The Prophet’s Chronicle Storyworld

One of the things fiction allows us to do is examine hypothetical situations that don’t exist in the real world. A novel is a large-scale thought experiment. This is true of any fiction, but doubly true in speculative fiction. The whole point of science fiction and fantasy is to explore worlds that don’t actually exist.

The storyworld in which my first novel, Alara’s Call, and the other books in the series are set is modeled after nineteenth-century Europe, with all the small countries close together and interrelated royal families and court intrigues. But for all its differences, Europe was long united by a single dominant faith, and most countries had similar governing systems. In my stories, I want to examine several contrasts. This meant I had to set up the storyworld in ways that differ from Europe.

Alara's Call Storyworld

Mary Elizabeth Hall helped get my storyworld out of my head and onto a map. When I started, the sea didn’t have a name. She convinced me to give it one.

Polytheism vs. Monotheism

Alara is a Telshan cleric. Telshanism is a religion closely modeled on Christianity. So one of the things the storyworld needed to have was a polytheistic religion. There are several such traditions in Europe, though they gave way to Christianity centuries ago. The main inspirations for Kivatanism, the polytheistic religion of Alara’s opponents, were the Greek and Norse pantheons.

The northern nations of Apanumon and Makut are predominantly Kivatan, while the southern nations of Glynrell and Redíque are predominantly Telshan. The Telshan faith is Trinitarian, with an important difference from Christianity.

Some of us occasionally refer to the Holy Spirit as “she,” because doing so helps us acknowledge the feminine nature of God — who must have a feminine nature because both male and female are created in God’s image.

I took that notion and flipped it, so Alara’s faith has a feminine Creator, a feminine Redeemer, and a masculine Counselor. This has led some people to liken Alara’s Call to The Shack, but I’m pretty sure none of those folks have read my book yet.

It was important to me not to have an all-female trinity, because that would incline people toward matriarchy, which isn’t where I wanted to go.

Patriarchy vs. Egalitarianism

Because matriarchies are not often found in modern culture, I am more concerned with using these stories to examine the differences between patriarchy, which we often still find, and egalitarianism, which we currently strive for yet often fail to achieve fully.

In Christianity we have a verse that says “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 NRSV). Yet we often don’t behave as if that were true. I’ve given the Telshans a similar verse, and it informs every story in the series. My construction of Telshan culture exists largely to show what a truly egalitarian society might look like.

To contrast that, I established the Kivatan countries as being strongly patriarchal. Their faith limits women’s roles and restricts their activities. The Kivatan faith allows polygamy and gives fathers complete control over daughters’ lives. Women do not participate in the public sphere at all, while in Alara’s country women have complete freedom.

If I’m honest, Alara’s culture is a meritocracy. One’s status is dependent upon one’s abilities and accomplishments. I hope to examine that more closely in Book Two.

Monarchy vs. Democracy

The United Kingdom’s parliament made a start at democracy, and heaven knows large parts of the French population tried repeatedly to democratize that country. Nevertheless, nineteenth-century Europe was still largely monarchial, as is my storyworld.

In Alara’s Call, her home country of Glynrell, where the Telshan faith is predominant, stands as the only democracy. Alara’s mission becomes advising world leaders about democracy and egalitarianism. Naturally, they are not too pleased by her message. Much of the conflict, not only in this book but in those that follow, centers around the desire of monarchs to hold onto power despite the will of the people and the words of the prophet.

Of course, anyone who knows anything about European history can see where this is going. I trust that the fantastical spins on the journey will make the effort worthwhile to readers.

When you’re creating a storyworld, whether it’s fantastical or historical, consider what you need the storyworld to have for your story to do the things you want to do. Setting is an important element of fiction, and your storyworld can and should both affect your story and be affected by it.

Subplots, Side Stories, and What to Do with Them

Novelists often get carried away with characters. Or maybe that should be, characters often carry away novelists. Either way, well-developed secondary characters can run away with a story if you let them. In one of my sample book maps, I showed how this can happen.

In my fictional fiction (sorry for going so meta on you here), the secondary character Cordelia suddenly gets a lot of attention in Chapters 5 through 8, with a big-city adventure that has nothing to do with the heroine, the hero, or the villain.

Sample Book Map

Click to open larger so you can actually read this.

If we can in fact tie Cordelia’s storyline together with Antonia’s in a plausible way, then Cordelia has a subplot. But if that’s the case, the subplot should amplify or contrast what is happening in the main plot. Also, we’d want to see more alternation between Antonia’s main plot and Cordelia’s subplot. If you stray from your primary story line for too long, the reader’s attachment to the protagonist can break. This leads readers to stop reading.

So the book map can show you where you need to mix up your subplot with your main plot. In this case, we need to insert some Antonia chapters in between Cordelia’s chapters. It’s also possible to mix scenes within a chapter: alternating three scenes featuring Antonia with three scenes featuring Cordelia or someone else. Tolkien does this in The Return of the King when he switches back and forth between Frodo and Aragorn.

What if Your Story Isn’t a Sublot?

When a story line like Cordelia’s branches off on its own like a runaway freight train, and you cannot plausibly tie it back into the main plot line, you don’t have a subplot. You have a side story. The difference is that a subplot is integral to the overall story arc, and removing it will damage the narrative. Perhaps not irreparably, but it will take some doing to patch up the holes.

A side story, on the other hand, can be pulled out of the narrative without doing any significant damage to the surrounding scenes. It’s like the difference between remodeling and redecorating. You can take the curtains down without too much fuss, but if you rip out built-in bookshelves, you’ll have some work to do to mend the walls.

I have seen books make it to print with side stories intact, but these make for unsatisfying reading. The feeling of reading two unconnected stories at once is unsettling, especially when we’re accustomed to seeing such stories come together eventually.

If you find yourself with a side story, I recommend pulling it out and letting it stand on its own. There are several things you can do with such a story.

My favorite is to offer it as a free download for subscribers to your newsletter. If these subscribers have not read your book yet, the side story will give them a taste of your writing style and can help convince them to buy the book. If they have read your book, the side story gives them a chance to spend some more time with your setting and characters.

If you already have some other item serving as your sign-up premium, the side story can be offered as a feature on your web site. This is best for short stories, that is, under about 7,500 words or so.

If your side story is longer than that, consider publishing it as an e-book instead. Whether you choose to make it permafree or charge for it is entirely up to you. The longer the story is, the more likely you are going to be able to charge for it. Your ability to sell a short work will also depend on your track record as an author. Results vary widely, so it’s certainly work experimenting to see what kind of results you get either way.

You probably had fun writing the side story, so your readers will probably have fun reading it.

Use Storybreaking to Fill Narrative Gaps

Once you’ve made your book map, you may find that it reveals a gap or disconnect in the writing — a place where you’ve jumped from point A to Point D without explaining to the reader how you got there. Storybreaking can help you close that gap.

Narrative gaps can happen when you know how your characters accomplished something, but the readers don’t. In first drafts we may accidentally omit a scene that needs to be included. It’s also possible to write a scene so quickly that your characters accomplish their goal but you’ve failed to give enough detail for the reader to imagine it happening.

Sketching out a storyboard is a good way to break down a story if index cards aren't your thing. • Illustration via Fotolia

Sketching out a storyboard is a good way to break down a story if index cards aren’t your thing. • Illustration © ojtisi • Fotolia

Let’s say your hero is breaking into the villain’s fortress. In Scene 41 he arrives at the alligator-filled moat. In Scene 42 he climbs through the window of the drawing room. Wait, what? How did he cross the moat, evade the guards, and scale the wall? We need a storybreakdown here.

Get out your index cards.

Working from the onset forward works for most writers. He arrives at the moat — then what? Will he swim, or something else? Let’s say there’s a flying buttress on the other side, so he’s going to get out his grappling hook, toss it onto the buttress, and swing across the moat. Write that on a card.

Now see, that was a cool bit. Aren’t you glad we thought to add it? Now go back earlier in the story and edit that grappling hook into his kit so it doesn’t come out of nowhere.

Conversely, you can work from the result backward: to climb in the window he has to scale the wall, so write “scale the wall” on a card. That grappling hook will probably come in handy there, also. From there you can keep stepping backward until you close the narrative gap.


This technique isn’t just for novelists. A memoir writer may gloss over an incident, thinking it’s unimportant. But omitting the incident can leave a gap in the reader’s knowledge that leaves a subsequent scene confusing.

If a memoirist is writing about the time she was on her way to an event and was angry with her friend for not being there, we have no context for understanding her anger if we haven’t had a prior scene to set that context.

Step back: Why would the memoirist expect the friend to be there? How about because the friend was the one who talked the memoirist into going. But then the friend bailed on her.

That’s a valid reason for the memoirist to be angry. So we need to add two scenes to provide the context: One in which the friend does the cajoling, and another in which the friend bails. Those two scenes would close the gap.

In instructional nonfiction, gaps can happen when an expert forgets that newbies need to have all the steps broken down for them, sometimes to the foundational basics. I’ve been guilty of telling clients to set their paragraphs to first line indent of .5 inches without telling them where the Format Paragraph dialogue box is or how to get to it.

Break down the steps one by one, keeping in mind the knowledge level of your target readership. How much you can gloss over and how much you need to explain in detail will depend on how much they already know. So now I know to write, “In Word, click on Format and then Paragraph …”

Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, book mapping and storybreaking can help you ensure you hit all the points necessary for your readers to follow your story or explanation.

Using a Book Map to Edit a Novel

Last time we looked at how book maps can help in nonfiction editing. Now let’s look at how this technique can help novelists.

As I worked on how to illustrate this, I found myself redacting so much information from so many client book maps, that you would get more out of this exercise if I just created a fictitious book map that illustrates multiple problems at once. All of these represent real problems I’ve seen in unpublished manuscripts, but this way I don’t run the risk of violating client confidentiality, and you get all the illustrations in one place.

Sample Book Map

Listing the chapter titles on the map illustrates a problem I see occasionally—an author giving chapter titles to most chapters but missing a couple. While reading the manuscript this could be easy to miss. Writing the chapter titles on your book map forces you to look twice at each one.

Nonfiction writers use epigraphs (introductory quotations) more often than novelists do, but I have seen them in novels. In one case, the author had placed the same epigraph at the top of two different chapters, so I recommended changing one of them. Another chapter had no epigraph at all.

Sample epigraphs courtesy of the LitQuotes Random Quote generator.

In one novel I edited, most chapters concluded with a diary entry. But some of the chapters lacked this feature. For consistency, every chapter needed a diary entry. The book map clearly showed the author which chapters broke the pattern, and also showed when the entries were out of order.

Mind the Gaps

The first installment of this series, Use Book Mapping to Examine Structure,” included J.K. Rowling’s book map for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which includes columns for various aspects of the story, including Harry’s relationships with Cho and Ginny, the Order, and a subplot featuring Hagrid and Grawp. That chart shows that she doesn’t let any one subplot go for long without attention, and some chapters touch on every one.

Conversely, a book map can show the gaps when too much attention is being paid to one subplot at the expense of others. When you depart from your hero or heroine for more than a few chapters at a time, you have to ask who’s story you’re really trying to tell. Secondary characters can take over a story if you let them. Return to your main characters frequently to keep the readers focused on the principal characters.

Sometimes the subplot needs to be cut down or even cut out. Other times it means the main plot needs to be beefed up. Every situation is unique, but the book map will help you look at the scenes in a condensed space so you can consider your options.

Download a sample spreadsheet book map.

Reading the manuscript straight through, you could miss these things. Taking the time to chart them on a book map, no matter what mapping format you choose, makes the elements of your novel easy to view so discrepancies become more noticeable. A book map might also reveal when a climax comes too early, or when a scene repeats something that’s already been shown.

Next time, we’ll return to the concept of storybreaking and see how it can be used to fill in those gaps.

How to Make a Visual Book Map

Last time I wrote about how to use Excel to create a book map. My friend and editor Travis Perry once declared spreadsheets to be “antithetical to coherent communication,” and maybe you feel the same way, in which case a graphic representation may work better for you.

Especially for people who learn visually better than verbally, a diagram like Gustav Freytag’s pyramid structure can provide a framework. On the “Rising Action” part of the structure, you would list your major turning points from bottom to top, with the inciting incident at the bottom and the turning points above it.

Because of concerns about permissions I hesitate to share some of the better plot graphs that are floating about the interwebs. But do a search on Google Images or Pinterest for “plot chart template,” and you’ll find an abundance of inspiration.

Of course, this kind of chart works best if your plot follows Freytag’s plan or the hero’s journey. If you have a less structured plot, you may need something more like a mind map or flow chart. In that case you may want to draw your plot map freehand on a poster board or butcher paper.

A mind map starts with a central idea and spreads outward circularly, possibly in multiple unrelated directions. A flow chart is more like tree roots, starting at the top and branching downward (or left and right) as decisions are made. If drawing is not for you, there are apps that can help you with either:

Lifehacker: Five Best Mind Mapping Tools

Tech Republic: Five Flow Charting Applications

If you’re a kinesthetic learner, you may prefer something hands-on instead of digital. There are plenty of options. You can stick Post-it notes on a wall, pin 3 x 5 cards to a bulletin board, write on a white board … anything you can use to get ideas out of your head and into the world where you can manipulate them and see them all at once can work.

For more ideas about how to make all sorts of book maps, have a look at  Heidi Fiedler’s Pinterest board Book Mapping Like An Editor. She includes examples of all the ideas mentioned above, and a few more besides.

Screenshot of just a part of Heidi Fiedler's Book Mapping Pinterest board.

Screenshot of just a part of Heidi Fiedler’s Book Mapping Pinterest board.

Your book map can be, and should be, as unique as you and the story you are writing.

How to Make a Text-Based Book Map

There are lots of ways to build a book map, and once I describe my method, you may think of better ones. Whatever works for you will be the method to use. You can write your book map on paper as J.K. Rowling did, or you can get a little more technical with it.

Remember that the first step in editing is to do a fast read-through. When working on client manuscripts, I often build the book map during the read-though, but sometimes I wait until I’m done. Some manuscripts don’t need a map because all the major pieces are in place, or there are only one or two that need fixing. Other times, I start building the book map at the first sign of trouble. If I come into a project knowing that it will require restructuring, I will build the book map right away.

When I made my first book map, I didn’t realize I was doing that. It was basically a scene list in Excel, with columns for each character and subplot.

My scene list for Hope and Pride.

My scene list (or book map) for Hope and Pride. I don’t chapterize until I’ve finished editing, so it shows scene numbers instead of chapters. The ticks in the columns on the left show which subplots the scene affects.

I first learned the term “book map” from Heidi Fiedler, who teaches book mapping for the Editorial Freelancers Association. Her course Book Mapping for Developmental Editors will be offered again in October. Heidi recommends Excel because you can make the fields as big as you need them to be. For example, where there’s a long scene with a lot going on I can expand the description.

When the timeline for Hope and Pride got too complicated, I copied the scenes onto a calendar.

When the timeline for Hope and Pride got too complicated, I copied the scenes onto a calendar. This book was written before I started using Scrivener.

Calendars make excellent book maps, especially if you have a story where timing is critical. Vertex 42 has an abundance of free Excel templates in calendar form. You can set the date to almost any year, which is handy for historical fiction and science fiction. Not only do the dates update, but the holidays do, also, which helps you ensure, for example, that your characters in 1898 are celebrating Easter in the right month.

Apps that Map

Scrivener has two display options that qualify as book maps. The main view shows the manuscript and all its parts. The sidebar is more an outline than a map, but it’s still a visual representation of the contents.

I don’t normally use Scrivener for client manuscripts, though the one time I did, it was because major structural revisions were needed, and Scrivener’s mapping and editing tools made worlds easier than if I had done the job in Word.

But if you’re already using Scrivener, then congratulations—you have two book maps readily at hand.

The cork board view of my novella “Flight.” The scene list is in the left column, the cards in the middle represent each scene, and the fields on the right can be used to add whatever data you want about each scene.

The cork board view of my novella “Flight.” The scene list is in the left column, the cards in the middle represent each scene, and the fields on the right can be used to add whatever data you want about each scene.

Scrivener’s cork board view replicates that index-cards-on-the-wall method of working that Vince Gilligan described in his description of storybreaking. One of the things that makes Scrivener so powerful is that you can drag the cards around to change the scene order. Of course, you could do this with actual index cards also, if you have a big enough cork board. But then you’d have to edit your manuscript by hand.

Flight outline view

Outline view of “Flight.” Columns can be customized to show the data you want to see.

Scrivener’s misnamed outline view is far more powerful than an ordinary linear outline, because you can edit the columns to include whatever information you want to include, such as timelines or subplots. This is very similar to the Excel map, except that if you drag your scenes in the cork board view or in the sidebar to change the order, the Scrivener outline automatically updates accordingly.

Yes, I am a mad fan of Scrivener. I use it for all of my long-form writing.


If you don’t want to shell out bucks for Scrivener and face its massive learning curve, try Hiveword. This web-based app offers similar features: a scene sorter that uses boxes like index cards to help you arrange your scenes, and a scene list that gives information about each scene. It’s not powerful as Scrivener, but it gets the job done. The free version includes most of the features you need, but there’s a paid version that includes some upgrades.

Next time, we’ll look at mapping options that are graphical rather than text-based.

Use Book Mapping to Examine Structure

A book map is a visual representation of a book’s contents. This allows for easy analysis of elements and can reveal gaps in the content of a nonfiction book or the storyline of a novel. You may have used a book map without even realizing that’s what you were doing. It’s really just a visual way of rendering an outline. You may also have heard book maps called story grids or plot charts. Anything more complex than a simple outline could be called a book map.

There are many different ways to map a book, and I think often writers find them by accident, just out of the necessity of keeping track of a complex work. I know that was the case for me.


Click for large version.

The world’s most famous book map is probably J.K. Rowling’s book map for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which was shared in a workshop by Scholastic Books Editor Cheryl Klein, the continuity editor for the series in the US.

If you open Rowling’s chart in a large window, you can see that she has chapter numbers down the leftmost column, and then next to that her timeline, showing the month in which that chapter takes place. In addition to a description of the contents of the chapter, she has columns for the various characters and themes that are critical to the story. This is just the map for Chapters 13–24 of one book in a seven-book series. So Rowling must have had dozens of these, in addition to her other notes and research materials.

When to Use a Book Map

Like outlining, book mapping can be done at the creative stage, to help you plan. But I tend to use them when editing. In other words, I write from an outline, but I edit from a map.

With client books, I often map out the contents while I’m editing so I can ensure that everything is as it should be. If it’s not, the book map helps me show the client what the problem is and how to solve it.

A table-of-contents style outline works well for most informational nonfiction, but sometimes we need more detail than an outline can provide. A book map can show when necessary elements are missing.

In book-length fiction and narrative nonfiction, we may detect an imbalance, such as too much time being spent on one subplot and not enough on another. The book map will reveal these kinds of problems. A linear outline will almost always be insufficient in these cases because of the number of characters and subplots to keep track of. A book map can track multiple plot lines more effectively than a linear outline.

Consider using a book map in these circumstances:

  • When chapters contain multiple elements to keep track of
  • When you need to quantify imbalances in a story or in the treatment of a topic
  • When a linear outline is insufficient

In future posts, I’ll explain some of the different ways of making a book map, and what to do with it once you have one.