22 July 2010

How I use a mind map to build stories

Guest post by Paul Donovan Campos

A mind map is a means to visually represent ideas and their relationship to one another. It’s a brainstorming tool frequently used in education, the business world, and the entertainment industry – often in collaborative projects.

In principle it’s meant to more accurately represent mental associations than an outline can. Fiction writing is less frequently collaborative. But a mind map template can become an effective composition tool.

In my experience, outlining stories can be a big help, but writing an outline often frustrates my efforts to develop a story from scratch. They’re too linear for my associative thought process, end up full of gaps and feel less natural than a mind map.

Since a mind map is not linear, blank spaces are not only forgivable, they become compelling reasons to think more about the story you’re developing. Here’s a guide to how a mind map can be used as a composition tool.

Starting out

I start with general ideas and get more and more specific as my story develops. I have a template layout containing four elements that every story will involve. Whenever I open a fresh mind map, this is what goes up first:

I label these nodes like this because when I have an idea it involves at least one of these story elements. I can focus on what I have then start adding my story’s specifics as they occur to me. It means I don’t struggle through outline points that aren’t ready to be fleshed out yet.

Introducing and expanding ideas

Let’s take a specific example. Say a story occurred to me based on an argument between a stepson and his nosy stepfather.

I’ve got a single complete scene in which the stepfather asks the stepson’s friends about his girlfriend. Sensing there’s more to the story, I can use the template above to develop it.

I fill in all the elements of the scene that I know. In this instance, I’ve got my main players, their characteristics and the gist of the scene.

With this material on screen, some questions naturally arise.

How do we know the stepfather’s a liar and not just concerned? He should have someone to talk to.

How does the son demonstrate his narcissism? He should also have someone to confide in.

Now I’ve got two new characters and will need two new scenes. I should create two new nodes subordinate to ‘Plot’ and elaborate on the son’s character subordinate to the ‘pouty, narcissistic’ node.

Every node can be joined by siblings (like the two additional ‘Plot’ nodes) or beget infants (like the supporting details about the son’s narcissism). The beauty of a mind map is that it can continue expanding whenever a new element occurs to you.

The advantage of the layout I introduced in my first step is that it leaves open space on the other side of the mind map to fill in more details.

Crossing the map

I left ‘Setting’ and ‘Timeline’ blank on the opposite end of the map. Now that I have additional ‘Plot’ and ‘Character’ elements, they will help fill in those blanks.

Questions that will help develop ‘Setting’:

Where did the son’s encounter with his ‘friends’ take place? The yard.

Where did the stepfather’s conversation with his lackey take place? His study.

Questions that will help develop ‘Timeline’:

What happened before the scene I have? The son’s father died.

In what order do these events take place in the story? The step-father will talk to his lackey, the friends will quiz the son, the son will talk to his best friend.

What will I choose not to show? The stepfather asking the son’s friends to find out about the girlfriend.

Now I know where and when my three scenes take place. I like to use arrows to reinforce particularly important connections. I’ll insert an arrow using the colour of the region that inspired the thought, so I can keep track of where my ideas came from.

For instance, the son’s attitude towards his duplicitous friends influenced my decision to describe the yard in which that scene is set as ‘lifeless’. Since that description occurred to me as a result of what I wrote in the ‘Characters’ node, I used a red arrow.

You can see a fully expanded version of the mind map here.

Using the mind map, I’ve developed a lot of material from a single scene. I think using arrows is important because it reminds me that each node can lead someplace else. That this is an organic process and space that’s undeveloped is asking for attention.

My goal when using a mind map is to fill empty space as soon as possible. Images, links, symbols, and even sound files can be inserted into a map’s nodes to help you along.

Here’s an example of a short story that became the basis for the NaNoWriMo I finished last year – it displays the full screen of my completed mind map.

The column on the right gives me the options to easily insert pictures from Google Images and links to Google Maps into my “Setting” node. I referred to those pictures when I wrote the scenes that took place there. They were helpful references when I needed inspiration.

I use MindMeister (which offers limited free use and has a nice tutorial). You can also find a good list of alternatives on Wikipedia.

I hope this has been a helpful demonstration. But it’s just one example of how a mind map can be used when developing a story. There are so many other possibilities and you are only limited only by your imagination.

Share your thoughts

So how do you plan and structure your stories? Would you consider using a mind map like Paulo? Are you worried about what software to use? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.


  1. I hadn’t realized it was Paulo who’d written such an interesting post, but why am I not surprised…
    I don’t plot, just go along with it, but I do need a sheet of paper to remember certain traits.

  2. Great article, Paulo. I mind map my stories, but utilize a whiteboard instead of software. For some reason I brainstorm better with a marker in my hand.

    Good ideas about creating the Character, Plot, Timeline, and Setting nodes…definitely a good way to keep things clean and organized.

  3. Like the concept of a “mind-map”. Being a first time novel writer I think this is very useful. I am logging off the dayjob now to go home and continue writing so I’ll use some of these tips – thanks again.

  4. I work in a similar way, I outline things and write them down although it still causes edit after edit it gives me something to refer back to whether you call it a mindmap or an outline, I have character pages as well as scene pages to help me along the way that I keep in a smaller notebook with the big one my writing goes in that way any new traits for the character/new characters/information of any kind that needs storing goes safely away as well x

  5. Jenny Beaumont

    Mindmaps are best for Right Brainers. Being a sad Left Brainer I like lists – chapter headings. Then I re-arrange the headings – looking for a good “shape”. Works for me.

  6. Great article! Mindmaps are definitely a good way to go. I use them just to whack ideas down, but I have to say, my approach is not as structured as yours. I will give your process a go though, as it definitely looks useful.

    I like the look of the software you’re using too. I tend to use Freemind (I blogged about it here http://www.getmewriting.com/planning/freemind-a-note-taking-tool/), but I like how clean MindMeister looks, so will have to check it out.

  7. Thanks for sharing your process with us, Paulo! I always find it so intriguing to see how other writers plan their stories. I’m becoming somewhat of a planner these days myself. Prior to the novel I’m working on right now, I was a “pantser” (as Larry Brooks calls it). Now I see that all the stories and novels I’ve “pantsed” in the past had forced me to include a lot of unimportant scenes, like people eating, hanging out at bars, etc. None of which was moving my stories forward.

    Now that I’m planning things out ahead of time (and namely figuring out my base story structure before I write anything), I am able to look ahead and know what I’m writing toward. And that alone has helped me to avoid writing lame scenes with no point.

  8. Paulo Campos (Author)

    Hi Jen,

    There’s definitely a folks-hanging-out-in-bars effect “pantsing” has on my work. I think mind mapping allows for a bit of both, but keeps stories from taking a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

    All I might know is one thing about a scene to work through and “pantsing” is the way to get that done. But since this kind of mind map’s structure does have me thinking about what’s supposed to happen next, that wrong turn at Albuquerque won’t put me in Las Vegas when I should be in New Orleans.

    Thanks for the comment (and the neato work you post on your own site).

  9. Thank you everyone for your comments and of course, to Paulo for the article. Lovely stuff.

    I have my own slightly odd mind mapping technique, which is pretty minimal and revolves around the use of Post-its!

    I’ll have to blog in detail about it soon.

  10. Amber Starfire

    This is a wonderful post showing the benefits for mind mapping, and I appreciate the information about software. I think using mind mapping techniques will help those of us who are memoir / life writers as much as fiction writers.

  11. That is a really great strategy you have there! It must make it so much easier to write and keep track of what you are writing about and anything you want to add later down the track! Well done!!

  12. Great post. I have been using Mind Maps for the past 2 years and it helps me a lot to stay organized. Inspired from this post, I have documented my store here: http://veerasundar.com/blog/2011/03/how-i-use-mind-maps/

  13. Rob

    What an excellent post! After reading it, I downloaded MindNode from the Mac App store, which seems to be good… but I’ll be checking out that wikipedia list as well.

  14. Thanks for your writing. Mindmapping is really great to apply in writing (and many other aspects of life), and for me personally it’s http://www.scatterbrain.nl that does the job, because it’s very simple and easy (and you don’t need an account even).

  15. george owen

    I have just stumbled upon this site. Excellent. Many thanks

  16. Thanks for sharing your knowledge on Mindmaps. Will be very useful to me. :)

  17. mytakeovers

    thanks for the post! Just found some more free tools for mind mapping, wanted to share: it’s SimpleMindFree (Mac) and MindNode (Mac) so simple and clean – no distractions – enough tools to create story lines.

  18. Hatheway

    Thumbs up for this post and all the comments. I’ve been looking such solution for ages.
    I’m using concept draw mind map at the moment and I am very impressed with it as it helped me when I’ve started my new position at the uni. I was using it a lot since they released collaboration with MS Word and Evernote which I use hardly.
    As when I write an article I need to be able to easily migrate from mindmap to Word and backwards to analyse all the parts of the story, so conceptdraw mindmap allows me to do that.
    I also save bunch of info in evernote as i think this is the best note taking free app so now i can copy all the stuff to mindmaps and send my topics to evernote. I’m now on my phd and these programs help me to keep structured all the information i should collect for my research.
    I hope this is the right topic for asking what you think about conceptdraw and how you do things like this.

  19. Julie Stock

    I really like this idea. I find visual stuff much easier to absorb. Can’t really afford paid software like this though and the free ones seem daunting. Is there one you’d recommend that’s similar to the one you used above please?

  20. Karren Barlow

    Very informative! I have also recently found a site that has great Mind Mapping Techniques and it is very easy to use! I would recommend it to all!

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