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.

How to Use a Book Map

If you’ve read the last few posts, you may have decided to make a book map of your current project, whether it’s in progress or in editing. Great! But once you’ve built a book map, what do you do with it?

You use it to examine the structure of your book and see whether it shows any anomalies or holes.


In an informational nonfiction book with multiple elements, the book map can be used to ensure everything is in place.

Nonfiction book map

I built this book map for a small group study I edited for a client. (For my clients’ privacy, I’ve removed the distinguishing information from these sample book maps.) The chapters were originally handouts the author made for her own small group. The publisher had several concerns: epigraphs, exercises, and permissions.

The book map verified that the epigraphs were consistent. There are two per chapter, which is unusual, but that’s the way the author wrote it so the publisher was OK with that. The introduction and conclusion don’t have epigraphs, but the publisher decided that didn’t matter. If only one of them had an epigraph, we probably would have edited so that the introduction and conclusion matched each other, even if they didn’t match the chapters.

The number of exercises per chapter was fairly consistent, but the book map did reveal an anomaly: One chapter had far more exercises than the others. After discussion, the publisher chose to leave it, but he could also have asked the author to revise. The map showed what was going on so he could make an informed decision.

The book map highlighted the four elements of the book that needed permissions. The author secured reprint permissions for three of them. The fourth had to be cut and totally rewritten from our own research.

One thing I was taught to check for—both in fiction and nonfiction—is chapter length. How long your chapters are may vary by your style and genre, but it’s a best practice to keep them about the same length, give or take five pages.

Chapter length map

In this case, the book map showed that one chapter was longer than average, and another was far shorter. We decided to beef up the shorter one, but the lengthy one had a topic that warranted the higher page count, so we let it go. I also used the book map to call out to the author that one of the chapter titles was a little too vague.

The Mechanics of Chapterization

Note that I use a formula in Excel to calculate the average chapter length. I take that number and then use conditional formatting to highlight the chapters that are more than five pages greater or less than that number.

Next time we’ll look at applying book maps in fiction.

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.

How to Know When You’re Done Editing

As I noted when talking about editing a novel, writers often fall into an endless editing trap. You could go over your manuscript an infinite number of times and still find things to improve—or at least change.

A client and I once made two rounds of edits on his book. If he had asked for a third round, I would have had this talk with him, but he beat me to it. “How many times could we go back and forth like this?”

I said, “We have reached the point of diminishing returns.” He’s a finance guy, so he understood my meaning. There comes a time when further editing doesn’t produce a better book, it just produces a different book. Continue reading

Identifying the Passive Voice

I’ve written before about When Passive Voice is Permissible. Strunk and White admit that “Use the active voice … does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”

active passive voice

Illustration by kikkerdirk • Fotolia


But one of the biggest problems writers face in critique groups is the problem of partners who flag passages as “passive” when they’re really not. Often verbs of being (be, is, was) are flagged as “incorrect” or “passive.” They are not. They are not particularly strong verbs, but they are not passive in and of themselves. Continue reading

What Beta Readers Are and Why You Want Them

Once you have worked your way through the Elements of Nonfiction Editing Checklist, taking as many passes as needed to address the Personality, Presentation, Voice, Information, and Mechanics of your book, what next?

The first thing many writers do is run their manuscript past some beta readers or critique partners. Maybe both. These are two different things, so let me explain. Continue reading