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 All of these represent real problems I’ve seen in unpublished manuscripts, but this way I don’t run the risk of violating client confidentiality, and you get all the illustrations in one place.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 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 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.

Structure your blog posts for simplicity

Once during a training session at the newspaper, I asked a senior editor whether he thought reporters should outline their stories. He agreed they probably should, but admitted that most don’t.

I have written before about the power of the outline. When you’re writing something as short as a news story or a blog post, it’s tempting to think you can do without an outline. But even if your outline is just five items on a Post-It note, or two items in your head, have one. It will help you stay focused. It makes the writing process simpler, because you know where you’re going. Continue reading