See The Big Picture: Visualizing Your Plots

NoProcessOne of the biggest problems I have with novel-length story-telling is keeping track of the big picture – the relationships not only between characters themselves, but at the higher level, too, between plot threads. If I add Mortimer to the group who goes to see the Sheriff, will I remember that I also have to put Kenny in the squad car instead of Mitch, to avoid having Mitch and Mortimer see each other before the big reveal in Chapter 9? Or what about making sure that Sheila has a full life between her appearance at the bar in Chapter 2 and her vindictive return in Chapter 11? What has she been doing in the interim? And will that have any impact on what Mortimer might have said to the Sheriff? Sigh. When I try to hold all that in my head, it quickly starts to look like this spaghetti diagram here. It becomes a mess, and I get lost. But fortunately, I’ve found a solution that works quite well for me. A plot graph. Follow me past the fold and I’ll tell you how I use them.

Sure, some people can hold an entire novel in their heads, complete with cross references between objects, dates, locations and motivations. They can keep track of which characters knew what information at which times, and even keep track of who’s got the McGuffin. But I can’t.

Worse, in my writing process, I might change my mind eleven times about what goes where, and who knows what at which time, etc. So even if I could keep the entire thing in my head, my process demands that I also have revision control on those memories. And that, my friends, is just not going to happen. To write with confidence I first have to wrap my head around the story, but I’ve just said I can’t cram all that in my head. So what’s a writer to do?

PlotDiagram2The solution that works for me is the plot graph, such as the one shown here, taken from my current work in progress. (Note: I’ve intentionally greeked the text so that you can give you the gist of the graph without spoiling the upcoming story for my readers.) Granted, some writers do not work visually, and for them, diagrams like this one are probably just a mess of lines and circles almost as confusing as the one up at the top, so I get that this technique is not for everybody, but if you do absorb visual schematic information well, you may find this simple diagram chock full of plot management goodness. The key, I find, is to focus on specific desire lines, and sketch the primary decision points along the way to specific goals, for each character or group of characters.

As a simple example, consider Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. What’s his goal? To rescue the princess. What major steps have to be made in order to get there? Well, first he has to find this “Obi-wan” guy, then they have to find a way off of Tatooine, then they need to find a way into the Death Star where she is being held, get to her, and then find a way out again, all without getting killed or captured in the process. Notice that I’ve encoded all those steps in this diagram, but nowhere have I said what ship he finds, where the princess is being held, or any of those details. I’ve encoded them with character and object icons. No matter what happens as I develop the story, those primary plot points might change in detail, but Luke needs a ship, he can’t rescue her until he’s found her, and the story sucks if they all get captured, so these plot points are probably here to stay. By focusing on the character’s fundamental goals and their necessary decisions, rather than on a scene-by-scene breakdown, the details of how you tell this story is still quite fluid, and is not overly constrained by the diagram.

PlotDiagramAnd look at how much of that secondary information I was able to encode, as well, just by adding a few suggestive icons. You can see the introduction of Han and Chewie, the Death Star, reaching Leia, Obi-Wan’s death, and then everyone else getting away happily. As my plans change, moving those icons around, or replacing them is easy-peasy, but more on that in a few minutes.

But so far, this is just one plot line. We could easily expand the diagram to show Han’s side story with Jaba, and maybe another one for Vader and the Empire. Sometimes these lines cross, where two plots come into conflict, like in this example. Admittedly, this was probably from an early draft, but you can see how plots come into conflict and that tension and frustration is clear in a diagram like this.



It should come as no surprise to any of my regular readers that I manage my plot graphs in software. But which tools are the right ones? For a while I experimented with Inkscape, but I found it to be a bit of a pain. With my kind of plot graph, I create a lot of those little text bubbles, and doing so in Inkscape isn’t friendly, because every time you change the text, you then have to resize the bubble to fit it, because they’re treated as two independent objects. The tool that works best for this, IMO, is a diagramming tool rather than a drawing tool. So on Windows, most people would probably look to Visio. On Linux I use a tool called Dia, although there is another one called Pencil Project that looks promising as well. (And both of these have Windows versions, if you are looking for a free alternative to Visio.)

As I mentioned, one of the big advantages of the diagramming tools is that the bubbles automatically resize as I change the text. The other advantage is that I can also create linkage lines between elements very easily, and those linkage lines move around automatically as I drag the parent shapes around. For example, the long orange lines in the Star Wars diagram are linkage lines. If I move the central icon of Leia somewhere else, the four orange arc lines that connect to her all track with her. This feature alone is worth the trouble of learning a new tool, as you can now move your elements around with impunity. And during the early stages of a project, I tend to move my plots around A LOT.

Some of you may be asking where I got my character icons from. If that’s you, you might be interested in another article I wrote about visualizing character with quick and easy police-sketches. You really can do them yourself, even if you have no art skills at all. Check out the article for an overview of the tools involved.

Outlining vs. Pantsing

I know some people are probably saying, “Must be nice. My characters never let me exert this much control!” But let me just say that if you’re looking at my work-in-progress graph, that does not show where the story started. My maps for the first couple of drafts only had 1 or 2 objective nodes for each character arc and I let them loose to fulfil their objectives as they saw fit. This map is the state I’ve reached after having written 4 drafts and I’m now refining the graph to plan out the 5th draft, having finally teased out what the characters have been trying to tell me all along.

Plot graphs can work for both outliners and pantsers, depending on whether you draw the map before or after you write. I start out with only the major goals and necessary steps in a plot line, but then after writing a draft, I’ll go into the graph and update it with a bit more detail, as I begin to work out how those generic steps will actually be manifested in my story. Then I have a more detailed overview to look at, which then sparks some new ideas, so back I go to the drafting process. So in my own weird way, I use the graph for both pantsing and for outlining.


So that’s a quick overview of plot graphs. There are lots of things you can choose to encode, and most writers will only ever want to work with a few of them, but I just wanted to dip your toe in the idea today. If there’s enough interest, perhaps later, I’ll do another article that dives more deeply into the nuts and bolts of how I encode different things, like off-stage scenes, POV assignments, scenes that would make great short stories, transient characters who don’t follow a clear desire line, conflicts, unfulfilled goals, etc.

In the meantime, go give it a try. And if you do, or if you’ve been doing something similar yourself for years, please drop a comment and let me know what tools you use, and what special tricks you’ve developed.

Oh, and if anybody knows the guys over at Literature and Latte, tell ’em I have a fabulous idea for how to integrate these diagrams easily into Scrivener. And if they’d open up an API, I just might make it happen myself.

Are Online Grammar Checkers Worth Checking Out?
Author's Guide to Successful Self-promotion

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.