How & Why to Start Your Writing with a Story Map

As a writer, I understand how unappealing putting the brakes on the itch to start storytelling is, but as an editor, I also know how much better planned stories end up being (and I know how much less editing they need, too). By starting your writing process with a story map and a detailed outline (a topic for a later post), you end up with a cleaner first draft that usually needs little more than copyediting or proofreading.

What is story mapping?

So, first, let’s talk about what story mapping is. Remember when you were in school, and your English teacher had you brainstorm or cluster words or ideas related to a topic? That’s concept mapping, and story mapping is exactly like that only much bigger.

Why does my manuscript need a story map?

As a writer who used to prefer to leap headfirst into a project with minimal planning and prewriting, I’ve come to appreciate the way story maps help me identify the story’s theme; story maps also help writers organize their ideas and focus their projects.

For example, I’m working on a memoir about an eating disorder I battled from my late teens to early 20s. Armed with journals to help with the story’s organization, I thought I knew what my story was about. It was about anorexia, then bulimia, binge-purge cycles, and several relapses. When I put it in the context of a story map, a light bulb clicked. The eating disorder was just what happened; my story was actually about redefining relationships with my family and myself; it was also about learning to appreciate and to accept myself.

I wouldn’t have realized that had I not taken the time to create a story map. What’s more, I would have continued spinning my wheels in the same areas because I felt the story was perpetually losing focus.

How do I create a story map?

There is no right or wrong way to map your story. There’s also no right or wrong resource for you to use. A pen and note pad work great as do any one of the many story or concept mapping programs available; for example, I’ve enjoyed using MindMeister for my projects.

No matter what medium you create your story map with, this is how you get started:

  • Start with your story’s title at the center of the map.
  • Create major headings to branch off from that. Here’s where having an idea of the story you want to tell will help. Is your story plot-driven or character-driven? If it’s character-driven, you might have character names branching off of the main title and off of events if it’s plot-driven.
  • Continue your map by creating additional bubbles and branches. Show relationships. Add colorful lines to indicate certain kinds of connections or emotions.
  • Get creative. This is your map, so if Penelope, the skeptical heroine with a dangerous past, reminds you of the color of red wine or conjures the image of a sheathed dagger--anything that enables you to better relate to her character, add those words or images.

You can go as in-depth with your story map as you want. I advise getting pretty detailed, but keep in mind that your story map is a structure to help you get organized and focus, which means not everything that makes the story map will make the final cut (or that every nuance needs to be mapped).

How do I put that map to use once it’s finished?

After you are finished with your map, start organizing your content. I like to create an outline. MindMeister has a feature that enables me to instantly reformat my cluster map into a rough outline. This lets me see what subcategories fall under topic areas and so forth.

After creating a story map, I have a better idea of the key players in my story, the most significant events, and the relationships among parties. The story map helps me recall these things as I begin to develop my developmental outline.

If you have great story ideas but get stuck 50 pages in or become weighed down by writer’s block, consider approaching your writing differently. Start with a story map and outline, or work with a developmental editor or content editor who will organize your ideas enabling you to immerse yourself in telling your story without any resistance.