Sunday, April 3, 2011

Picture this...

I realize I've been a bit slack on the writing tools front. This is the last foray down one of the side roads of logical consistency, all about building your own diagramming tools to help untangle logical and logistical nightmares.

Previous posts in this mini-series:
Helping ze little grey cells
Grow your own
The diagrammer's Lego set

This post asks some of the kinds of questions you might wrestle with in the course of plotting. The idea is to make these diagramming concepts more understandable through examples.

Help! I can't get things in the right order

So, Legless the Elf is battling the loathsome Ballrag. He puts down his sword so he can get out the Emerald of Everlasting Cleanliness. He needs to do this before he can dazzle the Ballrag with the Emerald, and the Ballrag's cry of pain can distract the surrounding hoard of Porks. But the Porks need to be distracted before he can put down his sword for a moment.


These kind of circular dependencies are easily exposed in a network diagram, like I've talked about in previous posts. These diagrams won't tell you how to resolve the dilemma, but they will make it clear where the problem lies and should make it easier to visualise possible solutions.

Could the vicar really get to London to commit the murder and back in time for dinner?

We can get so caught up in the events happening in our story, that we can easily lose track of the time it takes for some things to happen, especially if we have several things going on at once. If you're in this position, you can map out events on a time line so you can see exactly how much time to allow. Where you have more than one sequence of events going on, lay them out alongside each other so you can make sure important points coincide. This is what I did for Ghosts of Innocence...
This approach is also great for keeping backstory straight, except your units of time are more likely to be in years, rather than days or hours. This can help sort out questions like...

How old was Great Aunt Jessica when Crawford Bolger founded the Bolger Cookie Company?


If Captain Throgmorton is eighty-seven in the story, could he really have fought at Gallipoli like he mentioned at dinner on the night of the murder?

Of course, those are easy to answer individually with some very simple mental arithmetic, but once again a diagram comes into its own when things get more complex. If, for example, you are trying to establish the history of the Bolger Cookie Company, whose fortunes are at stake after the dastardly murder, then maybe you need to track the company's history alongside Capt. Throgmorton's wartime escapades and make sure that he really could have been in the right place at the right time to be the father of Uncle Herbert.

Trouble sorting out who is where, at what time?

A lot of mysteries depend on where people are, who else is in the same room together...or passing by the door and ready to overhear the argument between the recently-deceased Lord Pantyhose and his prodigal nephew. If you're faced with this kind of orchestration nightmare then the important features are person, place, and time.

All my earlier examples have put events front and centre in the diagram. A while ago, I promised some examples where other things go into the boxes. Here, I suggest a swimlane diagram where the lanes are assigned to key locations in your setting and the boxes denote people. You can label them with the character's name, but it is also a good idea to colour them so you can easily track a character's movements from place to place. Arrows from one box to the next show when the character is moving around. This can be important if a journey takes a time that would be significant on the scale you are using.


Hold up, did Jeeves know about the missing cruet set when he entered the Flamingo Drawing Room or didn't he?

In a complex plot, it can get tricky to keep track of who knows what at each stage. And knowledge is important in establishing motivations for subsequent actions. Here, I suggest a different swimlane diagram. This uses a swimlane for each character, and plots key events along the other axis. Boxes in swimlanes show which characters were involved, and they show what new knowledge the character gained. This makes it easy to scan back up a swimlane to check what a character knows about at any given moment.
If you have a few very key pieces of knowledge, you can colour-code the boxes where that item is disseminated to help track the spread of information.

A couple of final thoughts...

Firstly, this is not an exhaustive list, just a few illustrations to get you going and thinking for yourselves how to apply the toolkit I introduced last time. There are so many ways to expose the innards of your story, so many variations to play with. Think about what aspect you are grappling with and devise your own tool to show it. See a need, fill a need.

Speaking of needs, the second thought is that your use of tools like this should be driven by need. Not by how cool it looks, and certainly not by feeling you ought to be using it just because venerable author Ivor Booker-Winner happens to use it.

Make sure that what you use works for you.


  1. I agree the tool needs to work for the writer and the WIP. Excellent diagrams and great post.

  2. Been taking it easy?

    Good post. I use software to plan this stuff out. I'm very modern don't you know?


  3. Yay for more toolbox posts. I have enjoyed this series, so I'm glad to see more. I am starting to see places I can implement some of these.


  4. Thanks Tana. That is a central theme of this whole series of posts. I'm trying to present an armory of tools, but all the while emphasizing the need to pick what works.

    Moody, I mostly use Word and Excel for these kinds of things and I know there's loads of software out there which people swear by. If you liken it to the difference between the medium and the message, most of these posts focus on the message, regardless of the medium (pen & paper v. software, for example). Somewhere along the way I do plan to take a little diversion into that area.

    Andrew, I'm so glad you're finding something of value here. That makes it all worthwhile :D

  5. I admit the need to discipline myself to do this more often with my novel -- to chart timing and back story logistics. I just HATE charts!

    But this blog entry makes a very good argument for them. As always, thanks for going to all the trouble to compile this series, Ian. I feel like I learn a new skill each time! :)

  6. Excellent post, I'm going to use some of these tools in my next WIP. It's funny the way people read differently, I love charts and graphs but can't stand reading tables. Lots of boxed information confuses me (not hard to do) :-)

    Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

  7. David, as with critiquing, the point of this series is to take anything of value and ignore the rest :D

    Charmaine, absolutely! Everyone has a different take on these things which is why one-size-fits-all just doesn't work.


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