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.

Use dialogue to move story forward

Back in my college days, I had the great opportunity to take a writing course from TV comedy writer Danny Simon. He taught us a lot in that class, and I’ve probably forgotten most of it, but I kept my notes, so I can always go back and check.

One thing I don’t need to check is this: “Leave out the orange juice talk.”

What he meant by that is the boring conversations we have every day. Continue reading

Is your epilogue necessary?

Everything that’s true for prologues goes for epilogues as well.

Epilogue, if used, is necessary and engaging.

It’s not enough that your epilogue be sweet and show how your characters live happily ever after. It has to wrap up the story in a way that, if it were omitted, the reader would feel some loose end was left hanging.

Generally speaking, most of your loose ends will be tied up either right before the climax or during it. Whatever’s left is tied up during the denouement. The only good reason for using an epilogue is if there’s a big gap in time between the denouement and the last story question that needs closure. Then it might be appropriate to have an epilogue to close up that one last matter. Continue reading

Editing is like construction: seal the joints

When you’re renovating a house and you put up new drywall, you have to seal the joints with putty so that when the wall is painted, the joins between the drywall don’t show. Sometimes our first drafts need a similar treatment.

Vestiges of earlier versions have been edited into the current version seamlessly.

When writing the first draft—and sometimes the second or third—we often discover things about our characters that we didn’t know before, or new plot twists turn up, or we make new worldbuilding choices. The result can sometimes look ask if we built our draft out of scrap lumber rather than uniform drywall. Continue reading

Transitions are key to maintaining story flow

The next item on the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist has to do with continuity:

Transitions clearly show how much time has elapsed and show how events relate to each other.

At the start of each scene, and especially at the start of chapters, give the reader some clues to where they are and how much time has elapsed. You don’t have to give exact dates unless you are writing historical fiction and they are important. You can use phrases like “Three days later, they arrived in the capital city.” Or, “The ship reached America shortly after midsummer.” Continue reading

Two flashback-like gimmicks to avoid

Last time we looked at how to use flashbacks effectively.

But in new writers’ stories I often see a couple of ineffective ploys akin to flashbacks. One is what I call the Pointless Flashback—it flashes back to something that happened within the span of the story’s timeline.

A flashback is a fully dramatized scene that shows an event that happened before the story’s timeline. So there’s no reason to use a flashback for something that happens during the story’s timeline.

Here’s what I think leads people to do this. Continue reading

Flashbacks useful if handled carefully

Many writing teachers and critique partners will tell you not to use flashbacks at all.

I’m never one to discard a potentially useful technique. It is possible to use flashbacks, and to do them well. You don’t want to use too many of them, or readers will start to wonder why you didn’t just start the story back then. They absolutely must be necessary to the plot, or why are they there? And they must be written in as engaging a fashion as the rest of your novel.

Flashbacks, if used, are kept to a minimum, are necessary to the plot, and are engaging.

Note that they must be all three, not one or the other. Continue reading