I’ve been hard at work this month getting all set up in a local artist’s gallery, Art Works @ Pacific Grove, where I can write, display, and sell my book! It’s in the American Tin Cannery if you ever get a chance to stop by, and is open to the public on weekends from 1-4 pm. We’ll also have opening nights on the 3rd Friday of each month from 6-9 pm, with music and refreshments, and this fall I will offer a writer’s workshop in the classroom (more information about this later). We had a great grand opening with wine, food, music, and over 300 people in attendance, and a very grand time was had by all!
Now, on to the business of writing. There are two classic ways to begin a long journey: you can throw everything you might need into your suitcase and head out in a general direction with your final destination in mind, trusting that eventually you will get there, or you can clearly define your mode of transportation, your route and stops on a map, and define your needs before hitting the road. Which sounds more appealing to you? Which is more effective? While the first approach might work well for setting out on a grand adventure while traveling (I know this from experience, as I have been prone to both methods in various aspects of life), the second approach comes with far fewer headaches along the way, less backtracking and getting lost, and hopefully, fewer pages being tossed out the window like yesterday’s news. When it comes to writing, whether a long-term project or short, everyone can benefit from developing a story map to start the project on track and keep it progressing toward the desired destination.
But first things first, now that you know where TIP #4 is leading. Why do I call it a story map instead of an outline? Did you feel that little cringe that just happened somewhere deep within you at the use of the word, outline? There it is again! I have never seen a more dreaded word in the writing world. Professional writers, amateurs, students – they all react on some level to both the word and the task, because let’s face it, outlining your story is a four-letter word: WORK. It takes the creativity out of creative writing, and it means sitting down and plotting the steps necessary to move your characters from A to Z in their story when you don’t yet have all the details. BUT it is oh so helpful, and effective, and time-saving, and (insert any other synonym for essential here). If you talk to ten different writers, you will likely find that they all partake in some form of outlining (whatever they call it), and that they each have a different approach. Writing, in any form, involves some form of creativity. Yes, even writing an outline. Okay, so to ease the pain, let’s call this next step a story map, which sounds far more adventurous and exciting, but proves to be pretty darn important on any given journey, no matter what you call it.
A story map, when used correctly, turns out to be a writer’s (your) best friend, personal assistant, and external memory backup (or second brain as I like to call it). So, what’s in a map? As you know, there are many different types of maps: road maps that help you plot a course from one point to another, city maps that tell you where to find important locations like hospitals and airports, topographic maps that tell you elevation changes and give you the lay of the land, ocean maps that tell you navigation routes, underwater features, and water depths, globes that show you where all the countries and capitals are in relation to one another, and sky maps that show you where to find stars and constellations at different times, in different seasons, from wherever you are. That’s a LOT of information, right? You wouldn’t want to use a sky map to plot a route from your house to the nearest park, but a road map of your neighborhood would work great! That means it is important to select the right type of map for your needs, before you start creating it.
All maps have certain features in common. They all come with a legend (who, what, and why) to help you understand and use them, they all provide a scale (when and where) to help you figure out logistics, and they all focus on a target area relevant to you. That means a good story map should contain the five Ws you’ve been hearing about ever since grammar school: who, what, when, where, why, and, if you so desire, your map can even tell you how. It’s a snapshot, a catalog, a calendar, and a who’s who, all rolled into one easy access, searchable, document.
I can’t possibly explain all of the various methods out there for outlining your story, but I can tell you what I do when I am developing and writing a story. First, notice the implications of that last sentence. My map of a story is a living document that gets updated frequently, and is usually opened on my desktop while I write my story. When you are just getting started, your story map may be quite generalized and simple, a planning tool with just enough details to help you outline ideas several chapters ahead of your writing process with whatever part of the story you already have in mind. As you start mapping, you will find that you get new ideas about the logical progression of the story, and fill in gaps that propel your characters to the next big scene without leaving the reader confused. As the story and the map progress, your map should evolve to fit your needs, becoming more detailed, precise, and accurate.
The basic structure of my map is simple. I create a table in word or excel (use whatever works for you), with columns for information about each of the following components: chapter, page numbers, character(s) in the chapter (and point of view (POV) changes if you have a lot of them), time/date and scene(s)/location(s), a keyword summary of the main events in that chapter (don’t get carried away here), and any major emotional developments that affect primary characters (for example: first kiss, feelings of betrayal, realizing they love/hate X, decisions to fight back/retreat/yield). The point of the map, is to keep yourself organized with a simple, succinct tool useful for your needs. If you’re writing a story with only 2-3 characters, you won’t need a separate column to keep track of the characters in each scene. If your story is told consistently from only one perspective or a narrator, you won’t need to track the changes in perspective to see if your characters are getting adequate representation. If your story is told chronologically, you can easily track the passage of time to make sure your timeline is realistic and plausible, and if you’re bouncing between time periods, you can track this information in a column to help you find balance and stay organized.
My story map is not just used for planning purposes but also becomes a very helpful tracking device by which I can monitor the length of chapters, pace of developments, and make sure that my story stays balanced with a good distribution of action, emotional development, perspectives, and revelations. I also keep a separate, living Log of Facts, because I have a lot of characters and locations to keep track of, and I do a lot of research about technical details that I want to be able to refer to quickly, without memorization, both during the writing process, and long after the book is complete (I’ll discuss this in greater detail in TIP #6). So, long story made short (pun intended), your story map is an essential organizational tool that should help you develop a story that makes sense for readers, keep you honest in your process, and remember important decisions and details long after you have moved twenty scenes ahead or onto the next project.
Tally ho, writers! On your mark, get set, story map!