Mind mapping a novel

mind mapping sample

I don’t profess to be an expert in mind mapping, but there are plenty of posts out there to help if you need detailed info. However, I do use a mind map in the early stages of planning my novels so hope the following might be of some use.

What is mind mapping?

A mind map is a way of visually getting ideas down on paper/screen and showing the links between them. You’d usually start with a central thought or task, then allow random ideas to sprout, with thoughts about those thoughts to sprout from them, etc, etc. Inevitably, many of the thoughts will be stones but some will be diamonds. It doesn’t matter about the stones, they’re just part of the process and will sink away later.

When would you use a mind map?

They seem to be particularly useful when trying to think through complex ideas. For example, if you were considering a house extension you might use a mind map to think through the options, asking yourself some key questions.

mind mapping example 1

This example, which was knocked together in a couple of minutes, could be expanded into more branches and more minute issues, depending on how far you want to think it through.

You can see that the mind map isn’t for producing a detailed plan, though it could probably be refined to do something like that. It’s more for the stage before that.

I write crime fiction so use the mind map when I’m throwing together the initial ideas for a plot. But more of that later.

Do you need special mind mapping software/app?

Definitely not. Mind mapping was in use long before computers were developed, using paper and pen, and this can, of course, be done now, especially if you think it’s a one-off and can’t be bothered downloading and learning new software.

There are, however, plenty of software programs out there and, as always, there are good ones and less good ones. I use a free one on my Windows laptop, Freemind (download it here), and have found it more than adequate for my purposes and relatively easy to use.

How would you use mind mapping as an author?

If you’re a plotter, like me, then you want a good idea of what’s going on in your novel before beginning to write. Even if you’re not into detailed planning, preferring to begin at the beginning and see where it takes you, then you might still want to get some basic ideas and themes down in advance of writing those first few words.

I write crime fiction so tend to have a number of key elements I want to have an idea about before moving into the detailed sketching out of the story. There will always be some main character types:

  • Hero
  • Victim(s)
  • Villain(s)
  • Hero’s sidekick.
  • Suspects

There may be others, and the mind map can help these emerge.

So the first step would be to place the project title at the centre and branch these characters from it. In the example below, my novel is fourth in the series so I don’t need to include my ‘hero’ on it as I know most of what I need to know about him. If I was starting a new one then I’d include a branch for the hero.

Once I’d started on this map I realised, because of a change of circumstances from the last novel, I’d need a new person to recruit the hero, so have popped that in – it’s a serious issue which may not have emerged until a couple of chapters into to the novel if I hadn’t begun with the mind map.

From here, I can begin to ask questions and the next level helps with that.

It’s easy to see that these questions take us to more branches and that some of the thoughts will be discarded as the thinking develops. There’s no need for me to develop the picture from here. I can’t imagine there’s much more needed – and, anyway, it might give my plot away!

The mind map can be as big or small as you need it to be. The important thing is to understand it’s there to help, a tool which might be useful, not a step which must be completed before you can write. Most great novels in history have been written without a mind map (or at least one that’s written down), just as they have without benefit of a word-processor. It’s also important to start from the premise that it’s not a road map to be slavishly followed, it’s just a method of getting ideas down in to some sort of order so you can start on the journey.

Once I’ve worked through the initial ideas I then move on to detailed planning using Scrivener – but that’s a whole other story.

I’d love to hear if you’ve found the above useful, or have any thoughts on how it might be used.

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