All Mapped Out: What Is a Bookmap? Do You Need One?
Updated: Jun 14, 2020
I think novel writing works best when you’ve got a plan, but a traditional outline is not the best tool for everyone. If you’re a visual thinker who struggles with pages full of text, or an accomplished pantser breaking down a complete draft during revisions, you may have struggled to find a tool that meets your need. Allow me to introduce the humble book map, friend of editors everywhere.
Okay…. What’s a “Book Map”?
Simply, a book map is a way of formatting a scene or chapter plan so that all of the relevant information is visible at once. Today’s most common form of book map attained its height of notoriety during the heyday of Harry Potter. (Take a look at the book map for Order of the Phoenix). Rowling preferred a straight-forward grid structure, but there are other options. If you utilize Freytag’s Pyramid, you can build your book map around that. You could also create a more complex grid that breaks your story down into a 3- or 5- act structure. Your book map might even be a flow chart!
The critical difference between a book map and any other outline or scene plan is the visual component. A book map condenses all of the important information about your story and adds a graphic or spatial element to how you read it.
What Goes into a Book Map?
The key elements that go into every book map are:
Some form of structure (the grid, the pyramid, the excel chart)
A box, circle, or point for every scene or chapter (your preference)
That’s it! Only you can decide what other information it’s important for your book map to track. Subplots, character arcs, and character relationships are all common choices. Some people use their book map to examine how time passes in their story, whether hour-by-hour for stories with very short timescales, or even year-by-year for dynastic fantasy. You might keep track of important locations, tracking which scenes are set there, and which characters have been there. Horror writers (and anyone whose story takes place largely at night) might chart the phases of the moon into their book map. People whose fiction has a literary bent might keep track of a developing theme, or evolving image.
How Does Any of This Help Me?
The advantage of the book map is that you can see all of this information at once. An outline or chapter plan might otherwise take up pages and pages. Not only does that take longer to read through, it also means that it’s hard to compare the outlines for each chapter or act. A book map lets you follow individual elements of your story from scene-to-scene and chapter to chapter without scrolling or flipping pages. This makes the book map one of the best tools for examining your pacing and balance. You will be able to tell very quickly if you lost track of your romance in the third act. If you forgot about a supporting character for several chapters, there will be a literal hole in your book map.
This makes it easy to see which elements - characters, plot lines, or even locations - are most critical to your story. This can help you decide how much descriptive writing you devote to a location or how much dialogue you give a supporting character. It might help you eliminate unnecessary or confusing material. It might even teach you that your story’s protagonist is not the character you’d planned. Then, you can either revise to draw focus back to your MC - or follow the evolving story, and anoint a new hero.
The best part is that you can make a book map at any (or every) stage of story development. A pre-writing book map functions like an outline, guiding your steps as you write the story. A mid-draft book map can help you find your way out of plot snarls. And a book map made between drafts helps you revise like a pro!
Variations on a Theme
Book maps come in so many different formats. We’ve talked about how the format of your book map can vary, from grids to flow-charts and more. The actual object you create can vary, too. Especially visual writers can lean into their strengths further by color-coding their book maps, or using symbols to represent different story elements. Choose your tools carefully to make sure that you can take full advantage of these tactics.
Some writers work best digitally. They could use Excel (or its Open Office or Google competitors) to create a chart-styled book map. An image editor like Photoshop or GiMP will let you draw text boxes around Freytag’s pyramid. If you’ve already shelled out for Scrivener, you will find that its cork-board feature is a powerful and flexible tool for book mapping. Some script-writing programs have a storyboarding function that can house a book map, too.
For a more analogue approach, you can draw a grid in a large notebook or on looseleaf, but… you might find it easier to use graph paper. Some writers even build their book maps out of post-its and oak-tag, allowing them to literally move scenes from chapter to chapter, to see how that alters the flow of the story!
As always, experimentation, trusting your own instincts, and listening to your own needs will produce the best results. I recommend giving book mapping a try. Worst case scenario? You spend a few hours making yourself a memento of this moment in your writing journey.