by Deren Hansen
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
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.
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
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
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.