
When do I include a whiteboard scene?
If you have an active protagonist with the time to discuss the plan, go for it. If your protagonist is reactive and has little agency within their situation, then perhaps not.
If you are relying entirely on leaving your audience in the dark, then you might not wish to show the planning scene.
However, whiteboard scenes have the great benefits of adding clarity and tension for your readers. These scenes can be as detailed as you’d like and can occur wherever you’d like to include them in your story (of course, it should probably be prior to the action discussed in the plan… unless you’re doing a cool flashback show first how things worked out versus how they were supposed to go).
Do I have to include a whiteboard scene?
No! This is just a tool for your writing toolbelt. You might read your draft and feel like something is missing prior to an actively paced action sequence, and a whiteboard scene might fit in nicely as a way to “set the table.”
Don’t feel pressured to include this. It is not a requirement for all stories. Hopefully, now that I’ve pointed out this style of scene, it’s something you can’t unsee and begin to notice more and more.
Try looking for a whiteboard/planning scene in your favorite narrative.
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