Guest post: ‘Story Mapping and the 7 Stages’ by Nancy Dodd

Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of story mapping is brought to you by multi-genre writer and interviewee Nancy Dodd, author of The Writer’s Compass From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages.

You Know That Hole in Your Story? You Don’t? Here’s How to Find It

Using a story map is a great tool for figuring out where the holes are in your story and then developing ideas for filling in those gaps.

If you have read very many books on writing or listened to very many writing instructors, you have probably heard of the 3-act structure diagram.

Based on Aristotle’s principles of drama and Freytag’s pyramid, the diagram that starts something like this:

Across the structure will be various terms for what goes where in your story. For example, you would put something like “Hook” at the beginning of the horizontal line, “Plot Point” might be at the top of the first vertical line and “Climax” at the top of the second vertical line to show where these fall in the story. Denouement at the end of the horizontal line refers to tying up the final act.

Different authors use different terminology for what should go on the structure chart, but most authors are saying the same thing. What varies is where they put the emphasis they feel is most important.

The way to find the holes in your story is to turn this structure chart into a writing tool by creating a story map. Instead of writing “Hook,” write in a phrase for what the hook is in your story. What is the climax? How do you end the story? And so forth. By filling out a story map, you quickly learn what you know and don’t know about your story and where the important elements of storytelling are missing from your story.

There are at least three advantages to using a story map.

  1. The story map helps you to trick the analytical side of your brain into being creative. As you fill in the details you know, you quickly figure out the details you don’t know and you give your brain a problem to solve. Before long you are developing new ideas to fill in the gap.
  2. The story map helps you to develop a compass for your story. As you fill in your ideas, you get a nudge that says, “This is weak,” or “This isn’t very clear.” By following that gut instinct you work on making the story stronger and clearer.
  3. Once you replace the elements on the structure chart with your ideas across your story map, it is much easier to feel where the tension grows and where it wanes. It’s simpler to move your ideas around on the story map, to find the most dynamic way to tell your story, than it is to move whole sections of writing around in a manuscript.

The purpose of the story map is not to replace how you write, but to give you an additional tool to strengthen what you write. It’s an extra step in the development of your story, but it’s a step that will help you eliminate some of those drafts when you can’t quite figure out what is wrong. After all, isn’t that what we as writers would all like: to save time and effort in rewriting by figuring out what we don’t know about our stories?

Want to Do Fewer Rewrites? 7 Stages for Efficiently Completing Your Story

You wouldn’t decorate your living room before the drywall and the roof are installed, so why focus on the language in the story before the structure is right? Why spend time polishing dialogue before you have even gotten to know your characters well? Or why work on the pacing and tension when you haven’t gotten the structure worked out?

Probably like me, you’ve spent hours and hours on draft after draft of a story to get it right. However, after more than two decades and two master’s degrees of studying writing, I figured out there is a more efficient way to write—in stages.

Admittedly, I’m not the first or the only person to have figured this out, other people have put together their steps for building a good story. Below are the seven basic stages I’ve come up with for writing a story more efficiently.

Stage 1 – Developing Ideas

Stage 2 – Building a Strong Structure

Stage 3 – Creating Vibrant Characters

Stage 4 – Structuring Scenes, Sequences, and Transitions

Stage 5 – Increasing Tension and Adjusting Pacing

Stage 6 – Enriching Language and Dialogue

Stage 7 – Editing the Hard Copy, Submitting

The purpose of writing in stages is to focus on one level of your story at a time. Throughout each stage there are a series of questions I ask myself to help me to continue to develop ideas and expand the story and characters. That doesn’t mean you won’t be writing great language from the beginning, it just means you won’t be focusing on making the language even better until you get to that stage. By polishing the language in Stage 6, you will be less likely to cut a turn of phrase you love or have spent hours perfecting.

The process I suggest is to start compiling ideas in whatever form you prefer to write. I like putting my ideas on 5×8 cards that I can later shuffle for a better order. I also don’t worry about editing, grammar, or punctuation, I just focus on getting the idea—in the form of dialogue, a scene, setting, character development, whatever comes to mind—written down. Later when I have enough cards, I start transferring them into story form in my computer.

That’s where Stage 2, structure, begins. I shuffle the cards into an order I think will tell a good story. I also create a story map so that I can see where my holes are or where my ideas aren’t fully formed. In fact, the story map is such a useful tool that I use it at the end of every stage to see what I’ve changed or added and if it is logical or increases the tension. When I finish Stage 2, I won’t have a complete story, but I have a better idea of the foundation of my story and what I need to complete it.

Next I start on Stage 3, characterization. Creating strong characters doesn’t happen by accident, it takes work to get to know who the characters are and what their motivation and goals will be. As I go through my story working on developing my characters, the story becomes richer and generally longer since I am filling it out with new ideas related to my character’s behavior.

Stage 4 is a way to look at each scene and the exposition or narration and transitions to see what opportunities I’ve missed or where I’ve overwritten. Sometimes what I thought to be a scene really doesn’t have the complexity of a scene. Sometimes what I thought was just a sequence of narration or a transition has the potential for a great scene.

Now that my structure is sound, I have strong characters, and my scenes and sequences are correctly developed, it makes sense to work on tension and pacing, Stage 5. Sometimes I use more details and slow down the pacing to increase the tension, or sometimes I cut details to increase the pacing.

At last we come to Stage 6, polishing the language and dialogue. By now I know what my story is about and who my characters are and that the tension and pacing is developed, but during this time the language has been evolving as the story evolved. So polishing is much simpler.

Stage 7 is printing out the hard copy, a final edit and proof, and prepping for submission.

With a more focused look at your story in stages, hopefully you will find it takes fewer drafts to finish and you will find that your story developed more efficiently.

That was great, thank you, Nancy!

Nancy Ellen Dodd earned two graduate degrees in writing from the University of Southern California. She has received numerous awards for writing, and her book, The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages (published by Writers Digest Books, June 2011), covers the full creative writing process and is available in print and eBooks around the world. On faculty at the Graziadio School at Pepperdine University, Dodd serves as academic editor and teaches screenwriting at Pepperdine’s Seaver College. Her collection of short stories, Women Alone, is now available on Kindle. You can see all her books listed here.

Ooh, short stories… ooh, Kindle. 🙂

If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with contemporary romance author Marina Martindale – the three hundred and fifteenth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me. You can also read / download my eBooks and free eShorts at Smashwords, Sony Reader Store, Barnes & Noble, iTunes Bookstore and Kobo. And I have a new forum at

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