Mind Map Your Novel

If you're struggling to sort out the plot of your novel and outlining isn't working (or just isn't for you), try a mind map. A mind map is a non-linear way to plan before you write. I've used it for non-fiction books, legal briefs, and novels.

Using this technique helps me let go of my concern about what plot turn or scene (or non-fiction topic) comes first. Instead, I focus on what needs to happen as it occurs to me, then expand on it.

Here's how to do it.

The Blank Page

Mind Map for Mystery NovelStart with a blank page. It can be notebook paper, butcher paper (as in my photo), or your screen if you have a program that allows for bubbles, lines, and words.

In the center, draw or circle or oval. In a few words, fill in your key conflict.

Is it solving a murder? A young man in love with someone out of reach? A superpowered protagonist who needs to defeat the villain?

Whatever it is, include it. Now you're ready to think about what will happen in your novel.

The Smaller Bubbles

Anywhere on the page, write a short phrase about something your protagonist needs to do to come into conflict with the antagonist. If you know character names you can include them. If you don't know, just describe the characters. Circle the phrase and draw a line connecting it to your main conflict.

For instance, say you're writing a romance with a protagonist named Gabriela who will fall in love with a teacher and eventually live happily ever after.

You might write “Gabriela and good-looking teacher clash, then fall in love” in the center circle. And in a smaller bubble you can write “Gabriela meets teacher at bowling alley.”

You don't need to know when she'll meet the teacher yet or why either character is at the bowling alley.

Now think of something else your protagonist needs to do. Or write about the antagonist. In our romance, you might write “Antagonist goes bowling.”

Again, you can place this bubble anywhere on the page. Also, this event can happen at any time in the novel. Once you've filled in a number of events, start thinking about what leads to them or happens because of them.

The Mind Map Spokes

Going back to Gabriela, you can draw spokes jutting out from the bubble about her meeting the teacher at the bowling alley. For each spoke, write ideas about what happens once she meets him, such as:

  • She drops a bowling ball on his foot
  • He had a bad day at work and is rude to her
  • Her best friend flirts with him

You don't need to be sure about any of these ideas. You may use all of them or none of them later. Also, it's okay if you only write one idea for now. Or if you start with a different bubble.

You can also draw other spokes and bubbles to cover what happened before Gabriela met the teacher. If any of those event trigger other ideas about what needs to happen before that, draw spokes jutting out from them.

And so on.

When you run out of ideas, walk away. Take a walk, make dinner, or do something else on your To Do list. When you come back, odds are more ideas will have sprung to mind. Fill those in, too.

When The Map Is Full

Whenever you feel ready, look over your map as a whole. Write in any other ideas, using as many spokes and bubbles as you need.

Then consider in what order these scenes or events need to occur. You can write the phrases on index cards and lay them out in a rough chronological order. Read through them and if something seems off, move the cards around.

Or put the phrases on a list and number the list in order.

You'll probably number and renumber a few times before you feel satisfied.

Once you do, though, you've got an outline of your novel. Without ever officially outlining it.

I hope that's helpful.

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more on painlessly plotting a novel, check out Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide To Plotting And Writing Your Novel.