February 3, 2010

Subject: Plot Maps

Over on StorySleuths today, I wrote about the four plot lines in Marcelo in the Real World, our February book. To prepare for the posting, I made a map of all the scenes in the book using 3x5 cards. On each card, I wrote the chapter, setting, page numbers, scene number and a brief summary of the key action.
Once I had all of the scenes listed, I laid them out on my kitchen table and looked for patterns, logical groupings (scene sequences in film-speak), plot lines and structure.

This photo (sorry for the lack of detail) shows the entire novel, all 53 scenes. The two columns on the left represent the beginning and the column of six cards on the right represent the climax and resolution.

Why do I do this? Having a visual representation of a story’s plot helps me understand how the author composed the book on an abstract level. For instance, when I read Marcelo in the Real World, the pacing at the beginning seemed slow. It took a while for the story to really get going. The cards show why I felt that way: Stork uses the first quarter of the book (those two left-most columns) to set up Marcelo’s current world and his first day at work in the mail room.

Another interesting discovery I made was that Stork introduced the fourth plot line (the mystery about the girl in the photograph) exactly halfway through the book. That plot line carries the book forward and significantly impacts Marcelo’s attempt to do well at work. This is a good example of introducing a plot line to beef up the middle of the work.

Besides looking at how the scenes worked together, I also marked plot lines or layers, to use a Donald Maass term, in different colors. The card shown above is what Maass would call a “node of conjunction,” where several plot layers intersect (see my posting at StorySleuths for more detail on nodes of conjunction).

Marcelo in the Real World is not the first book I’ve mapped in this way. I made several maps when working on critical essays for the Hamline MFA program. A map for The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt revealed how Schmidt wove together a variety of plot layers and subplots in a narrative that spanned an entire school year.

I made another plot map for That Girl Lucy Moon by Amy Timberlake. For that book, I looked at plot layers and nodes of conjunction, just as I did with Marcelo. Chapters in Timberlake's book featured multiple scenes related to different plot layers, all of which I tracked on several pieces of paper taped together.

Again, I used color to track plot layers. This image shows how many chapters incorporated several different plot layers at once.

I put teal squares around the nodes of conjunction, and I also looked for specific places such as the mid-point and turning points. In addition to looking at plot layers, I marked Lucy’s emotional feelings in red.

So how does this help me as a writer? I should note that I don’t make maps like this when I am drafting my story. I don’t always have a clear idea where I’m going, so a detailed map would be impossible for me to draw. It would be useful after a decent draft to identify holes or imbalances in story threads.

And I don’t make a map of every book I read, of course. It takes a few hours to complete. However, making a map is worthwhile when I want to understand how a particular book works. That Girl Lucy Moon teaches me to keep plot layers moving throughout the book and to refer to my character’s emotional state frequently. Marcelo in the Real World shows one way to build up a sagging middle through a new plot line.

Do any of you writers out there map favorite books or dig into their structure? I’m curious to know about other ways to develop a bird’s-eye-view of either a published work or work-in-progress.


  1. Hi Heather. You and I must share the same Zodiac sign. Or maybe it's just the "J" in our typical writer's INFJ personality type. I occasionally make up charts like this to study various elements of craft (or my own work). For instance, I studied the art of backstory, time looping, and plot weaving by dissecting HOLES. I use the columns feature (or is it tables?) in Word to divide chapters and/or scenes. You can even shade entire blocks and color/highlight text.

    Thank you for this informative post!

  2. Hi Danette! Thanks for stopping by! I love the idea of looking at how back story works as well.
    Hope your writing is going well--can't wait to hear about the creative thesis.