Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The diagrammer's Lego set

Networks, Gannts, PERTs, calendars, ...

The world of logic and planning is full of intimidating tools. And rule books thicker than a politician's hide for how to use them, draw them, what shape to make the boxes, and how many nervous breakdowns you're allowed along the way. Throw in some nifty software like MS Project and you can easily feel like the tool is in total control.

But this is writing we're talking about here, not project management, not software development, not bound by the strictures of PRINCE or SSADM (and, yes, that's at least as punitive as it sounds).

No-one is going to audit your plans for compliance with standard #252 subsection 3 paragraph 9.4 on the use of the colour pink in heading titles.

The only one who needs to get anything out of these tools is you. The author. The ultimate ruler of your domain and arbiter of whatever standards you set for yourself.

This little mini-series, this diversion down one of the Byzantine side roads of logical consistency, is all about giving you the confidence to throw out the rule book and draw pictures that make things clearer to you.

The nitty-gritty

These kinds of diagrams are all, at heart, variations on a simple theme. They all show you things of interest, and relationships between them.

To build your own useful diagrams, you need to decide two things:

What things are of interest in your particular situation. Things of interest might typically be characters, actions/events, time, or places (i.e. who, what, when, where). But you might have your own ideas. In the next post, I'll give some specific examples of things you might be struggling with in the quest to wrestle a complicated plot to the ground.

How best to show them to reveal what you want to see.

This mini-toolkit gives you a few simple ways to depict these things, and important relationships between them. You'll soon see that all those impressive diagrams are built from these simple ideas, and when you see them stripped and naked like that, they don't look so scary.

1. Put things in boxes.

This usually accounts for the meat of the diagram - its most important content. So you usually choose the most important objects of interest to put in boxes.

As we are talking about writing stories, and stories mostly consist of things happening, most of the time your boxes will contain actions or events of some sort. The examples in the earlier post were all of this type. But that ain't necessarily so, and later on (probably another post) I'll give a useful example of something else to go in the boxes.

BTW - by "boxes", I mean any shape with a definite boundary that you draw around the information inside: rectangular boxes, round bubbles, fluffy clouds, diamonds, pink hearts...

2. Lines between boxes.

Lines or arrows can be used to show relationships between your major objects of interest. In the network diagrams and Gannt charts I talked about last time, arrows show logical precedence or causal relationships: this has to happen before (or at the same time as) that.

Again, I've only talked about diagrams where lines happen to show dependency, but there are other uses of lines which I'll touch on with concrete examples later.

3. Position on the page.

How you position things on the page can be made significant. If you have one kind of thing of interest in your boxes, such as events in the story, you can lay out something else of interest along either a horizontal or vertical edge of the page. Then where you place your box along the page shows a relationship with whatever is on the edge.

Timelines are one example, where you mark off intervals of time along one edge.

Another common way to divide your page is into swimlanes. This simply means marking off strips of the page and assigning each strip to something of interest, such as a character, or a location, or a subplot. Everything in that particular swimlane is then associated with that character or location, or whatever you've decided on. This is a useful way to group things together so that it's easy to see at a glance everything that belongs together.

Think of a swimming pool. Imagine there's a hundred people in there, all ages and abilities, trying to swim lengths. It's a mess. But if you get your lane markers out and signpost the lanes according to ability (beginners, slow, medium, speedy) then things become a lot easier to manage...et viola!...you have swimlanes.

Of course you can combine these. Swimlanes along one edge are usually combined with time along the other, as in the Ghosts of Innocence example.

So, maybe you decide you need a timeline, but you want to easily see which characters are involved in a particular action, and also where it is happening. Obviously a swimlane might help, but are you going to slice up your page by character, or by location? Whichever aspect you choose, you will lose sight of the other. Well, you can do both, using...

4. Shape, colour, size, text.

Visual properties of boxes and lines can all be used to denote things of importance.

To resolve the dilemma I just mentioned, you could use swimlanes to show where things are happening, and choose a different colour for each of your characters. Or different shaped boxes. Or both. For example, you might use yellow stars for Sir Prancelot, pink hearts for Lady Jejune Legover, and black squares for the evil Baron McNasty.

We've already met examples where the size of the box is important. In Gannt charts, the length along the timeline shows duration. But you could also use size to show other things like distinguishing the main plot from subplots, or highlighting pivotal events in the story.

And, if all else fails, you can label your boxes with additional information.

How does this relate back to some of those earlier examples?

Probably the simplest diagram I've talked about is the basic dependency network. With the above building blocks in mind, you can see that this diagram shows actions/events in boxes, and arrows between boxes indicate that one event must happen before another. Positioning on the page is relevant, but only in so far as arrows must be arranged to go in a definite direction of flow. This is what ensures your dependencies are consistent.

This network does have a sense of the direction of time, but a Gannt chart takes this a step further by adding actual time measurements along one axis. This means that timing and duration of events is significant, not just order, so we have used one edge of the page to show time as an object of interest, and show relationship of events to time by how they line up along that edge.

Both of these diagrams can be further extended by adding more of the techniques listed above, such as swimlanes, shape, colour, etc.

All I'm really trying to illustrate here is that a whole plethora of diagramming tools, many with fancy and intimidating names, are nothing more than variations on a simple theme.

There is nothing difficult about them. Don't fear them.

Fear leads you to the dark side...

Kids in a candy store - don't overdo it

Once you start inventing your own diagrams, you can get really creative with exposing different aspects of the logical structure of your story.

But...one final word of warning. There is a limit to how much different information you can usefully convey in a single diagram.

There are practical limits on how many swimlanes you can get across a page, and the more you have, the less room there is to fit any meaningful information in.

Similarly, there are even fewer different colours or shapes you can realistically use and still hope to distinguish one from another. And if you try to combine too many different things, then you can easily end up with a mess.

Of course, the above also depends on what you are trying to get out of the diagram. If it is going to be your master reference, a repository of useful information where you tend to home in on the detail, then you can probably get away with cramming a lot more in.

But if you are trying to illustrate some pattern or picture at a glance, then you probably want to keep it simple.

My advice is: decide on the features that are most of interest, and focus on those. What is it you are trying to achieve with this diagram?

Oh, look! Outcomes again...

That is the subject of the next post, where I'll come at these diagrams from the other end...examples of problems you might be facing in unraveling your plot, and ways to build helpful pictures using these building blocks.


  1. Pretty pictures this time! ;) Though I doubt I'll reach the point of such detailed diagramming, I like reading all your suggestions. Something might just soak in!

  2. I'll try to include more pictures next time, Mysti, and I'll be aiming for things more obviously relevant to plotting challenges.

    I'm hoping some real examples will be more meaningful and may tempt people to try them out. Or, better still, may tempt people to say "that would really help if I changed it slightly to show this instead".

  3. Hi, I followed you here from Klahanie's blog.
    I love BC. Well, the bits I've seen: Vancouver, Vancouver Island and Whistler! I have a cousin in Kitsilano and get there whenever I can.
    This blog is remarkable because you have actually posted something that is not only interesting but useful and practical.
    Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

  4. Examples would be great! Things click better with examples, I think. I think once I finish the current draft, I will go back and outline each scene in some way to see what can go and what needs improvement or addition.

  5. Hi Bazza, welcome, and I'm glad you find something interesting here. I've seen your name in comments on Gary's entertaining blog. Thank you for popping over.

    Mysti, it was always my plan to include examples, but I was getting a bit paranoid about the length of these posts and am trying to keep things down to at least hippo-sized rather than elephant-sized chunks. Rest assured, an imminent post will be almost all examples (and pictures).

  6. I love turning my plots into complex flow charts. it thrills the mathmatician in me.

  7. Hey Tana! Another mathematician? Wonder if that's why I love diagrams too.

    Difficult to tell because I'm naturally pictorial anyway. I really bug folks at work because I'm always jumping up in meetings to scrawl things on whiteboards. It's just my way of thinking.

  8. Lol, this sounds like fun - but for me, personally, it would eat the little time I spend writing - because it combines maths, drawing and my story = perfection. I can see myself losing hours on this. But, heck, I'm the person who spent hours drawing pictures of my characters in paint :p
    Good post, Ian!

  9. Another lover of maths and drawing, Stephanie? Yes, this could easily swallow up valuable writing hours, but that would miss the point. These are only meant to be a means to an end, and only meant to be used to help you out of tricky situations. Handle with care :D


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