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The Mind Map – Give your ideas a visual form: Novel Writing Prep Series

You have your ideaYou’ve done your research.  You know something about your main character.  Maybe you’ve even taken a crack at your first scene.  And now you’re stuck…  All those plot points we talked about in the 3 or 4-part narrative structure?  You’re having trouble coming up with plot points.  You just aren’t finding the ideas that you need to carry this project through to a finished novel.  This is when the Mind Map becomes a useful tool for writers.

I use mind maps for everything.  In spite of the fact that I love fancy software and organization techniques, some days I feel trapped by the confines of my computer screen.  I need to break free – really give my right brain some room to move around.  Remember that group work that you did in junior high? When your English teacher forced you into a group with four other people and said, “On the count of three create a list a of all the things you could use this tongue depressor for.  And remember, there are no wrong answers!”

These old-school brainstorming sessions are the genesis for a mind map.  The difference is that rather than creating an outline or a simple list, you are going to create a visual representation of your ideas.  Here are a few examples:

 image via Mind Tools


image via Wikipedia


image via Mind Tools

When you are mind mapping for a novel, it’s just you and the page.  You don’t have four other pimple-faced middle schoolers offering up suggestions. Instead the different parts of your brain take the place of all five people in the group.  And it’s your job to let all those areas of your brain take over with ideas and to prevent your inner editor from censoring anything.  Let’s say you’re creating a mind map about a scene which takes place at 3 a.m. in a deserted pizza parlor.  The frontal lobes might throw out very logical descriptions like: benches, pizza ovens, cash register.  All very useful things to help you add detail later. Bracca’s area of the brain takes over and allows you to translate those thoughts to words on the page.  Then the Parietal lobes jump in and throw a bunch of sensory words at you: the cheese smells like burnt toast after your neighbor walked on it with his bare feet, the light shining on the water glass looks like sunlight reflecting in the glassy eye of a taxidermied trout.  You get the gist…  All of those things need to go down on your mind map.

Then the fun part begins.  I use the 5 W’s. Who, where, when, why and What if?  What if the MC character wasn’t alone in the pizza parlor? I create an idea bubble and put down emotions, actions… anything that comes to mind.  What if the mysterious person in the pizza parlor was the MC’s driver’s education teacher moonlighting as a pizza chef? Why does the teacher need to moonlight? What if he lost all of his wages because he has a gambling problem? Where did this gambling take place? What if he started an underground cock fighting club in the basement of the school? Who would attend? What if the other teachers were involved? What if the physics teacher lost her prize rooster in the last fight? What if the driving teacher was secretly in love with the physics teacher?

You get the idea.  By using a mind map, I’ve created lots of bubbles that make up a key scene in the story.  By looking at my lines I can see that the physics teacher bought her rooster from the rural route bus driver whose chickens have been inbred over time to create a race of super roosters.  I can see that our MC takes classes from three of the teachers involved in the ring.  How will these connections play into our MC’s goal of saving the school and making sure that the driver’s ed. teacher and the physics teacher find true love?

Or maybe you’ll find that everything you’ve written down is rubbish which won’t ultimately contribute to the good of your story.  Until… you glance over at that bubble in the left side of the page.  You’ve created another character in your mind map notes.  A teenage girl who comes in to clean the pizza ovens in the middle of the night.  Using the 5 Ws, you’ve speculated that maybe she comes in at 3 a.m. because she spends her days taking care of a sick mother.  Hmm… Now this could interesting.

The point is that after less than 10 minutes throwing some thoughts down on paper, I have several reasons that my main character could be in the pizza parlor at three o’clock in the morning.  I have the makings of several interesting characters, and I have some sensory items I can weave into my scene.

Next time you’re stuck in your writing, grab a blank sheet of paper.  Maybe even some markers or colored pencils if you want to get really fancy.  Start in the middle of a blank page, writing or drawing the idea you intend to develop. This could be a scene, a character or simply a theme you want to build upon.  Let your mind wander and see where it takes you.  You just might end up with a “map” that leads you in new directions.

**Don’t forget to enter the giveaway for the Scrivener for Microsoft Windows software.  I have three (3) licenses up for grabs.  Visit this post for more details.**

Happy writing!

25 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for this brainstorming reminder. This creative methodology is too often overlooked as we attempt to “get it right the first time.”
    A software tool I have found extremely useful in keeping track of 100+ years of Las Vegas (and Syndicate) history is Personal Brain. The ability to associate any “thought” with others that somehow connect, however tangentially, produces (for me, at least) a powerful overview vision of characters, events, locales, and so much more that might come into play in my historical fiction. Hierarchy-based outlines and index systems are definitely useful, but don’t have the free-association flexibility I get when I click on one thought and immediately see any and all of its connections. Setting aside the research angle, the ability to easily develop the “mind map” you mention above is icing on the cake for me.
    Thanks again for the interesting post.

    February 20, 2012
    • Thanks for the suggestion, John. I’ll have to look into Personal Brain. I use so many different types of software, that sometimes I just need a blank sheet of paper and pen to get the juices flowing. But I’d love to find a mindmapping program that is intuitive enough so that I don’t get distracted by the bells and whistles of process. But I will admit, I’m a sucker for a good program. I’ll be checking it out.

      February 20, 2012
      • Love it! Personalbrain is awesome!

        February 24, 2012
      • I need to carve out some time to try it. I downloaded the trial, but haven’t dedicated the time to get up and running with it yet. Any tips?

        February 26, 2012
    • I’m downloading the free version to check it out. Thanks, John

      February 20, 2012
    • No way! PB is crazy good. Not only am I using it to mind-map a story, but also organize all the docs in my PC. It’s like being able to use Visual Thesaurus to organize your projects.

      February 21, 2012
  2. I was going to ask you exactly this, Sara. What have you tried in the way of software for mind mapping? Or have you? If so, what would you recommend? I find that things get lost when I put them on pieces of paper.

    February 20, 2012
  3. Personal Brian looks very cool. Like you Sarah, sometimes I just need/like to do it by hand. Something about the creative process of drawing and writing it out by hand seems even more productive for me. I happen to have a large 4’x4′ whiteboard (bought at an auction) that I use for mind-mapping. Still, I’ll put PB through the paces as I’m currently doing with Scrivener.

    February 20, 2012
    • I’m jealous of the 4×4 whiteboard, Bob. I’m trying out PB as well – per John’s suggestion.

      February 20, 2012
      • An office went out of business and auctioned off all the equipment. I picked up the white board for $10! Looks like it was never used. My wife hated seeing that huge thing hanging on the wall, but you know what? She uses it to jot down notes as much as I use it to project plan.

        February 21, 2012
      • So jealous. Maybe I need to wish for the demise of my local office store. Just kidding – sort of!

        February 21, 2012
  4. BTW: Hi Sara, sorry for writing your name as Sarah. It’s out of habit as I have a daughter with that spelling.

    February 20, 2012
    • Not to worry, Werner. With a name like Sara, I’ve gotten the incorrect spelling my whole life. It doesn’t phase me at all.

      February 20, 2012
  5. Connie B. Dowell #

    Love the 5 Ws! I’ll be mapping away this afternoon.

    February 21, 2012
    • I love those prompts to. So easy, but they really get the juices flowing – especially “What if?” Let me know how the mapping goes. I need to do some of my own tonight for a few new characters.

      February 21, 2012
  6. Reblogged this on loveofwords52 and commented:
    I like this idea a lot. I show kids how to write their stories drawing mind maps of sorts but I really like your more complex version of the basic idea I start teenagers off on. I guess being an adult and being a writer there is no restriction of time and a bell ringing to signal the end of class. Last time I used a mind map was for writing a poem but it seems even better for drawing plaot and character ideas for a novel. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    February 22, 2012

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