Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Do you remember story-mapping in grade school? I can picture it now: my bubbly, gel-pen lettering (man, I thought my handwriting was beautiful) inside a few dozen circles, spidered together with linking lines and connecting thoughts. When we got to high school, or college at the latest, our courses became too ‘serious’ for such time-consuming doodles.
But maybe instead of junking this process entirely, we should have been updating it to suit more sophisticated projects. It turns out that mind mapping can be an amazing asset when it comes to storytelling, so let’s take a look at how it’s done.
What is a mind map
A mind map is a visual representation of ideas (which are sometimes represented by text, sometimes by images) and how they connect. The intent is to create a single reference point for complex relationships; perhaps not something that imparts all its information at a glance, but something that can be easily understood without reference to other sources.
If you’re not familiar with mind maps, it can be helpful to picture a family tree. Each family member is a data point, and lines connect them to show how they’re related. Of course, in a family tree, where the information appears can also be important, since a name’s placement in reference to other names fixes it in time.
This might be the case in your own mind maps; you might use a similar higher=earlier timeline style, or you could break your space into zones (to indicate different locations or characters, for example.) You might also communicate information by varying how ideas connect. For instance, if your mind map is a way to visualize your cast of characters, an unbroken line might indicate friendship, while a dotted line might indicate antagonism.
Mind maps can be as complex and varied as suits your project, but the basic idea is to simply express ideas and then connect them meaningfully. The resultant map packs a lot of information into an easily understood format, taking the pressure off your memory and giving you a new tool that can act as both a reference document and a fresh way to explore ideas.
The advantages of mind maps
Mind mapping is done in a fast, free-thinking, creative flow. It helps you quickly express multiple complex ideas without the distraction of syntax. It connects your mind and body – reinforcing memory, solidifying ideas, and helping you spot missing connections. It highlights concepts that don’t fit, or that you didn’t realize you had floating around your brain space. As a single-page physical visualization, a mind map is also a super-slim organization tool. It gives you the chance to represent an entire story (or chapter, or character, or even philosophical outlook) in a matter of minutes.
When you’ve been slaving away at a project for months, a mind map can use clear, engaging visuals to keep you on track in a way that checking through piles of character files or searching out planning documents just won’t.
There’s a reason we teach children about mind maps; they’re easy to create and use without inviting stress.
Before you begin
Get ready to tap into your inner child. Get out some crayons, markers, colored pens or pencils, and a blank piece of paper. Go in expectation-free. There are no mistakes, there’s no required structure, and nobody is going to make fun of your stick figures.
Decide if you want to go old-school or digital. Digital mind maps have fantastic flexibility, but they can be distracting, partly by virtue of the fact that they’re on the computer. Know thyself, and if thyself tends to tab-hop, stick with the pencil-and-paper version to start with. Bottom line: this is your creative process. Do what works for you, but be honest with yourself about it.
If you do work digitally, you might find it helpful to search for reviews of mind mapping software. And as long as you’re on the computer anyway, take a peek at some mind maps of well-known stories (for instance, Google ‘Cinderella mind map’) to see how familiar stories look in a less-familiar format.
Personally, I’d start with pencil and paper, but you may find other tools serve your personality better. A white board might be helpful, as long as you don’t obsessively self-edit as you go.
Ultimately, K.I.S.S. Keep it simple, sweetie. Don’t over-write. Use one or two key words per data point. Set a timer to keep yourself from obsessing. A mind map should be free-form. You can edit it later (or even recreate it) if you want to, but don’t censor yourself at first. I suggest including even the most ridiculous things that occur to you, letting your stream of consciousness dictate what the map ‘needs’ to include, then imposing form when you’re ready to graft the map into your book.
Creating your mind map
Usually, it’s best to begin with a large, central idea. Smaller data points can then be added around (and connected to) this idea, ensuring the larger point of your map remains clear. Your central idea might be a character, with their traits and history added around, or an event, with consequences arrayed and connected around it.
For your data points, circles on a page are the norm, but consider using sticky notes or cutting up index cards and either gluing them to poster board or keeping them movable on a bulletin board. I say to cut up your index cards because they should be small enough that you’re using brief keywords rather than full sentences.
If you’re using your mind map to explore rather than illustrate, consider branching out from your central idea with questions. About a character, you might ask ‘what do they want,’ ‘who do they love,’ ‘what is their biggest flaw,’ etc. Branching from these questions will be known answers and possible answers.
Remember that color is its own type of information. Start black and white (or in pencil) and then add color as common themes or ideas become clear. If you’re visual, draw pictures or copy-paste stock pictures in strategic places to give the map an aesthetic feel and cement concepts through visual representation.
Add extra lines as you go, drawing connections and making one-word notes along the connecting lines. Double back and loop around, adding smaller and larger circles depending on degree of importance. Basically, break the rules (or don’t start off with any!) to make this your mind map, not something you’d like to post on Instagram. Hey, if it ends up looking good, go for it; but don’t make that an end goal.
You can work chronologically – creating more of a timeline effect – or thematically, creating a slightly chaotic effect. In fact, the only rule about structure is that it should work for you. Both limited and unlimited mind maps can be useful. An unlimited mind map is a total brain dump, whereas limited mind maps put a single character or motif under the microscope.
Finally, remember to create a key if necessary. This is vital if you color-code information or use other visual cues; they’re clear now, but you need to make sure you’ll still understand your map months later.
What to include in your mind map
What you do with your mind map depends on your current needs. If you have a story in mind, but can’t figure out where to begin, use a limitless map to get all your ideas out. Add colors to show connections, draw new circles as you think of them, feel free to doodle and see what happens.
If a character feels flat, put their name in the center of the mind map. Add branches for what you know about the character and what you want to know. Add branches for questions. Add branches to illustrate their connection to other characters. Consider drafting a similar mind map for a better developed character. Identify what’s missing on the map for the less developed character in question, and work on filling in the gaps.
If you have solid characters, but the plot seems to be lagging, use a timeline-style map, but break away from the rigid form with lines that wander all over and throw things out of chronology. Ask, ‘Where does the story begin? What would happen if I started it here instead? Is this necessary? What if I jumped from here over to here, what would be the explanation?’ These questions are too long to write out on the mind map, but they can help guide you to new keywords, connections, and ideas.
Often, to overcome obstacles in our writing, we have to explore in ways that writing itself doesn’t allow. Writing is slow and difficult; mind mapping is fast and fun and easy. Writing is complex, multifaceted. Mind mapping is hyper-simple, the uni-tasking way of making a book – one Crayola circle at a time.
From map to book
Getting your map from crayon to MS Word depends where you are in the story-writing process. If you’re at the beginning, a mind map usually transfers well to prose. You highlight on the map where the story starts and where it goes next, and you start writing. You re-visit and re-edit and re-vise along the way, referring back to your mind map and maybe changing it or drawing a new one if you need to.
Let’s say you used a mind map to enhance an existing character, though. How do you go from, ‘Okay, now I know this guy’s motivation’ to how and where that motivation is represented in the narrative, which is already 89-pages strong?
You could go a couple of ways with this. First, try doing a search for the character’s name in your story document. Highlight each place first. Then, toggle through the highlights and ask, ‘What does this moment reveal about this character?’ If nothing, ask, ‘Is this a fast-paced point in the plot?’ If yes, leave it. If no, see what dialogue, action, facial expression, or back-story detail might better acquaint your reader with the character in that moment. Use your mind map for this, adding a quick note to connect that part of the story with part of your mind map. Draw connections like this everywhere the character’s name appears. Keep this process short and efficient. Then go back, look for and delete repetition, and flesh out the places you marked with comments.
Another way to handle this is to think of the story as a jigsaw puzzle. You’ve got to find where the pieces in your hand fit. Some people are good at working it out in their heads; others benefit from writing or printing the main points of their story on pieces of paper and arranging them for a visual representation. This can be a particularly effective way to add a mind map’s findings to an existing story. Cut the story up into its main components, then (after taking a photo or making a copy!) cut the mind map into pieces and layer them into the larger network of paper scraps. Look for holes, delete repetition, go back to your draft and add the details where you (literally) cut-and-pasted them.
This process can be adapted for rhetorical and literary elements other than characters; you just have to get a little creative.
So what do you think; will you try mind mapping? Or, if it’s a technique you already use, what have you learned from your experience? I love when readers share their wisdom with the community, so please chime in. I read all your comments and respond in person.
For more great advice on this topic, check out The Color-Coding Technique That Will Save Your Writing and Get To Know Your Characters Better With This Novel Device.