Writing Techniques: The Mind Map

Mind Mapping is a way to visualize potential elements for your story. Mind maps, along with research, are my main form of pre-writing (the prep work about your story). As a pantser*, I like to let my stories grow on their own. But even a pantser needs to have ideas about who will be in the story and what elements should pop up.

Mind Mapping is a brain storming technique used in business and writing. For this piece we’re looking it’s use for the writer.

Michael’s reason that writers should consider mind maps:

  1. Ensure consistency
    1. Pantsers in particular can use mind maps to keep on a track
  2. To spark more interesting scenes
    1. Have you ever hit a scene and gone, “but what happens here?”. Consult the mind map. There has to be something good there that you can incorporate to spark life in the scene.
  3. To play out scenarios
    1. You can lines of interaction. If A kills B, what does it mean.
  4. To see ideas in a different fashion.
    1. I live in data (the number type, not the Lt. Commander). One thing we learn is that different people take in information in different ways. There are fascinating studies (that I’m too lazy to link to) that talk about how different people need information present in different methods.  The mind map shows interactions in a different way that writing out lists.
  5. Heavy outliners can use the mind map as their creative phase, then turn it into their outline.
    1. I have mad respect for people who can stay creative while doing an outline. The mind-mapping technique lets them have a pure creative experience, and then still do the outline that their logic side demands.

How to Create a Mind Map

Note: This is a technique. It’s only one method: Feel free to experiment to find what works for you.

Step 1: Fire up your mind mapping tool of choice.

I’m using mind node pro on a mac. There are many options, see resources below.

Step 2: Think of something you want to appear in the story.

I’m going to go with Angels.  So I create a main node (think circle for whiteboard users) and put the word Angel in it. (I’m going to call any bubble that stands by itself as a main node, and any that are dependent on another node are going to be called child nodes)

Step 3: Brainstorm about your main node and add descriptive nodes.

Add characteristics, thoughts, or ways to use it. The key here is to record it. Do not edit this (yet). Just get the thoughts down. Don’t worry if it looks stupid, the silly thoughts often help you picture other things better.

So, since I have angels I brainstorm thoughts about angels.  Note: You do not have to use whatever you write here. This is about brainstorming. You can kill things later, or just ignore them.

In this exercise I came up with 12 phrases that could be associated with angels: Good, Divine, Mythical, Fallen, Beautiful, Halos, Bored, Simko’s, Guardian, Spoiled, Naked, and Horns.

Some of these phrases may seem opposites: Divine and Mythical. To the devout, angels are beings of hope. To atheists, angels are mythology. The naked part may offend — that’s okay at this point. This is brain-storming, all ideas are valid at this point.

Starting the mind map
Initial Main Node

Step 4: Further expand the child nodes.

Explain anything that may be confusing later. Add depth to the description. Go ahead and explore different ways to take the same concept.

In my example, I have horns. This could confuse me later to think I meant devil horns when I was envisioning the musical type of horn. So I expand that mention it’s trumpets, it’s musical, and it may also be for herald purposes.

The completed main node
Completed Main Node

Step 5: Add more main nodes

In a story, I add new main nodes for characters, then repeat steps 3 and 4 for each new main node.

I often start with three nodes: Protagonist, Antagonist, and Relationship Character**.

To continue the example Step 5, then 3, 4 for Protagonist:

I’ll give him names: an angel name and a human name. I’ll give him an age, and appearance. Now that I know what he is, I’ll add details about his goals.

Then I’ll do the same for the Antagonist (person who opposes or blocks protagonist’s goals) and the relationship character.

Step 6: Add theme, setting, and other main nodes

A few examples for this story: Rumspringa (where the Amish go to live as non-Amish), a potential weakness/plot about sugar, and a node for cool things to add.

Completed Mindmap
Completed Mindmap

Mind Map Resources:

Mind Node Pro:  This is the tool I use the most. I also have Mind Node for my iPad for on-the-go mapping. For Mac/iOS

Coggle: This is a free web app. I haven’t used it much, but did I mention free?

Scapple: By the makers of Scrivener. I love Scrivener, and if I already didn’t have a tool I use this would likely have been where I started.  Scapple is more brain-storming tool than mind mapping, but that may work for some people.

Powerpoint: It can do rudimentary mind mapping, but it’s a ton of manual process. If it’s all you have then try the technique go for it — but you’d be better off with other choices.

Whiteboards: I’ve written lots of code on whiteboards and applied the same techniques to my writing. Put up everything that comes to mind on the project, and then work it in.

Paper: It’s less useful for adjusting, but with enough scissors and tape then go for it.

There are other mind mapping systems meant for business collaboration, but their cost is beyond a simple writer’s tool.


*Also called a discovery writer. For details see Jennifer Ray’s post http://writingwenches.com/to-pants-or-to-plot-that-is-the-question-or-is-it/

** See “The Hollywood Formula” for descriptions of these terms.

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