Six Reasons to Write a Story Map

Despite attending writing classes, which herald the benefits of properly planning a novel, I still dive straight in, ‘pantsing it,’ with only a broad three act overview and a couple of character portraits. Why? Because I’m enthused. I have the dramatic first few scenes in my head and I want to get them down on paper before they become diluted by doubt or distraction. There’s nothing like a good start – or so I think.

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So 15,000 words into my second novel, a middle grade children’s fantasy set in today’s contemporary world with a parallel fantasy world, I get writers block. And not just for a day or a week but many weeks. My word count shrivels to a pathetic few hundred a day. I write, rewrite, rejig, leave it, come back to it and repeat (there are more words on my cuttings page than in the manuscript). I still love my story, I know there’s something charming about the idea, but I’m fed up. I’ve lost my flow and doubt I can write chapters. Perhaps I should stick to picture books and short stories. Maybe novels aren’t for me.

Crit groups are rather good at providing perspective (and a timely kick up the rear). Fellow SCBWI’s pointed out: my action was great, my fantasy world had potential BUT (there’s always a BUT) my world lacked specifics and my heroine didn’t know who she was, both literally and metaphorically, so neither did the reader.

I had to admit what I already knew deep down; I could only ‘pants it’ so far – it was time to write a proper story plan.

The very first question I asked myself was:

1.What kind of story am I writing?

A fantasy adventure, I thought. Hmmm. Turns out there’s more than one kind. I flicked through Ronald Tobias’s, 20 Plots & How To Build Them (Readers Digest), and discovered that my story borrows elements from a Quest, Adventure, Pursuit and Discovery plot. And to make matters even more confusing my story is a potential trilogy, therefore, should there be an overriding plot and different individual book plots? Common sense suggests, yes. The first book, on closer inspection, is an adventure pursuit plot. My heroine is running away at the beginning of each act, headlong into even more trouble, and there is also an overarching goal of personal discovery – she’s trying to find out who she really is. Pursuit plots work best when there are lots of unexpected twists and turns, and the purser, or his/her emissaries, should always feel close behind, which keeps tension tight. This gave me a basic structure and style to work to.

2. Every scene is complex and every paragraph, sentence and word should moves the plot forward.

Spreadsheets aren’t my favourite piece of software due to many years looking at company budgets, but they do force orderliness and empty boxesimages-6 scream:

HERE’S A GAP IN YOUR THINKING!

There’s also the dining room wall and lots of sticky notes, but I’m worried about children tampering with it or a puff of wind scattering them, so spreadsheets it is. I am also told Scrivener is very good and this in on my Christmas list.

So how to build your story map:

List chapters/scenes in the vertical cells. Separate them into three acts.

Horizontally, across the top, list all the things a sensible writer needs to consider in every scene. Here are the headings I use for each column. Adapt to suit.

  • Chapters/Scene title
  • Word Count
  • Plot summary (Briefly)
  • Editor’s notes (detail changes/things to check in next draft)
  • Setting
  • Character (list)
  • Reveals – signposts/clues/info (pacing exposition is crucial for tension)
  • Chapter/scene arc – three acts (cause/action>>> effect/emotional fallout>>>decision)
  • Conflict/tension – (should include change of polarity within scene e.g happy opening>>> tense ending.)
  • Hero’s character arc (growth/change)
  • Secondary character(s) story arc or notes
  • Meaning and symbolism

Suffice to say, it’s a lot easier to draft and edit a manuscript if all the important elements are listed and of course the map evolves as you write and rewrite.

3. Do you really know your world?

  • What does it look like?
  • What are the beliefs/values of your world?
  • What’s its history and law?
  • Who are its leaders: – religious – political – scientific – economic?
  • Does it have a different language or original/quirky phraseimages-12s or sayings?

I cannot recommend storyboards, paper or digital (pinterest), enough. We cannot feasibly visit and know all our locations, especially if they are only loosely based on reality. There is some beautiful photography and fantasy art on the Internet – endless free inspiration! You can also build mood boards for key scenes.

4. Do you really know ALL your characters?

Categorise them into:

  • Protagonists/POV characters
  • Allies
  • Antagonists – primary and secondary
  • Mentor
  • Ambiguous (good turns bad or vice-versa)
  • Subordinate/minor characters (friend or foe) that inhabit the world and make it feel real.

After I finished my story map, I listed all my characters and summarised their plot purpose. I have 21 characters, 14 have more than one scene and are important to the plot. I have two POV characters, therefore, I need to consider their understanding and reaction to all the other characters they come into contact with in the context of each scene, as well as each other. In addition, I need to map secondary characters behaviour with each other. This is why I got stuck. I simply hadn’t appreciated the number and complexity of these relationships.

Start a second excel sheet and name it ‘characters.’ List their relationship and attitude, e.g. Captain of the Guards, subordinate to King, loyal, brave, blinkered, will use blunt force, but not a brute.

Casting and interviewing your characters, finding pictures of them and including clothing and personal props, really helps to bring them alive. And it’s good fun.

Another blog post about interviewing characters will shortly follow this one.

5. Have you considered your sequel, series or prequel?

If we spend a lot of time world and character building, it’s a shame not to put all that research and effort to good use again. Drop in unresolved sub plots, interesting secondary characters or other dimensions that can be later explored. Tolkien and J.K Rowling knew how their series was going to end and the broad theme of each book, before they finished writing the first instalment. Use the different sheets in Excel to build a story arc for each book.

6. Clarity of pitch and positioning

In a covering letter, an editor will want to know what kind of book they are about to read. Clarity of purpose leads to clary of pitch, and a story map will also help you write a tight synopsis.

Best wishes and happy mapping.

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Good Picture Book Advice from Pippa Goodhart – Keep it short!

I jumped at the chance to meet Pippa Goodhart and listen to her words of wisdom at the recent SCBWI Author Masterclass on Writing Picture Books in London. My children love her book You Choose; it’s so well thumbed it’s fallen apart! You Choose is a concept book with just 220 words. The words are mostly page titles or captions around Nick Sharratt’s catalogue-style illustrations. In the Q&A session I asked Pippa how she pitched You Choose to publishers. “It wasn’t easy,” she replied. “The concept was rejected by nine publishers. If you believe in your idea you have to be persistent.” The book went on to become a bestseller.

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The number of words in picture books was a recurrent theme during the workshop. Publishers want manuscripts from zero to five hundred words; less is definitely more. Newbies like me tend to overwrite, and I admit, sometimes I only think about the pictures once I have drafted the story.
Pippa explained the story is in both the pictures and the words, and sometimes in the gaps in between such as a page turn or a change of pace. Thinking about how the child participates in the story is very important.

Pippa showed us some favourite picture books of hers, This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, Mr Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown and Handa’s Surprise by Eileen Browne. Writers, she advised, should think about a story in pictures and let the pictures do the ‘showing,’ reducing text to a minimum. There can be considerable power in no words at all. It feels rather brave as a writer to leave a page blank with just an illustration note, but many of the best writer/illustrator picture books do just that to create impact. Pippa also recommended rough sketching the twelve double page spreads to help visualize the book.

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All workshop attendees had the chance to request a short one to one with Pippa to discuss their own works in progress – or to workshop them briefly in the class. Pippa critiqued my story Ming’s Dragon. The basic idea was fine, but it needed a complete rewrite. The story was too long and the character motivation and story message weren’t crystal clear. I plan my longer novels and the short stories I write for magazines, but with picture books there’s a tendency to think, ‘It’s only four hundred words. Why do I need to plan?’ Pippa explained a picture book should have one, maybe two clear themes. Character, motivation, plot and emotion all have their place, as in any story. Concept, pictures and words must work together intuitively to resonate with young audiences. Idea evaluation and story planning is essential.

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Later in the afternoon, Pippa set a group creative writing exercise to rework an old fairytale. This was fun, writing is such a solitary occupation it’s great to bounce ideas around with other writers. SCBWIs are a creative bunch; there were some impressive narratives and near meter-perfect rhymes, all generated in under an hour.

And yes, they were all appropriately short!