I have always been a highly visual person, so much so that auditory learning is actually a weakness of mine. Along with my extreme visual tendencies, I also have the inclination to be a bit disorganized and anything but a concrete-sequential thinker. I struggled with the usual methods of brainstorming—like character worksheets and scene-plotting charts—that work well for many writers.
As a homeschooling mom I am always searching out new systems to help my children gather and retain information. Little did I know that in doing so I would stumble across a wonderful way to plot, build characterization, and layer my scenes with more natural visceral and sensory details.
You may have heard the term mind-mapping before. It is a very visual method of taking notes, organizing information, and making connections between ideas and is used in many educational and professional settings. It’s basically a chart of words and phrases built off of one main subject that becomes a large web of interconnected ideas. Makes perfect sense, right? No? Ok, well here is a picture of a mind map that a student might use when studying Leonardo Da Vinci:
As you can see, the main idea here is Leo himself and then secondary and tertiary ideas are branched off of the center. Related ideas are grouped together, each branching off the other to create a beautiful web that contains a large quantity of information on one page. It is extremely handy system for retaining information in a visual form.
As I examined this note-taking technique I realized that it might be a fantastic way to develop characters for my books. I began by writing the name of my character in the center bubble and then I drew lines for physical appearance, wounds, strengths, backstory, quirks, relationships, motivations, and anything else I needed to brainstorm. Then I let my imagination fly by jotting down words or short phrases as they came to me.
As you can see the map above has pretty pictures, which are fun, but mine are usually just words—unless I get stuck and end up with the odd scribbly-doodle on the edges—but that’s ok because my mind maps are just for me! I can write, draw, and scribble whatever I want! I do however like to use colorful pens as I brainstorm, since this satisfies my visual-hungry, pretty-color-stimulated brain.
I resolved to write down anything that sprang to mind, without editing. Within a few minutes of doing so, I was amazed at how many new insights popped into my head. It was as if taking away the act of writing characterization down in a sequential form allowed my imagination to blossom. Soon I had to scrap my 8.5 x 11 piece of paper for a legal size sheet because my web was flowing off the paper! Here is an example of a chart for Shira, the heroine of Shadow of the Storm (spoiler blurred in case you haven’t read it yet!):
Once I began using this technique for building characters, I realized it would also be great for developing scenes as well. So I labeled the center bubble with the name of my scene and allowed my mind to wander. I jotted down plot points, symbolism, sensory details, historical research, threads that needed to be addressed, characters involved, hooks into the next scene, scraps of dialogue, subplots, related backstory and anything else that flowed from those ideas. The result was a visual way of brainstorming my scenes that turned off my “inner-editor” and allowed me the freedom to explore rabbit trails that I might not have, if I’d simply written the scene from start to finish. Here is an example of a web for the opening scene from Shadow of the Storm (not the real one of course, since no one else can decipher my mid-brainstorm mess):
I even began to use this technique after I had written a scene. I would read my drafted scene and then close my eyes and envision the “movie”—digging into the setting in more depth and exploring the sensory details in my mind’s eye. Then I would add to my web as I discovered the scene all over again from another perspective. This deepened the layers in each scene and gave me a freeform way to collect any details I’d overlooked in my first draft.
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I was so excited as I developed my own patterns and applications for this technique that I wondered if anyone else had used mind-mapping for writing. I found a few scattered articles on using mind maps for creating stories—although not as many as I’d anticipated—but then somehow I happened upon a book called Writing the Natural Way, which was written way back in 1985 or so by a woman named Dr. Gabriele Rico, who has since passed away. When I dug into my out-of-print and worn copy, I was astounded to discover that there was actual brain science research that backs up why this is such a wonderful technique for writers. Mind-mapping engages both hemispheres of the brain in a unique way and the act of hand-writing the information increases those benefits even more. Although the book was a little clinical in some ways and I wasn’t a fan of the many exercises, it certainly backed up my conviction that mind mapping was an excellent tool for writers!
The great thing about mind mapping is that you can adapt it to fit your own needs and preferences. I prefer the sensory act of scrawling my notes on a physical piece of paper but if you don’t enjoy handwriting your mind maps there are a few software programs out there, some of which are even free. The makers of Scrivener designed one called Scapple, which is worth trying out if you are so inclined (there is even a free 30 day trial).
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There are limitless uses for this technique. You can use it to plot an entire book and brainstorm new scenes, to collect research, or to help discover new themes and make new connections that you might miss when drafting solely in a sequential manner. It lends itself well to incorporating other brainstorming techniques as well, all it would take is a little tweaking to fine-tune the structure and elements that work best for you.
Although I discovered this technique half-way through writing the second book in the Out from Egypt Series, Shadow of the Storm, and only used it for a few scenes, nearly all of my third book, Wings of the Wind (releasing May 2017) was plotted, developed, and layered through mind mapping. I now have a legal size file folder for each book full of mind maps for all my characters and scenes that I can refer back to or build upon later and have lately even been adding photos of them into Scrivener documents so they are always at my fingertips. I have had some major epiphanies while playing with my maps that I am convinced might not have appeared any other way.
Mapping also works great as a quick way to push through a blockage, whenever I feel stuck in a scene I pull out a sheet of paper or a notebook and map away to get my creative juices flowing—nine and a half times out of ten it works like a charm.
So tell me, have you ever used mind-mapping to help develop your stories or characters? Does this sound like a technique that might spark your imagination? What is your own favorite brainstorming technique? One random commenter will win a copy of my latest book, Shadow of the Storm!
Connilyn Cossette is the author of the Out from Egypt Series with Bethany House Publishers. When she is not homeschooling her two sweet kiddos (with a full pot of coffee at hand), Connilyn is scribbling notes on scraps of paper, mumbling about her imaginary friends, and reading obscure out-of-print history books. Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, she now lives in Texas where she loves the people but misses mountains, tall trees and barefoot-soft green grass. There is not much she likes better than digging into the rich, ancient world of the Bible, discovering new gems of grace that point to Jesus, and weaving them into fiction.
Connect with her at www.ConnilynCossette.com
Connect with her at www.ConnilynCossette.com