Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Story Maps

by Deren Hansen

Fear about freedom is the point of contention between writers who are plotters (architects) and pantsers (gardeners). Architects take comfort in their outlines because they're afraid of dead ends. Gardeners take comfort in chaotic creativity because they're afraid of constraints. But in reacting to their fears, both camps are liable to overlook a fundamental story requirement and get themselves into trouble.

Brunonia Barry, in a post about, "The Mess in the Middle," on Writer Unboxed, talked about story maps, her solution for avoiding the narrative dead ends that usually crop up in the middle of a manuscript.

Story Maps are not about what happens, but why. For those of you gardeners whose hackles rise when you hear anything that sounds like a preplanned constraint, story maps are not plot outlines. They're maps of the motivational course of your characters through emotional time and space.

An intricately plotted story degenerates into a roller coaster ride without the trajectory of motivations that bring characters into conflict at certain times and places. A character driven story can easily veer off in to the weeds if the characters aren't constrained by their motivational trajectory and can do what ever they want. (Harry Potter, for example, wouldn't be Harry Potter if at some point he'd gotten fed up with the whole Voldemort business and settled in for some quality video game time with Dudley)

J. Michael Straczynski makes the case, in Bablyon 5, that the two fundamental character questions are, "Who are you?" and, "What do you want?" A story map simply tracks how a character's answers to those questions change over time.

The form of a story map is far less important than its function. You can use the dreaded outline, draw it as a graph, write it out as part of your bible, or etch it on the moon with a giant laser (well, maybe not that last one).

To put it another way, story maps are about what matters to the people in the story. They're one key way to approach the ideal of the Grand Unified Theory of Character and Plot.


Danielle Paige said...

I think its also good to remember that though the story is technically up to your characters, you are god and they can't run the story without you or away from your aims. Definitely stay true to your characters and their motives but stay in control.

Julie Daines said...

I find the Why question is one of the biggest problems in the works of beginning novelists. They've got the How covered, but the Why is missing, and the novel ceases to engage the reader. Good post.

Danielle Paige said...

And in the long run the Why is most important :)

Taffy said...

Thanks for the post, Deren! I'm going to look at Story Maps now.