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Much of the writing advice we encounter is offered through lists and steps. It’s not surprising; sequential formulations pervade our culture. We have shopping lists and bucket lists, rosters and schedules and manuals that provide step-by-step instructions. We’ve gotten so used to sequential formulations that it may seem as if that’s the only way to organize knowledge.
For about thirty percent of us, however, life is processed spatially, not temporally—not as a linear progression but as pattern, network, array. We see mosaics, parts in relation to the whole. If you’re not sure which kind of person you are, think about how you “know” how to get somewhere. Do you rely on a series of routes and turns or on landmarks?
Awareness of visual-spatial processing goes back to 1981, when psychologist Linda Kreger Silverman coined the term to explain the challenges—and gifts—of youngsters whose “upside-down brilliance” made it difficult for them to learn in traditional ways. Despite the work of Silverman and others, the sequential approach still dominates our educational system. That’s true for adult learners as well. Writers seeking to improve their skills—who happen to be visual-spatial processers—may find much of the available “advice” difficult to implement. They need other tools.
In fact, we all need visual-spatial tools! Some aspects of writing do lend themselves to checklists but others—e.g., organizing the relationships among characters—are best served by non-sequential techniques. A well-stocked toolkit needs both. The strategies below are for all of us, regardless of our primary learning style, and can provide an important complement to the plethora of sequential strategies that are already available.
Ironically, the only way to offer sample tools is through—you guessed it—a list! However, the tools themselves aren’t based on lists. Here are some examples.
Stories have characters, and characters have relationships to each other and to the novel’s protagonist—relationships based on affinity, aversion, power, vulnerability, motivation, history, temperament, age, gender, and so on. As the author, you need to understand and keep track of these relationships, which can be quite complex—too complex to be conveyed by a list.
Social work has a tool called an ecomap, developed by Ann Hartman in 1975, that can help. The ecomap is a diagram that shows an individual in relationship to the people and social systems in her environment. The person is placed in the center, at the hub, with people and systems arrayed around her and connected—to her, and to each other—by arrows and lines. The lines can be thick or thin (strong or weak), solid or hatched (positive or negative), with arrows indicating the flow of energy (mutual or one-way).
Writers can adapt the ecomap by placing the novel’s protagonist in the center of a circle, with other characters arrayed around her, at varying distances. The lines between the characters will illuminate patterns of isolation, alliance, dependence, and power.
A quick note: While there probably are computer programs that can help you do this, there’s something to be said for drawing a diagram by hand. If you google images for “ecomap,” you’ll find a dozen templates to choose from.
Ditto for the other techniques below. Colored marking pens, images cut from magazines, yarn, movable post-it tags in a variety of colors—make it fun!
As your story opens, your protagonist is at a particular time and place (psychological as well as geographical) on the map of her life. She journeys outward from that starting point, into territory that may be familiar or unfamiliar, zigzagging, backtracking, leaping, spiraling.
On her journey, she encounters other characters who are on their own journeys. Their turf may intersect, merge, compete, move closer together or farther apart during the course of the story. Drawing their overlapping territory maps—in different colors for each character—is another way to help you visualize the evolving relationships within the story.
The idea of a journey may call to mind the linear journeys depicted in classic board games like Candyland or Chutes and Ladders. A territory map is not necessarily “flat” or linear, however. It can have additional dimensions. For example, a “place” on the map (a literal place or a kind of experience such as jealousy or disappointment) can have third-dimensional depth as it evokes and connects with similar experiences at earlier times in the protagonist’s life. It’s a spot of special intensity on her map.
Structurally, stories contain elements or motifs: emotions like jealousy, ambition, fear, regret; concepts like sacrifice or the power of secrets; narrative movements like choices, reversals, and betrayals. Some elements are central, serving as hubs from which secondary motifs radiate. These motifs intersect, like crisscrossing trails, to thwart, divert, or reinforce each other.
To capture the interplay of these motifs, each can be drawn in a different color as it moves across the linear story. A motif can have peaks, valleys, and plateaus. Overlaying the “journeys” of several motifs will reveal their connections. When one element peaks or intensifies, another may have a valley or a corresponding intensification.
Other visual-spatial tools use grids or spreadsheets, with “cells” formed by the intersection of elements along two axes. These “cells” show you where elements occur.
For example, you can list each scene along the horizontal axis. Then, along the vertical axis, you can list the elements you want to track—who is present in the scene, where it takes place, weather, mood, key (symbolic) objects that are mentioned, and so on. That way, you can quickly see when and how often certain elements appear. You may decide that you need to spread out the occurrences of a particular element (a phone call, wind, a sudden departure) or replace an overused location. Do your characters spend a lot of time sitting at the kitchen table? Does it always seem to be dawn or dusk?
You want to look at the variation in scene openings. To do so, list the type of scene opening along the vertical axis: dialogue, a statement indicating a change of date or setting, a sensory detail, a bit of exposition, and so on. Or you might want to look at scene endings: an upturn, a setback, a surprise, etc.
A grid can give you a visual overview so you can see, at a glance, if (and where) certain devices are overused and ought to be varied.
These are just some examples of ways to think about your story that don’t rely on a list or linear outline. There’s no need to use all of them—but do try the ones that spark an aha.
The best novels tend to be both sequential and spatial, of course. They’re sequential because the story moves forward, horizontally, in a chain of cause-and-effect developments. But they’re also spatial because each point in the story has multiple layers, a verticality or “thickness” composed of the elements in relationships to one another.
Now try some of these tools on your own story.
Which visual-spatial strategies helped to illuminate elements of your story that you’d like to understand better?
When you mapped these elements, did you encounter any surprises?
Did you adapt the tools or come up with additional tools? If so, please share your discoveries!
An earlier version of this article appeared on Writers Helping Writers in July 2018.
Barbara Linn Probst is the author of Queen of the Owls, coming in April 2020 from the visionary, award-winning She Writes Press. Queen of the Owls has been chosen by Working Mother as one of the twenty most anticipated books for 2020 and will be the May 2020 selection of the Pulpwood Queens, a network of more than 780 book clubs throughout the U.S. To pre-order or learn more, please see http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/