Mapping Out Your Story

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

One of my favorite ways to outline or plan a story is to map it out like a subway or road map.  Here’s how this technique works.

Each road or subway line represents a different story-thread or plot line.  The dots (exits on the highways or subway stops) represent different scenes or moments in the story.  Black dots represent local exits or subway stops (moments that apply only to that one storyline) while the white dots indicate moments where two or more plot lines intersect.

By mapping your story out in this way, you can tease apart the different plot threads in your story and make sure that each story arc makes sense in terms of build-up and tension.  Also, it can be difficult to juggle multiple story threads at the same time so when you use this subway map technique, you can isolate the main plot or one of the subplots and look at it separate from the others.

For an example of this type of outline click on the image.  The map shows a (very basic) outline Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.  (Note: Because this is an outline, it inevitably includes spoilers.  You have been warned.)

How do you put together a story map like this? Here’s a step-by-step guide.

Step 1: Write out your scenes.

I like to use index cards for this step, where for each scene I jot down a brief description of who is in the scene, what happens and why the scene is important to the story overall.  The why is key because if I can’t figure out what purpose a particular scene serves in the story, then it probably means that scene is dispensable and I should get rid of it.

Step 2: Figure out your main story threads and the Dramatic Question related to each.

Every novel has a main plot thread and at least one or two subplots.  Each of these plot threads is driven by what’s called the Dramatic Question.  For the main plot thread we have the Major Dramatic Question (MDQ) and for the subplots we have what I like to call the Lesser Dramatic Questions (LDQ’s).  These Dramatic Questions boil down each plot thread and propel them forward.

For example, in The Hunger Games the Major Dramatic Quesiton is: Will Katniss survive the Hunger Games?  We also have questions that relate to the subplots of the novel (such as the love story between Katniss and Peeta or her relationship to her younger sister, Prim).  Those questions are: Will Katniss love Peeta back? and Will Katniss be able to protect her family?  These are the questions that readers will be holding their breath to find out the answers to as the plot threads develop.

Step 3: Sort out your scenes according to which plot threads they relate to.

Remember, some scenes can belong in more than one plot thread.  In fact, most key scenes in a novel (like big turning points or the climax) will relate to multiple plot lines.  I usually do this step by drawing colored dots on each index card. The color of each dot indicates the plot thread(s) where that scene belongs.

Step 4: Draw your map.

Now that you have your scenes sorted out and you know which scene falls where, you can draw your map and look at how the different plot lines intercept.  You can also separate the main plot from the subplots and see how each individual arc works.

 

What I like about this technique:

  • It allows you to look at plot lines together and individually whereas most outline techniques force you to look at all plot lines at once.
  • It forces you to think about your story’s major dramatic question (and the lesser dramatic questions).  This means you have to be able to boil down each plot line to one question.  If you can do that, then you know the main plot of your story.
  • It’s very visual so at a glance you can see your entire story and how everything fits together.  This is especially helpful for writers like me, who are more visually-than-verbally oriented and have a tough time with traditional outlines.
  • I’ve seen a lot of outlining techniques, but I hadn’t come across this one before. This is a fantastic idea–I’m definitely going to try it out. Thanks for sharing this! 🙂

  • I’m with Ava. I’ve seen a ton of outline concepts but this is a novel one (pun intended). Will definitely be giving this a test run. Thanks, Gabriela 🙂

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  • Todd Lucas

    Alright, so who’s got an app for drawing these maps? ;-p

    • Gabriela

      Oooh, a story map app… that would be so cool!

  • Todd Lucas

    Especially if you could just type in any number of storylines (maybe limit to some reasonable number, but still more than 3 because you know folk will complain if you constrain them too much), then just drag and link, or break links in very simple ways, as well as add unlinked points on storylines, and then have the thing nicely arrange and space everything out, kinda like some things in familiar apps snap to a grid or the points on various bounding boxes seem to magnetically connect. I would imagine the information on the points would be similar in effect to your note cards, basically the title of each note card being the label you see on the map, but then could be popped open into a little window where you can put your notes so you can actually use the thing to develop the outline of a story that doesn’t exist yet and be able to keep your thoughts safe while going nuts playing with your colorful lines ;-p

  • Gabriela

    OMG! I NEED an app like that! Why does this not exist?! It’s like all the awesomeness of Scrivener but with the added feature of the visual map. I picture it working so that when you click on a dot, the index card pops up and you see the details of that scene. And you could drag dots around to reorder the scenes. Seriously, does this exist because I WANT.

  • Todd Lucas

    Yeah, I was thinking pretty much like you say. Of course I don’t think it exists. I’ve been looking around a bit, even looking at different sorts of apps for ways to use something not especially intended for this purpose outside its particular box. I’ll report back if I’m able to cobble anything useful together, but I think right now we’d be best served by some coder with a bit of extra time on their hands taking pity on us ;-p

  • This is awesome. I worked last night for over an hour and got a really jumbled mess (ran out of room), so I’m working on a nice clean copy today on XL watercolor paper and colored markers. It’d probably be a good idea to do the pretty one from the example in your post & keep on the desktop.
    Thank you so much,
    Jennie Alice

  • Ting Chen

    Wow this is great. I actually think about my plots as music notes and chords so the subway graphs really match that train of thought. The only thing, though, is that I think I need the space to create the index card thing first before drawing out something pretty and clean like that. But cool article. Thanks!

  • C F

    I really enjoyed this article, and your method of organizing and assessing plot tightness is one of the most straightforward I have seen. I can visualize the whole Hunger Games novel perfectly this way,,, yet every time I go to New York I still wind up lost in a dark, odoriferous subway terminal…

  • Conrad Zero

    A great method. I’ve been doing something similar vertically with a spreadsheet, but your method is much more visual. Thanks for sharing!

  • Any suggestion on software that can allow rapid manipulation of this map?

    • DIYMFA

      I created this map using Adobe Illustrator and to my knowledge there’s no simple software that does this (though if anyone knows of any, please let me know!) The easiest way to use this technique is the good old-fashioned way: paper, pen and colorful markers.

      • Yeah, I thought that might be the case. I think to fast for my hands sometimes and I like to rework and restructure a lot. I shall let you know if I discover something.

  • Trish

    I just went looking for a software, and found Mind Node for Mac – The free version will do what this needs to do – just not with the cute circles, but you can certainly make intersecting story lines with it.

  • DIYMFA

    Appove

  • DIYMFA

    Love this! Thanks for sharing!

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  • Hugh B. Long

    Just wanted to weigh in on Mind-mapping in fiction: I use it for every book I write. Mainly to brainstorm plot mechanics.

  • shareallicu

    Thanks a lot! I am going to try mapping this way with this software 🙂

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  • sarnobat

    An excellent tool to create such a subway map is yEd: https://www.yworks.com/en/products/yfiles/yed/ . I tried it myself yesterday and it was a lot easier to identify scenes which were and were not crucial to my story. And yes, my master document is a spreadsheet too.

  • Scapple is also a great tool for making quick and easy story maps. By the same people as Scrivener. You have to pay for it, but there’s a free trial if you want to test it out. https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scapple.php

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  • Michal Nancy Karni

    I’m doing NaNoWriMo and i’m finishing my novel from last year and you just saved my life. Even having the entire novel on Scrivener, my plot / time line is making me crazy. I tried to put it on a chart on the wall, lots of paper and blue tack, and I tried to use an Excell sheet but I i was just as lost as before. I’m visual learner, so this is going to be good! thank you!

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