How to Use a Book Map to Evaluate Your Plot

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A couple of weekends ago, I was lucky enough to attend a full-day plot workshop by editor Cheryl Klein. It was super informative--Ms. Klein passed on a ton of helpful information. Before the class, we had been given two homework assignments. One was to read a novel that she'd use as an plotting example during the workshop. The other was to create a book map. This, and the subsequent exercises Ms. Klein had us do with our maps, was by far the most helpful aspect of the day.

What's a Book Map?

In a nutshell, it's an scene-by-scene outline, created either in an excel spreadsheet using columns, or as a list in a word document. It's used to track various elements of your plot, like each scene's conflict, where characters appear, etc. You can use it to track whatever you'd like.

Now, don't fret if you aren't the outlining type. It doesn't matter if you're a plotter, pantser, or both. This isn't an outline that you use to write your first draft. You use the map to check the plot you've already written. So, you shouldn't create a book map until after your first draft is complete. 

Elements of a Book Map

For the workshop, Ms. Klein had us create maps with the following categories for each scene in our manuscripts:

(Screen shot of my excel grid)

(Screen shot of my excel grid)

The first three columns are self explanatory. The reason chapter number and scene number are both listed is because a chapter may include more than one scene. For the "Action of the Scene (Paragraph Version)," we were asked to write a detailed synopsis including the important events, themes, character growth, and recurring images in the scene. The "Action of the Scene (One Sentence Version)" is a shorter summary of that scene. Finally, we listed the changes that took place in these scenes.

You can add many more columns to the map, depending on the needs of your story. For example:

  • Word count for the scene

  • Type of scene (action, dialogue, reflection, summary of events, etc.)

  • Which plot does the scene fall into (main plot vs. subplot(s))?

  • Characters in the scene

  • Setting

  • Day/Time of scene

  • What does the character wants in this scene?

  • Does the character get what they want in this scene?

  • Conflict in the scene

  • Stakes in the scene

The possibilities are endless! I added the last column, "Notes/Ideas" myself so I'd have a spot on the grid to write things down.

Purpose of a Book Map

The process of summarizing your story via the map allows you to look at your plot as a whole without being bogged down by the actual words in your manuscript. You can have a more objective view of whether or not your plot works, and where the holes might be. Is there a scene where you can't describe the conflict, or what changes? You will need to fix that. Are there too many scenes in a row showing reflection instead of action? That's something you can tackle in revision. Just from putting the map together, you'll notice certain things you'll want or need to change in your story.

Going a Step Further

During the workshop, Ms. Klein gave us bunch of exercises to complete using our book maps. For example, we were asked to circle certain elements of our plot (like the inciting incident and climax) on our book map. Other exercises include marking the moments when the stakes changed, and highlighting the various subplot arcs. Again, once you have your book map, you can quickly and easily evaluate what's working and what's not in your manuscript by checking on certain elements.

There is so much more to book mapping than I can fit into this blog post. The good news is Ms. Klein has all of the wonderful information she shared with us on book maps, plotting, and revision in her book SECOND SIGHT. In fact, she wrote all about book maps in the chapter called "The Art of Detection: One Editor's Techniques for Analyzing and Revising Your Novel" starting on page 81. I own a copy of the book and plan to refer back to it often while working on my manuscripts. If you're looking for another craft book to add to your list, I highly recommend it!

Whether you're writing or revising for our YAB Spring Writing Bootcamp, good luck with all of your goals!