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Let’s say you have an idea for a story but you don’t know where to begin with planning the nitty gritty of character profiles, thematic influences, subplots, and so on. This is very common, particularly when starting out on a novel-writing journey, but can also apply to short stories and novellas. Last year Editor Shelley wrote 3 Reasons Every Writer Should Use Pinterest, and this really is one of the best places to begin for creating mood boards and boards for character and setting inspiration. But when it comes to things like plot points, story-length character arcs and scene building, a more ordered and nuanced approach is needed. This is where being able to visualise your story comes in, using shape, colour, flow charts, diagrams or a combination of each.
The following are a selection of visualisation tools that I have found to be effective in understanding, creating and planning story structures, characters, themes, and other aspects of storytelling. (Click the images to enlarge and clarify)
This tool is good for breaking a story down into its simplest elements and finding the turning points of the narrative. Its simplicity also makes it difficult to really flesh out the details of subplots and character nuances, but it’s a good place to start when planning how you get from the beginning to the middle to the end.
This method is quite well-known and includes starting with a simple premise, then expanding it stage by stage to include plot and character aspects until you have an entire character bible and plot synopses.
3. The Hero’s Journey (or: Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth)
Very well-known if you’ve studied classical literature or film classes, this structure is used to identify plot-types as much as to plan them. The Hero’s Journey has been used to classify and dissect every epic story from Homer’s Odyssey to The Matrix and there are an endless number of resources pertaining to this structure. However, aspects of it can be quite limiting and many storytellers pick and choose the features of the Journey that they want for their story, so it’s not as easy to use if you’re still finding your way with plot and characters.
4. Story Map
Story mapping is good for representing different plot lines in your story, including parts that intersect and parts that are only known or relevant in that plot line. This method is also particularly good for stories told from several different points of view as it maps where these characters and their scenes intersect.
In Jungian psychology there are 12 character archetypes:
As you’ll see from the infographic these archetypes can be mixed and matched, some even left out or renamed, but they are useful for visualising a particular type of character and how it can fit into your story by looking at similarly-placed characters and how they were used in other well-known stories.
Originally from Dungeons & Dragons, the Alignment System is a grid of nine squares denoting where a character sits on the Good vs Evil and Lawful vs Chaotic spectrum. You’ve probably seen versions of these grids as memes (my personal favourite is the bookmarks one here), and can be useful for classifying the nature of particular characters in relation to each other.
This tool is as much for fun as for planning, but is also useful if you’re looking for a non-human or part-human character for your story and need a visual to find where it fits in the mythical creature kingdom. These kinds of charts are also useful for inspiration in finding a mythical creature you’ve never encountered before.
This graphic is useful for classifying where you want your novel to sit in terms of genre by looking at the central conflict. This kind of classification can also be useful if you’re trying something new, to find which genres it will fit between.
9. The Iceberg
This diagram is a great way to capture your story in simple terms, particularly when you compare it to other well-known stories. When you really boil it down to its elements, what is your story actually about? How does your plot, story and theme fit into the iceberg?
This list barely scratches the surface of visual tools for planning your story, whether it’s for a short story, a novel or even a novel series, and the trick is finding the right one for you and the aspects that you’re trying to plan. Underground has a series of boards on Pinterest with different aspects of the writing process: mood boards for different genres, dialogue development, infographics for synonyms, and even writing prompts for when you need a push to get the words flowing. There are many ways to visualise your story before you actually start writing, and the best thing you can do is find the right planning method for you and the story you want to tell.