Planning and Mind-mapping for NaNoWriMo 2017

A woman is having a Skype call with her brother. In the background can be seen the living room and the door to the hall. Off-screen, the kids make a commotion, and the woman has to go and check on them. The brother is left looking at an empty living room. Then, in the background, a shadowy figure moves from the hall to the living room, then off-screen.

A mother hears her young son talking up the hallway. When he comes into the living room, the mother asks who he was talking to. “Just the man up the hall,” the boy says with a smile. She knows it’s just his imagination, but is still unnerved by the situation, and feels compelled to check.

An obnoxious, over the top celebrity superstar falls from fame when a prank he orchestrates causes the suicide of the target while millions watch. Disgraced and shunned, he has to rebuild his life. But maybe something from his past mistake is haunting him, and won’t stop until it has revenge …

And there you have it: my book for NaNoWriMo 2017, Haunted. Those three ideas bounced around in my head; years apart, but all inspired by real events or real people. When I decided I wanted to do a quick, stand-alone story for this years NaNoWriMo challenge, those ideas are what came to mind.

The idea is just the beginning.

Anyone can come up with an idea for a story. Usually something along the lines of “imagine if this was really like this!”

Imagine a horror story, but the typical jock character turns out to be a vampire!

What if there was a show like Game of Thrones, but it was set in space!

How about this for a story: everyone wakes up one morning to discover all the trees are gone!

But as you soon learn if you ever feel inclined to sit down and write a story from your idea, there’s a big difference between an idea and a story.

A story is characters and plot, all working interacting with each other and changing each other. Well, a good story is, anyway.

Your characters should affect the plot, which in turn changes the characters somehow. That’s it. If your characters aren’t making any decisions and changing anything, they’re just passengers to your story, and it’s probably a boring plot. If your characters remain utterly unchanged from beginning to end, they’re probably boring characters.

Plenty of authors can take a few ideas like the three I opened this article with, make up some characters and just sit down and write. After a while, they’ll emerge with a perfect story. Often referred to as “pantsers” because they just fly by the seat of their pants, these authors don’t require planned plot points to make an enjoyable story.

I’m not one of those authors. I’ve tried it before and let me tell you, it’s a mess. A hot mess. Lots of people standing around having boring conversations and not doing anything. I can’t do it, so I follow the path of the “plotter,” someone who plans out their story beforehand.

For NaNoWriMo, I wanted to try Mind Mapping.

The plot point about the social media celebrity falling from grace was something I’d had for a while. I’d even gone so far as to plot out a quarter of a story in a spreadsheet. It never got any further than that, though. This time around I wanted to try out Mind Mapping, mainly because it looks pretty and I find spreadsheet really really boring.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking out, check out what mind mapping is by clicking here.

Usually, I would sit down at a blank screen and just type out my story and character ideas until I was empty, then plonk all the plot points into a spreadsheet and flesh it out from there. Because I wanted to embrace the whole mind mapping experience* I started with a blank mind map and just started throwing words onto it.

I want to give you pictures to demonstrate what I’m talking about, but I didn’t save any “work in progress” versions of my mind-map. So I’m going to pretend that I’m plotting out a whole new novel, the same way I did for Haunted. For fun, I’ll take those three random examples I came up with a little earlier:

  • a horror story with vampire jock
  • game of thrones in space
  • all the trees are gone

So with these in mind, I just start throwing words out.

I’m using MindNode on a Mac. I’ve tried other mind mapping apps. I like this one the best.

So after a few minutes just plonking things down, this is what it looks like. Now if I were planning a whole novel then I’d do this for longer and have more things, but this will do for this example.

Next. I’ll start connecting things to each other, like this

I’ve added Setting and Story Ideas there, and usually, a few other thoughts will come in as I’m moving these around. Next step is to plonk the working title in the middle. Then, all the planning stuff goes on one side (left side for me; there is no significance to this, you could put it wherever) and all the plot goes on the other.

Now things are starting to get fleshed out, and it will all change as time goes on. The beauty of any decent mind mapping software is it’s easy to grab and drag things around, adjusting where things sit and what associations they have. You can even make little arrows pointing all over the place if you want to, like this.

So on one side is all the planning stuff; this will see a lot of adjustments as characters change throughout the planning and writing of the draft. “Story Ideas” is where I’ll dump anything that springs to mind, and then I’ll just drag it out and drop it where it’s needed when I’ve fleshed it out a little.

The other side is the plot. The structure I use is quite specific, but isn’t essential:

  1. Acts. I tend to split stories into 3 acts, which I find helpful for pacing and length. Some people ignore the act structure or use a different number. Whatever.
  2. Broad story beats. These are the general plot points that are happening in this section of the story: Mike goes to work. Mike discovers the body of the boss in the office. Cops arrive and arrest Mike. The shadowy figure turns up and offers to help Mike get out of this situation … for a price. That sort of thing.
  3. The next branch is specific scenes. What is happening; what you would physically see “on screen” if this scene was in a movie.
  4. The last branch is what’s happening either in a character’s mind, refers to things behind the scenes, or maybe points out where this links to a past or future scene. This branch is usually used to inform me what’s happening outside of the reader’s knowledge (“this was left by the killer” or “she is actually lying when she says that, but Frank doesn’t realize”).

There’s no real order to any of this. Sometimes it’s an organic flow, where I’ll come up with a beat and then write all the scenes off that. Other times I have a specific scene in my head and need to work out where it goes. With the mind map, it was easy to insert things, move them around, take them out and re-order everything when needed. So much better than using a spreadsheet.

Then, when I’m drafting in Ulysses, the mind map will set there in my split-screen view, like this.

The great thing about that is it’s easy to glance at while I’m typing. So long as I keep each branch to short sentences, I can quickly look over at it if I forget what’s meant to happen next.

So there you go – that’s how I use mind mapping. Here’s the full mind-map for Haunted. It’s just to give you an idea of the structure involved – don’t bother trying to zoom in enough to read the words. I haven’t tidied it up for public consumption yet – I tend to use movie stars as character descriptions or refer to scenes in movies or shows to describe a vibe or a tone I’m going for. These are personal and not intended for anyone but me. When I’ve finished the draft, I’ll tidy up the map and release it for anyone to read.

It wouldn’t zoom out far enough to fit on the screen, but you get the idea. Any decent mind mapping software will let you expand and collapse point (called nodes), so I usually have everything closed except the scene I’m working on at the time.

But why do all this planning?

A final thought on planning – doesn’t it ruin the creativity? Doesn’t it stifle the story? The short answer is “no.” Not for me, anyway.

A lot has been written by far more competent authors than me about planning and plotting novels. All the advice I’ve read always insists you pay attention to your characters and change your plot as necessary.

It’s hard to understand if you’ve never written something before, but characters will change as you write them. For example, in my plot for Haunted, there was a girl – the stepdaughter of the protagonist. When I was beginning to plan out the story, I saw her as a 12-year-old girl, long hair, smart. Enjoys school. Athletic. Gets on well with the protagonist, even though he’s not her birth father.

As I neared the end of planning the plot, I realised I had some things in there – ways I needed her to behave and things I needed her to say – that just wouldn’t sound right coming from a 12-year-old. This became apparent when I started drafting, and straight away I dropped her down to 5 years old. Now all the plot points and planned dialogue made sense, and everything was swell.

Well, the 12-year-old wasn’t having a bar of it. A few scenes into Act 1 and my protagonist is suddenly talking about his older stepdaughter. The 5-year-old was already there in the scene with the protagonist and his girlfriend (the girl’s mother), but they were waiting on the older one to come home from school. He now had two stepdaughters, and that was that.

I could have just hit backspace until she went away, but it seemed right her being there. So I just changed the plot. The basic structure of what happens stays the same, and it doesn’t really change the ending. It only changes what happens, and how the protagonist grows.

Similarly, let’s say your plot says your character needs to go from A to B to C. Then halfway through the draft of act 2, you realise that her leaving B just doesn’t make sense. So you update your plan. Maybe now she sets up shop in B and learns to live there for the rest of her life. No big deal.

So why bother having a plan in the first place? When you know where the story is roughly going, you’re less likely to get stuck. And if you need to change things, you’re changing them for a reason, not because it’s the first thing you could think of. Not to mention a plot can be as intricate or as broad as you like. And I find it invaluable to have a broad, “zoomed out” view of your story when it comes time to review it.

Plot structure evolves the more you get to know your characters, and I find mind mapping to be a great way to organise that structure. Got a better way? Like my way? Let me know on Twitter, Facebook or email!

* I know that proper mind mapping is meant to be done by hand, with only one word per branch. I don’t care.