Writers in the Storm

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August 12, 2015

Mind Mapping: A Pantser's Path to the Perfect Story

I don’t plot. I don’t outline. I don’t even do character sketches. I know, I know … I’ve tried, I really have. Every time I try, I freeze and lose the spark for the story.

Here’s the irony, I’m a planner—not just any planner--a neurotically compulsive planner. I’ve never met a project, a trip, a day that I didn’t plan to the last detail. Seriously. Weeks are mapped out in my dateplanner. Days are detailed on insert sheets within the weekly plan. I even have a task list on my iPhone. Each new project starts life as a shiny Gantt chart. My brain is always two steps ahead, calculating how to go from here to there, anticipating roadblocks and thinking through potential detours.

You’d think my compulsion to plan would lead to careful plotting of stories. But nooooo. Sigh.

A story idea will come at me—sometimes it’s a title, sometimes an event, sometimes an object—then bounce around, collecting more details like a dust bunny grabbing at every strand of hair in the living room until it’s fully formed and ready to move out on its own.

But unlike the carefully calculated project plan (I can tell you within a day or three how long each draft will take) the brainstorming and writing process need more freedom.

Say hello to my good friend, Mind Mapping.

Mind mapping is a thinking tool that goes with the flow of the thought process rather than forcing those thoughts into a linear order. It’s creative and visual and perfect for brains that have a tendency toward the squirrel story threads. I heard it once described as “the little Swiss-army knife for the brain.” That was all I needed!

There are plenty of mind mapping software options to choose from (some paid, some free, depending on the features you want) or you can freehand with different colored markers and a large sheet of paper (or white board). Whatever works best for you.

Example of how you can use mind mapping to brainstorm your main character.

Example of how you can use mind mapping to brainstorm your main character. (Click on the image to open in a new window)

I’ve tried the marker and paper and software before. For one of my picture books, I used crayons and poster board—man that was fun! But for my women’s fiction, I prefer software that’s easy to drag and drop and move and tweak.

Here are a couple of pointers that have worked for this non-linear thinker.

Brain dump.

The idea behind a mind mapping session is not to detail the story plan but to empty your brain of details for the story. Order doesn’t matter. Whatever comes to mind, whenever it comes to mind, put it down. Link it to other ideas or details as the connections become clear.

For example, in my WIP, my main character receives a letter from someone in her past that awakens a secret she’s tried to forget for over 20 years. The first thing I put down was “secret.” From there, I let my mind loose. Obviously the secret affects her, so she gets a bubble. But there’s the person who sent her the letter, the person who wrote the letter (he’s dead, by the way), her job, the friends who were affected by the secret back in the day, her parents, a rescue dog, one of the kids she works with, her husband.

Next, I looked at each of the bubbles and added to those. What about the secret will affect her job? Why does she suddenly feel the need to look for an old high school friend she hasn’t spoken to since graduation? Why would she adopt a dog suddenly?

At this stage, the items you jot down don’t need to have clear lines to others but they do need to inspire parts of the story. As you start digging a bit deeper into each one, you’ll discover how each relates to the other pieces. And you’ll add additional twigs to each new branch of your map.

Don’t tie yourself to one way of doing your map. Maybe you start with individual words or couple of words. For example, maybe there’s an anecdote between two characters that jumped to mind or a description of an object or place. Put those down as they came to you, don’t try to force them into the one or three word bubbles to match the others. Everything is fair game!

The more the merrier.

When you create an outline for your story, you have one outline. Mind mapping doesn’t have to be just one map per story. You’re not trying to organize your thoughts, you’re releasing them. If one bubble sparks an a-ha moment, give it it’s own map. See where it takes you.

For my WIP, I currently have four maps—the main one I started with, one for my main character (this is where I’ve captured things I know about her, details that bring her to life for me), one for her job/career, and another for her senior year in high school (20-some years ago). Each time I open a new page and let my mind run free with the possibilities, I see new story paths and details.

Think of mind mapping as the hot air balloon vision for your story. It takes you out of the forest of details and puts you up high above the treetops, to see the whole of the wooded space and all the cute little story squirrels scampering around in there.

Interestingly enough, I’m a linear writer. I have to start at the beginning and work through to the end of the story. I never fully know the end until I get there. With mind mapping, I get the big picture idea for my story, I have random details and an understanding for how each fits with the others—I have the map to guide me through the forest. I may still veer off a path in pursuit of another squirrel, but I know that to get to the end of my trek, I’ll have to get back on the main path.

If you’re not a plotter, not a linear thinker, give mind mapping a shot. It’s an organic, visual thought process that appeals to right brainers. Most mind mapping software have the ability to turn the visual brainstorming into a linear outline. That’s a bonus if you need to turn in an outline (or expand it into a synopsis) to your agent or editor.

I’d love to hear from pantsers and plotters how you approach the brainstorming process. Are you a linear thinker or a visual thinker? What tools or processes help you capture your ideas?

About Orly

orly1.jpgAfter years of pushing the creativity boundary in corporate communications, Orly decided it was time for a new challenge. Three women’s fiction manuscripts later (plus a handful of picture books), it’s safe to say she’s found her creative outlet. When she’s not talking to her imaginary friends, she’s reading or at least trying to ignore everyone around her long enough to finish “just one more paragraph.” Orly is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.

You can find her on Twitter at @OrlyKonigLopez or on her website, www.orlykoniglopez.com.

72 comments on “Mind Mapping: A Pantser's Path to the Perfect Story”

  1. Orly, I'm familiar with this through my day job, tough I've never used it hands on, but sounds like it might work for me. I can't outline either. No white board, no outlines, no index cards. That's probably why it takes me so long to finish a book. But thanks for this. It's something worth considering. This one sentence resonated the most with me. You’re not trying to organize your thoughts, you’re releasing them."

    1. I'm glad that hit home, Densie. Give it a try - you never know what will click and open new rabbit holes. 🙂

      Grab one of the free platforms and give it a shot with one element of your WIP - a character or plot thread for example. If you like how it feels, you can explore other mind mapping platforms to see if one has additional features that you prefer. Or you'll discover that it becomes another tool for procrastinating the actual writing ... then it's probably best to back away. 😉

      Let me know!!

  2. Thanks, Orly. I've done this mental process without knowing what it was called. I like to think of it as growing a whole oak tree when all you're starting with is a leaf, or a piece of bark, instead of the acorn. My "maps" evolve as the story is drafted, too. Neither is ever really finished.

    1. That's what I like about mapping - it's organic and evolves. I never feel like I have to make something fit. All ideas have merit and sometimes those wonky branches lead to great scenes or characters.

  3. Love when you share your insights. I've done this for poetry to release creative associations. I'm interested in trying this technique when I get "stuck" in a story. Thanks!

    1. Aww, thanks. 🙂
      I love mind mapping exercises. I'm always surprised and amused with at least one branch that springs up. Let me know if it helps with your stories.

  4. Can this work for revisions? I have finished a first draft of a novel — written without an outline or other aid other than a few notes to remember details about characters. Now I need help improving my draft. An outline after the fact doesn't seem to work as I hone the plot and fill in details about my character and place. Thanks for this creative idea.

    1. I'm not sure how it would work for revisions, to be honest. Mind mapping is great when you have tons of ideas and want to get them down without constraints on where they should go. Revisions are the time to put MORE order in your thoughts.

      Not sure if it will help, but I wrote a post a while back about my process for revisions - https://writersinthestormblog.com/2014/10/plotting-for-pantsers/ ... you could see if anything in that post rings a bell. 🙂

      Good luck with revisions. That's actually my favorite part.

  5. I'm definitely a pantser. I know how the WIP starts and how it ends, how I get there keeps changing as I come up with a new idea. I am absolutely going to find a software program to see if this will help me. Thank you for the tip!

    1. I'd love to hear back from you after to see if it helps.
      Mapping ideas gives me better insight into what fits and what's a bit too much of a stretch.

  6. I love this idea! And I agree that the idea of 'releasing' my thoughts is so appealing. I feel like I'm chasing my tail and I think this approach might help me stop spinning. 🙂

    1. It's always fun to discover a new toy when it comes to our writing process, isn't it? Try it. 🙂

  7. I can't use an outline. It takes away from the direction that hits me when writing. I like to follow that line that pops into my head. To creat a story & tell it in a way that I like is fun. Love your article.

    1. Thanks, Dave. Mind mapping is a looser way of focusing your thoughts that I think appeals to those of us who bristle against the more rigid outline idea.

  8. I like this very much. I think I already do it but I've never done it on paper. I hold it in my mind. Somehow ... don't ask me how and usually at night, it comes out and I go through it and then sometimes have to jump out of bed and go to write.

    1. I used to do the same. But at some point, the brain - at least mine - becomes over cluttered and kinda scary. Ideas still pop out whenever they want, they're rather unruly that way, but at least mind mapping has given me a bit more focus. Give it a shot - you may have fewer middle of the night visits from the muse. 🙂

  9. Thanks, Dave. Mind mapping is a looser way of focusing your thoughts that I think appeals to those of us who bristle against the more rigid outline idea.

  10. We used this technique when working with Adult Literacy students, and my kids learned it in school. I'm not that 'organized' and just write random thoughts down in a word doc, or on a legal pad (that usually when I get close to the end to make sure I've covered all my plot threads). I can't plot, outline, or plan more than a few scenes ahead of where I am.

    1. I'm not organized with writing at all. Very weird considering how anal I am about planning and organizing everything else. I think that's why mind mapping appealed to me so much. But like everything else, it doesn't work for everyone.

  11. I usually use mind mapping as a step in my plotting process. Then I'll often transfer the relevant information in the form of 'scenes' onto index cards and form an outline out of those. I also use mind mapping for my goal setting. It's fun to see where the thoughts go when you just let loose on a mind map.

    1. I love that. I've never used it for goal setting ... hmmm, guess what I'll be doing later today. Thanks for the idea. 🙂

  12. I've just started playing with mind mapping, Scapple is a great tool from the makers of Scrivener for mindmapping. It is really powerful to "see" connected books for me.

    1. Thanks for the Scapple tip. There are so many great tools out there. Good to have recommendations.

  13. I can relate to your dust bunny collection of ideas. So true and great imagery. I find that the more I let it simmer the larger the dust bunny becomes and then begins to scream for me to write. I don't plan at all but I do set milestone goals. I'm able to do this by being truly reflective of my style and process 1,000-1,500 words a sitting (at the most) so what do I want to accomplish and by when and to whom within that time frame. I like the mindmap I just don't think my mind will and I'm trying to eliminate all things that keep me from actually writing which is a constant struggle even when it helps with the writing. Great post as always.

    1. Not all good ideas are great ideas. 😉
      If an organizational tool takes you away from the actual writing, then it's not a good tool for you.

      Screaming dust bunnies ... now there's a fun story to play with! 🙂

  14. "Like a dust bunny..." Amazing metaphor, Orly! That puts a great picture on my process, too. I'm like Pizzos3 in my simmer process, even though I've forced my students to learn mind mapping techniques. Hmmm... Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  15. This really started me thinking in terms of continuing my children's series. I'm a spatial thinker and this results in hundreds of edits after I "say" the story is "completed". This mapping Technique would be helpful in keeping some sense of order while letting ideas flow with the bonus of actually seeing them on paper. Thank you and all of the resulting comments which added to this enlightenment.

    1. Claremary, you nailed exactly what appealed to me most about mind mapping when I started. I'd used it for work years ago when I was in the corporate world but didn't make the connection with writing until one particularly frustrating phase. What a difference!

  16. I thought I was a plotter, but the more I plot the less joy I have with writing the story. But I'm not a pantser either. I need more structure than that. I do plan in my other world, but my story world evolves in fits and spurts. I use MS Onenote like some use Scrivener because I haven't put the time into learning Scrivener. I like that it backs up to the cloud and is on all my devices. I have a mindmapping program. I used to use it when I worked as a draftsperson. I didn't even think of using it for brainstorming. Duh! Sounds like a the next good thing for me to try. Thanks for reminding me.

    1. That was me, Teresa. I used mind mapping years ago in my corporate life but never connected it to writing. As you said ... duh! It's opened up a whole world of fun and (semi) sanity for me. 🙂

  17. Orly,

    I have a hard time writing outlines. The linear thinking needed for an outline crushes my creativity. I even tried Scrivener - but it overwhelmed me. After reading your post, I downloaded the free trial version of Scapple. It's great! It lets me gather my thoughts - my way- with a lot of wiggle room. Plus, it's fun to use 😉

    Thanks for the serendipitous post.


  18. I've decided that I'm a Jotter. I think of something and I jot it down. Once I know I'm really going to write about this NOW, I try to jot everything in the same notebook, but that doesn't always work. I do my "plotting" (if you can call it that) mostly in the car or the shower, and I don't start writing until I have a critical mass of jotted-down notes. At that point, I try to outline but once I'm actually drafting, it usually only takes a few chapters to realize the outline is mostly useless now. When I end up stuck, I might outline more.

    1. "Jotter" ... I love that!!! I tend to do a lot of that as well. Problem is that I end up jotting notes down wherever I am on whatever I can get my hands on. Then I get overwhelmed with the amount of paper everywhere. Ha!

    2. I am also a jotter! Primarily a post-it/legal pad jotter, but one who'd rather not look at her own chicken scratch. Wish I had pretty handwriting. Guess I don't really need it anymore, with a mind mapping tool!

      1. I'm a jotter as well. Problem with my jotting is that I rarely jot in the notebook I've started for that particular project which means that I end up with scraps of paper everywhere. I'm trying to be better about keeping notes in one or two places max. Yeah ... I did say "trying" right? 🙂

  19. Outlining never worked well for me, but mind- mapping has been a lifesaver. I used to use mind-mapping to take lecture notes which would drive my friends crazy when they asked to read my notes! I've used it in almost all my writing - usually scribbling in a notebook. I like it for developing characters and their relationships with each other. It's like a visual free-for-all, but once it is put together it really helps to define your story and characters. I'd never thought to use colored pens to further delineate items on the map. I was happy to see that there now are computer programs for this! I just never thought to look for such a program! (Duh!) I'll be exploring that! Thanks for the post!

    1. A visual free-for-all. That's perfect!
      What I like with the color coding is that each character or each story thread can have a set color. That way when you're creating multiple maps, you always have a quick reference. And it's easier to see if you're spending too much time on one particular thing and shorting another thread or character.

  20. Interesting to see someone else say they write one way but think and plan another way. I'm a linear writer and I do plot, but I'm also a global thinker and very visual. I'm excited to give this a try after a week of being completely stuck. I'm heading into the climax of my story and need to pull a bunch of threads together. I know how they fit in my thinking, but haven't been sure how to help the reader see the connections. Looking forward to this. Thanks for this post.

    1. I'm glad the idea of mind mapping is appealing to you, Lisa. I think it appeals to right and left brainers so you just may have a new tool to help brainstorm. 🙂

      I'd love to hear after if it helped. 🙂
      Good luck! Have fun with it.

  21. Orly thank you for posting this.

    I've written four novels. The first three were a jumbled mess. I had no method. I didn't know what pantsing was let alone plotting. For the fourth I made an outline of the 10 most important scenes, and wrote from one to the next, skipping here and there. The story was in my head. Now I'm familiar with beat sheets, story arcs, and character arcs, plus.

    Mindmapping is a wonderful idea for thought dumping. I can see myself using this to brainstorm a concept for my next work. Can you suggest the software that you like best.

    I'm a visual person so I appreciate most the link to your revision process. The colored index cards is a fantastic idea. I can already see it on my wall.

    1. I'm glad the other link helped, Angie. It's always fun to see how other people approach writing and revising. I'm always picking up tips and tweaking my process based on what friends are doing. Hope some of my methods work for you. 🙂

      As for mind mapping, I personally use MindNode Pro. It is a paid software but I love how easy it is and some of the features. I'll be honest that I didn't do a whole lot of research before getting this one. It was recommended to me and I'm very happy with it. Read some of the comments to this post - there were a couple of recommendations for free options. You can always start with a free one to see if you like it then switch if you find you want more/different features offered by another program.

      Play around with different ideas - both for the brainstorming and revision process - and see what works for you.

  22. Great post! My first book flowed out in long hand. My second and third were a hybrid of outlines and free thinking. By the fourth and fifth, I was outlining six different ways, completing complicated character charts, time charts, name charts...you get it. Those books, while the research and detail was better, had a pacing issue. I finally decided it was because of all the caution you need before you start your book, all the charts you must keep updated. So, I began Alice's Angel. I started by writing chapter one. I jot down notes when ideas come to me. It's more like channeling the book, rather than building it. I'll let you know when I finish how I think it came out. I am going to try your mind mapping. It sounds like it's right up Alice's alley!

    1. "Channeling the book, rather than building it" ... I love that!!!!!!
      Thanks for sharing your process, Gerri. Another great point - what works for one book, or works for the first couple of books, may not work for subsequent ones. It's always good to try something new and be open to change.

  23. Thank you Orly,
    Blessed with a vivid imagination but a terrible memory, I have mind-mapped for years. Until ten minutes ago, I didn't know it had a name or realise you could actually find these mind-mappers to download; I have been using the side of the fridge and a handful of different coloured white-board marker pens!!!!!
    Happy Mind-Mapping to one and all

    1. Your fridge will thank you. 😉
      Isn't it nice to know that you've been doing something intuitively that is such a great tool?

  24. This sounds just like me -planning everything out ahead of time, but running into road blocks every time I try to work on an outline for my WIP. I will definitely give this a try! Thank you.

  25. I've had writing classes that used mind-mapping and to be honest, the point for using them was lost on me. Your explanation makes more sense. Enough so that I may try it again. Thanks for the excellent post.

    1. Thanks, Connie. Isn't it funny how something can be a total mystery then suddenly click with a different explanation or example. 🙂

  26. I love this idea! I've tried to plot, but grow bored. In life, I'm a planner too. With writing, I just want to be free and go with the flow. Awesome post!

    1. Ohhh ... yay!! I'd love to hear from you after you've tried it. Thanks for stopping by!! 🙂

  27. Orly, what a great post! I'd love to know the kind of software you've found for this - paid or free? I'm interested in seeing your favorites, rather than having to go with all of them.

    1. I mentioned my favorite in the post - MindNode Pro (paid) but there are a few other suggestions mentioned in the comments. Laura picked up the free one that's related to Scrivener I believe.

  28. Orly, I can outline, I have 2 full ms that are completely outlined. I have plotted from chapter 1 - 30. But when I complete them I'm through. I know all that is going to happen and when so when I sit down to write the book, nothing. I just have what I put down in the outline/plot list. When I write it is like a movie running and I just write what I see. The characters take off and I just as I've said before hang on and try to keep up. It is always interesting to read what I can for pantsers and how they might find a process useful but when I was in high school and college they taught mind mapping. It didn't make sense then and it doesn't now. I enjoy anything you have written that I find but guess I'll just keep on keeping on the way I have been but I will always be glad to find something that is a better way for me. And by the way I am thrilled to see so many pantsers. I thought maybe I was a dying breed. I've met only a few who don't plot and etc. Hi you guys so glad to find you.

    1. There is no right way to write. Everyone has the process that works for them. I love reading how others "do it" ... sometimes there's a little something that I can pick up and incorporate in my process. Plus I've found that the process changes with the manuscripts and what else is happening in my life at that time. Good luck with yours and stick with what works!! 🙂

  29. Though I'm not a complete pantser, there aren't many articles out there for pantsers. Excellent article! 🙂

    1. I call myself a pantser with suspenders ... not a total pantser either. 🙂
      Thanks for reading (and sorry for the late response - was on vacation last week with very little connectivity).

  30. I didn't know there were mind mapping programs out there!! This is pretty huge and I can't wait to give it a try. I think it might really work for me. Thanks!

    1. Ohh!!!! So many fun tools out there. I'll be curious to hear after you've played around with it a bit to see what you think. 🙂

  31. That's me too! I plan everything in my life--except my writing. I essentially do this already, but without the software. Every WIP has an accompanying document where I jot down ideas as they come to me in no particular order. I refer to it, add to it, and delete from it as I go. I've learned to trust that my subconscious brain is a better storyteller than my conscious brain. Now if only it could keep my shopping list straight!

    1. The shopping list ... that's hopeless, at least for me. If you find the secret to that one, please share. 🙂

  32. […] Mind Mapping: A Pantser’s Path to the Perfect Story – Orly Konig-Lopez at Writers In The Storm, with an example of how she built a character ‘map’ using the squashed spider technique. Mind maps always look like squished spiders to me – that central ‘body’ with all the legs coming off it. From which you may gather I am not a fan. […]

  33. I'm an avid mindmapper. I do the large paper (or poster board) and marker kind. I use it for all sorts of things including my writing projects. I'm definitely a pantser and would be bored to smithereens (which I think is a small town in the mid-west) if I had to plot ahead. Couldn't do it. But mindmapping is so intuitive and fun - like a marriage between an accountant and a tango dancer. Thanks for writing about it.

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