A mind map is one method of brainstorming as an individual: start from one word, idea, or concept, and expand it to find deeper meaning. Beginning with one key concept, you branch off (in any direction you’d like) to enlarge the idea, adding words and phrases, even pictures, like a tree grows limbs. This one concept may end up branching off in many different directions and may spawn new key ideas that need a mind map of their own. You can link parts of the map with arrows or lines, create hierarchical structures or process flows, draw pictures or doodles, and let your mind wander where it will. There is no right or wrong, no call to censor yourself, and no reason not to keep expanding until you just can’t anymore.Mind maps can be small, but the larger they are, the better. This is why I suggest using off-sized unlined paper. (I use a 24” x 36” sketch pad.) Taking yourself outside your comfort zone, even incrementally, forces your mind to look at things with a new perspective, which is the whole point of brainstorming. If you don’t have extra off-size paper lying around, you can use copy paper or the blank mind map pages that follow this section.
I also suggest using colored pencils or markers, because color stimulates the mind. (I have even used crayons when I wanted to take myself entirely out of my normal routine.) Different colors can be used to create segments of related information that apply to different parts of your manuscript, such as different plots or subplots or characters. You can use highlighters for the same purpose, to help you sort your ideas when it is time to transcribe them into your manuscript.
When your imagination skips along from idea to idea, mind maps can easily expand to enormous proportions. (I once covered an entire wall of my office with butcher block paper.) Because a mind map can become unwieldy, I suggest using keywords or short phrases, not sentences or paragraphs, to record the ideas as they come.
Creating your Mind Map
- Write your keyword or concept in the center of the page (such as a character for whom you want to develop traits, or a storyline that needs more detail).
- Create “branches” for different directions the brainstorming takes you. Use color if it helps you keep track.
- Let each branch extend out with as many “twigs” as you need to fully explore your key concept and its offshoots.
- If unrelated ideas come up, write them in a different area of the page and come back to them later. They may even require mind maps of their own.
- If your mind map gets too big, tape or staple another sheet to the first or use the back of the page.
I have included a neat, clean mind map graphic designed in a computer program as an example, but mind maps in the real world are not neat. They are not organized. They are not pretty. They aren’t supposed to be. Penmanship doesn’t matter (as long as you can read it), nothing need be erased, and the more complex it becomes, the more value it will bring to your work.
To learn more or find additional tools for brainstorming your next fiction project, check out Brainstorm Your Book: Planning the Parts of Your Next Novel.
Brainstorm Your Book: Planning the Parts of Your Next Novel is a hands-on, pen-to-paper, rubber-to-road workbook to help you generate ideas for all the elements of your next fiction book—character, setting, plot, and theme—to produce a more robust first draft, and more complete later versions. Whether you are writing your first book or your fifty-first, no matter your genre or personal process, Brainstorm Your Book will spark creativity, increase productivity, and make writing your novel a whole lot more fun.
In a series of questions, prompts, and exercises, Brainstorm Your Book probes your imagination, pulling small and large details from your creative mind and the world around you. The workbook will introduce you to your characters and help build solid friendships with them, show you both a bird’s-eye and closeup view of your settings, generate action to drive the plot forward, and enhance the underlying messages in your manuscript. It will walk you, step-by-step, through choices you might never have considered, act as a catalyst driving progress through the whole first draft, and increase your chances of ending with a high-quality finished novel.
For more tools, tips. and tricks to improve your writing, go to Mari’s new Patreon page and sign up!
Great post, Mari, thanks!