Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Mind Mapping Your Plot

Kate Brown
2003, Kate Brown

lotting is my least favorite part of the writing process. By the time I've developed my characters and built my world, I want to sit down and write. Unfortunately, I am not a skilled enough organic writer to get my characters from start to finish without some sort of outline. For that reason I develop a mind map. 

Mind mapping can be a powerful plotting tool for visual thinkers. To me, the biggest benefit of a plot mind map is being able to see my story on a single sheet of paper. I can see concurrent events side-by-side, and I can see how each plot element ties into the whole with a glance.  

Having a quick reference guide is not the only benefit a plot mind map provides. A good mind map can: 

1. Help you pin down what your main characters know and what they need to know for a successful plot resolution. If I develop a mind map before I start writing, I find my characters making fewer leaps of godly logic in the first draft. This helps when it is time to revise. 

2. Help you keep track of your secondary characters' knowledge and motivations. I depend on this aspect of mind mapping when I use first-person perspective. My narrator does not always know what drives my secondary characters, but I need to in order to keep everyone in character. 

3. Help add layers to a linear plot. As you map, you will find natural points where subplots can begin and end. I find this aspect of mind mapping particularly helpful when it comes to managing my subplots. It is very easy to see dangling threads when, on your mind map, a plot element does not connect to a resolution. 


Like any other plotting method, you can tailor mind mapping to meet your needs. When I only have a vague idea of my plot, I start at step 1. When I have a clear idea of my plot, I skip down to step 8. 

1. Start with a blank piece of paper. At the top (or left if you prefer to work in landscape), write down the starting event for each of your characters and circle it. At the bottom (or right), write down your ending event. 

2. Ask yourself how you can get your characters from the beginning to the end. What is the most direct path? Write down the major plot elements and circle them. Be sure to leave enough room between circles for additional notes. If your characters are under time constraints, make note of when each major event needs to happen. 

3. Consider what your characters need to progress from step to step. Do they need to go to Old Man Johnson for a magic key? Write that down off to the side between the two plot points and circle it. 

4. Start to connect your plot elements together. Follow each side quest through to its resolution. 

5. Now it's time to have some fun. Look at your connections. Are your characters having an easy time getting what they need? Unleash your inner Evil Overlord and thwart your characters' plans. Consider what can go wrong at each step. Then ask yourself how your characters will respond. Let them wander across the page trying to find resolutions to their problems. 

6. By this point, your paper should be a mess of circles and problems. Your path from start to finish is probably buried underneath overlapping lines and multiple sub quests. Give yourself some distance from your brainstorming. I usually set my messy mind map aside for a few hours to a day. 

7. When you've had enough distance, read over what you've done. Have a highlighter or different colored pen handy. Mark the most promising challenges and plot threads.  

8. Pull out a fresh piece of paper. Go back to your starting events, but don't write them down yet. Instead take a step back and use the top of your fresh sheet of paper to give your story context. What that context is can vary depending on your story and your needs. For example, in my mind map of Deceptions, a first-person fantasy/mystery blend, I used the events leading to one of my secondary character's involvement in the story as context. Not only do the events serve as a reminder that Deceptions is only one story in a large world, but they also helped me keep my secondary character's actions consistent with her character. 

9. Once you have your story's context, start walking through your plot in chronological order, circling your plot elements and connecting them with arrows as you work down the page. Be sure to leave some space around each event so you can add notes to yourself as you write. 

10. When you are done, take a moment to make sure the events flow they way you want them to. At this stage, I usually number the events in the order I think they will appear in my narrative. Also check for any dangling plot threads and glaring plot holes. Now you get to move on to the really fun part -- writing! 

Explanation of different types of mind mapping from James Cook University. Includes sample mind maps.  
A brief article on concept mapping from Counseling Services at the University of Victoria