Story Mapping: How I do It

Today, I want to talk about practical magic — how to make a story come alive.  When I first started out writing, I was the queen of the thirty page dead novel – I’d start writing, and then the story would lose its spark and die on me.  After one too many of these, I read up on story structure, but though my drafts got longer, they stayed incoherent.

Happily, once I learned the trick of what I describe in this post, I started completing what I wrote, and selling it soon after.  And I want to save you the time it took me to learn what I describe here.  Of course, process is different for every writer and every book.  I still will write a short story without any outline at all, and have gotten results that way.  But for novel-length work, this is the default process I use, and it has given me something to lean on when I get confused and lost in the fog  🙂

My process is a weird hybrid of the “plotter” and “pantser” methods of writing a book.  Depending on the book itself, I may improvise more or plan more in advance – whatever the book itself needs from me to come out.  But I have a bunch of different tricks that I use to get to “the end.”

First, let me give you some internet resources:

1.  Jim Butcher’s LiveJournal page:  Jim lays out, in commonsense and no-nonsense fashion, one of the best, most concise distillations of story structure ideas I have ever seen.  His essays on characterization, story arc, and story climaxes brought together a lot of ideas I have encountered in a lot of different places:


Just keep reading and scrolling down back through his story craft series of posts – awesome.

2.  Randy Ingermanson, the Snowflake Guy:  This is the material I found first, and after I started applying his concepts of story-as-fractyl I started selling in short order:


 He has a computer program that helps you to apply the snowflake method to your own projects, but I’ve used the concept w/o the program too.

3. Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet:  The screenwriter Blake Snyder (who, sadly, passed away last year) wrote the fantastic book SAVE THE CAT, a practical and down-to-earth primer on how to construct effective commercial stories.  Though his work focuses on the screenplay form, his ideas translate easily to novels.  I read SAVE THE CAT before I found this tidbit on line, so I’m not sure if it will be of use to you without the foundation of the book as a whole.  But his “beat sheet” is a basic outline of the stations a story will hit on the journey from beginning to end:


There’s a list of tools on this page, including deconstruction of movies using the beat sheet. 

 4.  Holly Lisle:  One Pass Revision

I was very, very lucky to find Holly’s site when I was first starting out.  Tons of articles about writing, the life of writers, and the practical nuts and bolts of writing.  This article is very helpful in the revision stage, but I take the section “Discovery” and do it before I start writing:


How do I use the above resources when working on story structure myself?  Here is my process:

 1.  Idea germination:  I keep a little moleskin journal filled with ideas.  When I read a great poem, have a disturbing dream, get a little snippet of an idea, I write it down in the idea book.  There it may stay for years.

2.  When I decide to take the idea and run with it (or an idea grabs me by the throat and insists I write it *now*), I usually start with settings.  I love big settings, I was a history major in school.  It’s where my ideas start growing into a full-fledged story.  In my mind, the outline/synopsis is my roadmap through the country of the story.

 3.  I do the Snowflake process first, but in a very loose and organic way.  I take maybe a week to expand the story idea from a single, tight sentence to three sentences, a paragraph, four paragraphs, a page plus character interviews.  I also sometimes write up a one page blurb of about 250 words as Holly Lisle suggests in her article.

 4.  At this point, I write a very rough synopsis, often in bullet form.  I use the beat sheet list of 15 story points to work up a storyline that takes me from the beginning to the end.

 5.  Once I have that, I write the first 50 pages.  The synopsis is still very rough, so the writing can be “pantsy” and exploratory.  Sometimes the story will veer off in unexpected directions.  I pay a lot of attention to setting, the main character’s motivation, and the initial set up of the catalyst that sets the story into motion.

 6.  Then I write a synopsis in full sentences, usually ending up with a document between 8-10 pages.  I tweak it and the first fifty pages, and then I send it on to my agent to get feedback. 

 7.  As I write the complete manuscript I sometimes read Jim’s livejournal for inspiration and to help me fill in the gaps in the story that I inevitably discover.

 As I mentioned above, no two books are alike, and no two writers are alike.  See if the tools above help, and if they do, adapt them to your own style of writing and make them your own.  Wishing you all the best as you explore the country of your story!

20 Responses to “Story Mapping: How I do It”

  1. January 25, 2010 at 7:21 am

    Since you mentioned short stories, it reminded me to tell you that I rather enjoyed “The Walled Garden” in the time travel romance anthology 🙂 I did get a bit confused plot-wise, but I really connected with Mireya; thought she’s a great character 🙂

  2. 2 michelelang
    January 25, 2010 at 8:39 am

    Thanks Tez! I’m glad you liked it — Mireya is so brave, one of my favorite protags ever. I hope to write more of her adventures at some point.

    Thanks for stopping by…


  3. January 25, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Some good links there.

    I’ve always found Butcher useful for explaining some writing concepts, although I wonder if he might not stick too rigidly to them.

    The Snowflake idea is very good for pre-writing people. I know many people who have claimed to have success with it.

    Lisle– her stuff is usually hit or miss. Sometimes I think she simplifies too much, but she can give a beginning writer a verygood start.

  4. January 26, 2010 at 7:18 am

    Dear Atsiko:

    You make a terrific point about all this stuff. All of it — the articles, the outlines, and even your own synopsis — is only the map, a starting point. The story is the terrain itself, and all of this is only a way to discover the country of your story. You know you’re getting somewhere when your outline, and all these articles, start looking overly simplistic and rudimentary. That’s because your story is richer than a short outline or description could ever capture.

    Thanks for your comment, Atsiko! I should have mentioned this in the main post.


  5. February 16, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    Ha, well, I’m glad I had something useful to say.

    Some writers I hav met stick to these beginner exercises very strictly, and I think that can doa much harm as good. Once you’ve really learned your process, you should be able to make your own way.

  6. February 22, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    Yes, you’re right — and also, each project is different. Depending on the project’s demands, I might take a very different approach. These tools, like the different implements you use on an archaeological dig, are there to help you with the particular job at hand. It’s crucial to remember they are just the tools, not the actual artifact you’re digging for.

    Thanks again, Atsiko…


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