Mapping the Narrative Lines of Your Story

I’ll confess that this post is driven as much by defensiveness as it is a desire to educate. My recent review of the book Creative You and my interview with co-author David B. Goldstein has reminded me of something I’ve long known from interviews with artists; every creative has his or her own process. That said, the process of many artists eschews advance planning, and more than once I’ve had someone tell me that my inclination to map out my creative projects means I’m closing myself off to creative possibility.

Oh yeah? Well, go lump it.

Artist's Road narrative lines first four chaptersWhile at my final MFA in Writing residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, I shared with two individuals–a VCFA instructor and a graduate assistant–how I have used my wallpaper whiteboard  to map out each chapter of my memoir-in-progress, specifically the four narrative lines that run through the book. The first photo you see here is a close-up of the first four chapters of the book. Each line–red, blue, green and black–represents one of the “stories” being told in the memoir. The second photo below shows all forty-seven chapters.

Asking a reader to follow four ongoing stories–even when they are intertwined and all center on a single narrator–is asking a lot. I want to ensure that none of the lines fall away for too long, and thus no longer being fresh in the reader’s mind when I return to them. I also want to ensure that they move in harmony with each other, since they are interrelated.

Not shown here is my first narrative map. I have a complete draft of the memoir, which I wrote over two years and four instructors while in the VCFA program. The focus and structure of the book evolved significantly over that two-year period. Before making this narrative map I first read through the book and made a different one, showing how the narrative lines appeared in that draft of the book. That map looked nothing like what you see here. Certain lines disappeared for chapters at a time. Others spiked then dropped then spiked then dropped. My instructors had helped me hone each chapter down to a tight, well-paced read, but they didn’t work together as a whole.

Artist's Road narrative lines map - full book

The lines you see here are what I believe they should look like. I have now revised eleven chapters, the first two of six sections of the book. Each morning I sit down with a photograph of that chapter’s narrative map and eye it in relationship to the chapters surrounding it. (I’m working off of photos because I needed my whiteboard back for other creative projects.) When I perform my rewrite with my favorite fountain pen, I know what narrative lines I need to advance, but my creative brain then finds the right way to do it with the right words. The rewrite itself is not on my map.

Both my instructor and the graduate assistant seemed genuinely impressed with my process, with the latter asking me to send her all of my photos so she could study them more closely. She now plans to do something similar with her work-in-progress, as soon as she can track down some whiteboard wallpaper. (I told her she could order it through several school-supply or office-supply web sites.)

So yes, I’m a bit defensive about my need to plan my creativity. We’ve had this debate here before, that of planning vs. seat-of-the-pants. But what Creative You explains, and what we all should know intuitively, is that it isn’t really a black-and-white choice. Anyone who begins a creative process blind is in fact going in with some thoughts and intentions, even if they’re subconscious, while anyone engaging creatively by following a road map is going to recognize when a spark indicates the need for a detour.

To what extent does your creative process involve planning vs. spontaneity?

32 thoughts on “Mapping the Narrative Lines of Your Story

  1. Patrick, I think you’ve answered your own question with the comparison between the rhythm of the story lines 2 years ago vs. now. Before, they were sometimes broken and lost. Now they’re in harmony. I don’t think it’s coincidence that the visual of your outline looks like a sheet of music…

    As for those who say you’re wrong or you can’t… sigh. Breaking the rules works far better when you know what they are, even if they’re your own rules!


    1. Ooh, I love the sheet music comparison. I spent many years as a musician, and what I loved about music is how it is both art and science; I embraced the notion of frequencies and time signatures and half-steps. You’ve made me see these lines in a new light!


  2. jnelson30second

    I like the idea of a whiteboard to lay out a plan. I should really try to do that since I’m now in the middle of a book that has several subplots going through it. Thanks for sharing with us your way of mapping out your story.


  3. Funny that you should ask this question… I was just discussing this with my mom who happens to be a Ph.D. and we were chatting about the creative process.
    She, like you, plans everything out to a “T” and has those legal notepads all covered in writing and arrows and, later, her “red pen” (edit) notes. I should know; I typed up her dissertation while she worked back when I was in college working on my Master’s degree.

    How do I write? Well, I’m not sure of the precise quote but it’s some sort of creative process whereby I am going along and living my life. Then, something strikes me. It’s never the same: it could be the sight of a mother scolding a child in a store that irks me, it could be the smell of fresh-baked bread at the bakery as I reach my car, or it could be a slight tear at the corner of my eye from an old song on the radio. You never know.
    But, it hits. And, it hits me out of nowhere, usually. Then, I go (usually run!) to my computer, or laptop, iPhone, notepad, whatever…and I do what that famous quote says: I open a vein and write.

    There is most likely not an edit. (You’re laughing? I know.). There is not a lot of “red penning” or legal pads or charts on whiteboards… I wish there were because sometimes, like in the shower, a story comes over me like a long-awaited volcano and it bursts with hot lava flowing down its sides, flowing, flowing, and — I lose it! The characters, the emotion, the smells, the dialogue… All so engaging, so brilliant. I almost wish that I had your whiteboard in my shower (waterproof, of course).

    So, it is my blessing and it is my curse, this creative process of which you speak. Some people have to think and plan and coordinate while others nearly regurgitate a flowing near-dream coming from somewhere inside of them but they, oftentimes, don’t get it down in time and lose the best part of them because most times, unfortunately, it doesn’t come back.


    1. It’s fantastic that you have a sense of your process and that it works for you. I will say that the instructor I shared that with has talked–and written–about how his writing experience is like yours, in that he sees something the rest of us overlook and then he’s off. Eventually a beautiful essay emerges. I suspect, however, that he spends a fair amount of time rewriting, which is why I think he found what I do with white boards intriguing. It wouldn’t change how his essays begin, but it might play a role in his revision process. How amazing that you can produce a polished work through the original iterative process. That is of course quite common for songwriters.


      1. Hello, again. I appreciate your comments back and do find your process intriguing. Maybe I should try it your way…as my kids think that my ever-rushing to a journal, clipboard or laptop is quite amusing, to say the least.
        I just have this raging fear of the blank page and it irks me so, and then something comes almost bursting out of me, impossible at times to get down quick enough. But, I shall try your way and work on my new screenplay by cleaning out my front “toy and coat” closet to find my big whiteboard and easel. Then, I will borrow my daughter’s new Dry-Erase pens and eraser and attempt to work my magic with a more, precise and well-thought out plan. It may help me with my problem of intertwining the mini events and thoughts, comments, dialogue of a family that becomes a victim of a home invasion – very heavy stuff!

        Wish me luck!! And, thank you for sharing, for your comments, and for a brilliant idea for the creative process for all. Keep up the good work and your great writing.


        1. If you can introduce me to a writer who doesn’t fear the blank page, I’ll swear off bacon for good. (A few readers of this blog will know how monumentally horrifying that prospect is to me.) Let me emphasize that while this system is what works for me, I think it’s best in revision. I often go into a first draft without any real road map.

          Good luck!


  4. Yes, of course, it’s a mix of the two — planning and following a hunch; forcing and allowing; yin & yang, etc. As for my current project, after months of deliberation I decided on a plan, a format, a road to follow — I would head up the Congo in my imagination — and now that I’m on the river, and even though I know my destination, I haven’t a clue what’s around the next bend. What fun!


  5. The most planning I ever do in advance is a brief verbal outline of the main points – but that works for me because I can see what I want to say, and having all of them in front of me at once keeps me focused on the overall theme/message. But that works for the kind of writing I do. I think the whiteboard diagram is a brilliant idea for longer, more interconnected works. And because it’s on an erasable whiteboard, I don’t see how it would “close” you off – you can just erase and redraw as needed. Thanks for sharing the idea!


    1. Thanks, Fiona. The key is you have a system that works. Yes, the erasability (is that a word?) of the white board is great, although I need a spray cleaner to get it nice and clean.

      I also used this board with an essay I wrote recently. I started by writing free-flow over two days with no organization for twenty pages without even really knowing what I was writing. I then looked at what I had written and put it into “sections” represented by boxes on the white board (labeled A through T); drew lines connecting the sections in a more logical order while dropping sections that no longer made sense; and then rewrote the essay according to that flow chart. That was workshopped at my last residency, and everyone commented on how well the essay flowed and referred back on itself. I owe that to the white board.


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  7. Yvette Carol

    Patrick, your photos remind me of the idea of ‘Mind Maps’ where you use rolls of paper and coloured pens to draw your ideas before you start. I’ve never tried these sorts of tools – preferring the alchemy of writing as it’s given to me – however, now that the idea of mind maps has been given to me, I do intend to use a map before I start my next project, and experiment. I want to see if it adds exponentially to the process or not, because how will I know unless I try?


    1. Yes, I know a few people who do mind-mapping, and saw it demonstrated at a creativity conference about two years ago. It likely is something I should explore further, given my interest both in creativity and in maps. If you do experiment with it, I’d love to hear how it went.


  8. Patrick: When I saw your whiteboard, I had an aha moment! With your structure all of a sudden the thought of writing a novel seemed possible.

    My process for watercolor was once referred to as “controlled spontaneity.” I plan 85 percent before starting by mapping out a composition, choosing colors, setting the location of a focal point, predetermining the patterns of darks and lights – and after all this is done, I use it all as a “rough” guide.

    Watercolor, like writing can be a free flowing medium and the advanced planning gives me the confidence and freedom to go with the flow – and also the planning gives me the vision to feel my way through the foggy parts.


    1. Fantastic you had that aha moment! I’ll confess you’re even more of a planner than me! I would say my first draft is about a 50 percent plan. What I’ve shown here is my road map for the revision process. But you remind me of when I was fortunate enough to see Picasso’s Guernica. Before I reached the room where the massive mural was displayed, I went down this long hallway. It showed the multiple pencil iterations Picasso did for each element of the mural. You see a perfectly normal looking horse, for example. The next one is slightly abstracted, then more so, and so on until you get to the fully cubist horse. He did this with all of the elements, then began sketching how the components would combine in the actual mural. I don’t have your book in front of me right now so I don’t remember if Picasso was one of the folks you analyzed, but what I learned was he absolutely did not just stare at a wall and start painting.


  9. I’m with you, I have to plan a bit or risk losing control of the material. On the other hand, if I plan too much, I lose the voice, so I’ve learned to take a middle approach. I take notes–tons and tons of notes. I love your whiteboard system, though, so I might well borrow it.


    1. Hi Charlotte! Apologies for the delay in responding, I’ve been traveling. I love that you take notes. Do you use index cards? I still do sometimes to organize thoughts, like we were taught in school. My teenage children have no concept of note cards, however. Such a shame.


  10. It depends on the medium and purpose of the creative work.

    If it is for my job and I do consider even business wriing, an element of creativity, I do have some vague outline of a report in my head. Big chunks. I have part of my “thesis” in mind already at the beginning.

    If it’s just personal pursuit and if the medium is blogging:
    *usually a photo or 2 that I’ve taken recently or a favourite topic with a particular angle inspires me
    *then I just write the blog post. Amend, add, amend, etc.
    *then hunt down photos in mine or his personal collection (we have thousands :))
    *adjust the photos
    *then start copying, refining into the blog, etc.

    *if it’s a painting, mixed media: I have a few block prints in mind, a colour combination to start.
    *paint the background with a wash of now 2-3 shades, etc. Colour, shape, line and texture drive me along. I have no predetermined end result with visual art.


    1. Sounds like you’ve got a good grasp of your system, depending on the type of work it is. I know full well what you mean in terms of chunks in your head when you start. Yes, that is a different type of advance planning, but I think one that anyone who is experienced at writing performs; you just happen to be cognizant of it. Thanks for this comment.


  11. Can I say, I love this idea? I hope I can somehow incorporate this practice into my own writing reflection. I second people saying this resembles mind-mapping and genuinely (surprise!) believe in visual layout of information aiding our understanding and idea development. In case you haven’t heard of it, I found this paint a while ago and think it might suit you… you can paint a wall in your home to become a whiteboard wall…


    1. Ah ha! I’ve been in a conference room at my day job that has wall paint like this. So there’s lots of technology solutions out there. It means a lot to have an endorsement from you, a writer/visual artist/educator. Glad you liked it!


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  13. Patrick~I resonate with your approach. As part of my mentorship program, I’ve had authors work with mapping models, trace arcs, use possible organic forms, map sequences & threads, and more. Our ongoing metaphors are architecture-related, and our approach to crafting – versus drafting – has much to do with being experience architects – authors who own up to design experiences for their readers in the revisioning and crafting stages. So, I appreciate your respect for what your four-fold story line asks of your readers. I also gathered actual detailed maps for Catch 22, a Harry Potter novel, and more. John McPhee, Rebecca Skolnit, and other renowned authors I respect think a great deal about structure. You’re in that company. Cheers, Jeffrey


    1. Jeffrey, great to see you here at The Artist’s Road! I’m so appreciative of your endorsement here. You bring authority to that position. I’m also stunned to find myself in such great company, but I would have to believe those authors engaged in significant mapping of some sort because their books are both complex and readable. Thanks!


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