Creative Mind Mapping for Novelists

Brainstorming ideas seems to be one of the hardest stages in the writing process for many novelists. As I discussed in a previous post, this storm of ideas that flash and thunder in our brains often appears unruly and difficult to harness. I introduced the practice of mind mapping, which is used across many disciplines—such as in classrooms for essay writing and in business meetings to problem-solve. Mind mapping can be used in just about any situation when ideas need to be reeled in and transformed into practical application.

Mind Map on the Macro and Micro Levels

I’ve never seen anyone specifically focus on novel structure or fiction plotting via mind mapping, so I’m going to show you ways I feel mind mapping can be useful for the novelist. The beauty of this technique is in its versatility. You can work on your novel on a macro or micro level. You can create a mind map for every major (and even minor) character, for all your main plots and subplots, and for other aspects like historical research and setting.

Going deeper, you can merge mind maps, which I’ll explain in a later post. But first, let’s look at some basic mind maps you can create to help you get your creative juices flowing and bring order to chaos.

Brainstorming Characters and Theme Together

I’m a character-driven novelist, so I always first start with character ideas along with theme. To use an example, let’s take a look at my novel Someone to Blame. You can tell by the title what the theme of this novel is. I wanted to explore blame from every angle, and what I had in mind, loosely, was to do a psychological takeoff of Agatha Christie’s novel Murder on the Orient Express. I had already done a spinoff of her novel And Then There Were None (Innocent Little Crimes), so this novel of hers was on my mind to do next. I had a character, Billy Thurber, whom I wanted to be not my protagonist but the catalyst for exploring this theme of blame. I planned to set the novel in a small coastal town in present day.

So I took out a large piece of paper and wrote “Billy Thurber” in the middle (see my previous post on how to create a mind map). From there I drew spokes in a circle leading out from his name. I brainstormed different things other characters in the book might blame on a drifter who comes unwanted into a judgmental small town. I asked the question: “Why would someone want to kill or hurt Billy? Because they think he ____.” I thought of incidents Billy could  be blamed for: theft, fire, blackmail, kidnapping, rape, murder, that would foment jealousy, rage, paranoia, fear. Once I had all these ideas floating around Billy, I started to hone in on these incidents and ideas.

I then came up with characters that would embody these different kinds of blame and connected them (using “spokes”) with the situations that could develop into plot points for the story. What resulted was a population of diverse members of a community—from a fisherman to a retired couple to a sheriff to a teenage girl desperate for love and affection. I thought: Who could accuse Billy of theft and why? What circumstances could I create to make him look guilty?

All these ideas became spokes connecting to the various ideas on the page. For instance, I came up with a drunk motel owner, bitter over his divorce, looking for trouble, who blames Billy for his motel fire (which he himself sets, hoping to collect the insurance money so he can keep from going under with his motel repairs and alimony payments).

Focusing on Theme in Your Mind Map

The key to brainstorming a strong plot is to explore the themes you want to bring out in your novel. Your characters embody the themes, and you want some character or characters to take one side of an issue and other characters to take an opposing side.

For example, If you’re writing a novel that explores the death penalty, think about mind mapping that theme and all the various opinions—pro and con—on the issue. Think of the kinds of characters that might embody each opinion, and give them a valid reason for it. Ask those “why” questions (see my post that tells how to do this).

Then, on the map you are creating, make notes alongside each character with ideas about their background and personal history that contribute to that deep-seated belief they have about capital punishment. Maybe one character had a friend who was wrongly accused of murder and was found innocent after years of prison or even being executed. Maybe another character had a child murdered, and the murderer is now free due to some legal loophole.

I hope you can see how characters should be created and grow organically around the premise and themes of the novel you are writing. You can either start with the theme in the middle of the map, or a character you want to embody something regarding the theme.

When You’re Not Sure What Your Themes Are

If your novel isn’t heavy on theme, or you’re not sure yet just what themes will arise (and there always is some theme or other in every novel, even if subtle), write your short premise or pitch in the middle, like this: A man finds a note in a bottle that washed up on a beach, which leads to him finding the love of his life. Okay, that’s a simple plot concept. You know you want to write a romance, so what themes might come through the story line?

Again, draw spokes outward from your premise and brainstorm ideas of theme that could lead to character development. Ask those important questions about core need and deepest fear. What is that man afraid of? Maybe he’s afraid of love. Why? Because his wife died a few years ago and he doesn’t think he will ever be able to love again. Here’s a theme about being able to love again after pain and loss.

Maybe the woman (love interest) sent that note in a bottle because she was about to kill herself and wanted to tell someone about her pain. What’s her pain? Brainstorm that. Where could she be located and what would she be doing that would make it the perfect setting for her to put a note in a bottle? You may end up with a lot of stupid ideas that don’t work, but by doing this creative mind mapping, you will ultimately come up with some good ones. Let your creativity run amok, and don’t censor the ideas you come up with. Have a few laughs over the silly ones, and dig in deeper as you explore the really great ideas. A great way to find themes is to brainstorm.

One Last Point about Characters

Remember, your main character (and hopefully some of your secondary characters) has to grow and change through the novel. At the end, what they’ve learned showcases your theme. Be sure to generate ideas that relate to this character arc. The spokes connecting to your various characters should include ideas of how your character changes, why she changes, and what things caused her to change. This is important for when you mind map plotting and scenes (which we’ll look at in next week’s post).

I hope this post has given you some inspiration and help with the plotting stages of your novel. I only touched on theme and character, but there are many more novel components you can use mind mapping for. Next week, I’ll explore some other ways you can utilize this brainstorming technique.

Have you tried to develop your characters and/or themes with this method? If so, share some ways this has worked for you, or some ideas you came up with by mind mapping. Did you see it help you start pulling the pieces of your story together?

Featured Photo Credit: chrisjfry via Compfight cc

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    1. You’re welcome. It occurred to me when thinking about the way I mind map, that I do it rather instinctively. But I have never seen anyone write about this method for creating a novel or short story. I think there is a lot of potential in this.

      1. The mind mapping of today has its roots in the Warnier/Orr diagrams that programmers and analysts used 30 to 40 years ago to design systems and programs. It really is a logical way to graphically display thoughts and ideas. It is vastly superior to the flowcharts that were used before Warnier/Orr diagrams became available. It worked well for both technical and non-technical people because they are so user-friendly in their layout. I think it is a great way to record almost anything where you have a logical, sep-by-step process. Thanks for your work on this. 🙂

      2. Great article. I was interested in your comments as I wrote an ebook / guide specifically about this over a year ago. Like most authors I am not the best marketer! The books on amazon “Braindump”.

  1. Excellent suggestions. I do a lot of mind mapping, but don’t write it down. I now realize that I’ve been forgetting a lot of the little things I’d previously thought about – so creating a written web is going to be a big help.
    Thank you

  2. This technique sounds great, Susanne! I’m one third through my novel (I started with the ‘Snowflake’ approach but even now, sometimes get ‘stuck’ and lose confidence in my ideas, so I’m going to try this as a way to get the ideas flowing once again. Thank you!

  3. I’ve always been more of an outlining person than mind-mapping, but it’s an excellent way to develop ideas and characters. As a teacher, I always teach my students to use mind mapping as an alternative to outlining.

  4. Thanks Susanne, this post is absolutely perfect timing for me, as I need a visual way to consolidate all my random book-outline jottings into one place so I can see where I’m at and what parts need plumping out, and in particular what ideas I want to research more.

    I also love the concept of centering the mind map around characters and themes, for character-driven works.

    I use mind maps all the time for creative ideas, and knew there must be some way to use it for book outlining for the visually-dominant. Thanks for supplying some specific tips for how to get started with that.

  5. I have done mindmapping for my last half dozen novels, and it really works well from me. I start to see connections, find brilliant ways to make things work together, and get some order into the random notes that I have been writing down from the time I started thinking of the story.

    For me, a mindmap moves me from an idea (or multiple unrelated ideas) to a story. It may not be structured and organized like an outline or a story arc, I may not have all of the plotlines ordered and marshaled together, but something gels. I start to get excited about not just the character or the seed idea, but the whole story/world that takes shape. I love the way it magically comes together for me.

  6. People have been using such visual methods like organizing, representing and certainly understanding some information since ancient times. I think your post completely walked us through a mind map planning and constructing it by hand. Thanks for that madam Lakin!
    By the way, in the 1970s, Tony Buzan – the researcher and educator, formally developed the mind map and its conception.

    1. Thanks, I include a bunch of small mind maps I did as examples in my 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction Workbook. I hope by showing how to do this, writers will see how terrific it can be for developing all aspects of a story!

  7. Great article. I didn’t know anything about mapping mind for novelist and this is just what I was looking for. Thank you so much.

  8. I have learned how to mind map when I was at school and didn’t find any practical use of it until yesterday, when a stroke of inspiration made me realize how to use mind maps to plot out a story. I’ve been looking for ways on how to do it better than what I have done, and this has been the best so far. Thanks for the tips!

    1. Thanks, Eric. Be sure to read all the other related posts on mind mapping. And my 12 Key Pillars Workbook has mind mapping examples at the end of each chapter to show how each pillar of novel construction can be mind mapped.

  9. One of the miserable blockades to mind mapping for character and plot and scene is the natural tendency to want to disassociate our lovely characters from “horrible things.” This is especially so for beginning writers and it is no wonder that many a beginning writer simply struggles at the point of creating conflict.

    Take heart, though! Many a miracle awaits beyond a curse, and – just maybe – curses are no more than blessings in an ugly guise. So, breathe and relax. Dare to be “brutal” and allow for your characters to be subject to the fates and furies. Because a hero/ine forced through hell emerges much enriched as opposed to the cosseted hero (of nothing) who never took such a journey.

  10. This is such a great article. I’ve never used mind map, but I’m currently barinstorming a series of novellas (which is also something I’ve never done before) and I’d like to use this methode. Let’s see whether it will help 🙂

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