After writing a 160k word book and cutting it down to 125k, I found myself at an impasse. The thing was too big, too unwieldy, to approach as a whole. I needed a way to see it in miniature, to find needed scenes without scrolling for hours, and to know where I had too much, and too little, of characters; in short, I needed a tactic that would cover everything. This was my solution.
What is Chapter Mapping?
My version of chapter mapping involves breaking every scene down into the following parts:
- What is happening (a general, very brief summary)
- Who is in the scene (mostly supporting characters)
- What is being mentioned (such as mystery hints and recurring images)
How is It Useful?
- Helps you find specific scenes without scrolling for ages
- Helps you see how which characters are over-represented, and vice versa
- Helps you find crowded scenes, or scenes that don’t pull their weight
- Helps you see how much (or how little) you hint at each particular mystery
- Presents scenes in miniature, allowing you to see places where moving or merging scenes could benefit you
How to Map
Create a new document. Give it these major headings:
- Solved (optional)
- Unsolved (optional)
- Chapter numbers/Part numbers/Prologue/Epilogue
Now turn to the first scene of your first chapter (or prologue). Under the chapter heading on your map document, do the following:
Step One: Summarize the first scene. Tell, very briefly, what happens.
Step Two: In the summary, caps-lock all characters that are physically in the scene. Caps-lock each character no more than once per scene. If characters are only mentioned, don’t caps them. Also, if your whole book follows one character, there’s no need to caps-lock them, since they’ll be in every scene.
Step Three: Come up with a one-word code for everything you want to track. This will mostly include hints: specific “mysteries” or plot reveals and the hints leading up to them. Write hint codes in ALL CAPS. You can also include mentions: symbols, objects, or other things you want to purposely repeat. Write mention codes in lowercase so you can keep them separate. I find this is easier to do as you go along, rather than beforehand.
- Marcy’s father is really Percival! [FATHER]
- Marcy is impervious to fire! [FIRE]
- An apple symbol, which represents the loss of Marcy’s innocence. [apple]
Step Three: Add hint and mention codes on a new line under the summary. The summary is just for jogging your memory for what goes where, so it doesn’t need to be complicated.
For example, you could have a scene where Tom, the main character, and Marcy, a side character, find a letter written to Percival from Marcy’s mother. When Marcy accidentally sets fire to it, she touches the fire and is not hurt, but since it is a moment of fear, she does not notice. On their run for the phone, Marcy trips on an apple fallen on the kitchen floor. The following would be a map for that scene:
Tom and MARCY find an old letter from her mother in Percival’s desk drawer, Marcy tips the candle in surprise, the desk catches fire. They run for the phone, call 9-1-1.
FATHER – FIRE – apple
You don’t need to write the apple thing in the summary, because it’s not really important to the scene. You also don’t need to put Percival in caps-lock, since he is not physically in the scene, nor Tom, because he’s the main character; and you only caps-lock Marcy once, or you’ll throw off you count.
Step Four: Bold your hint mentions when the mystery is solved. For example, the moment Marcy actually realizes she is impervious to fire, you would use the hint code FIRE rather than simple FIRE. You can list these under your “Solved” and “Unsolved” headings to watch what is revealed first, and how many mysteries you reserve for books later in the series (if any).
Step Five: Repeat for every scene. Separate each scene with a line break, and separate chapters and other segments by heading.
When You’re Done Mapping
First, print it out. The Map is a great tool for streamlining plot and cutting word count, but you need to see it as a whole to make the most of your changes. Another helpful trick is to get beta reader feedback; when paired with the Map, even the most insubstantial recommended changes can start making sense.
Here are some of the best ways to use your Map:
Locate specific scenes quickly. Rather than scrolling through 100,000 words of your book for that one scene your beta suggested you fix, scroll through your Map instead. You can Ctrl-F for characters and mentions to help you find it faster, then refer to the headings around it to see which chapter it’s in.
Count your character mentions. Do a Ctrl-F (Find) function for each character name in capital letters. To find only full-caps names, select “More Options” in the Find dialog box, and check the “Match Case” box for an all-caps name. Then, under the CHARACTER heading of your Map, list the number of each character’s appearances. This can tell you:
- Which minor characters get too much screen time
- Which major characters get too little screen time
- Help you locate a particular character’s scenes in order to:
- develop them intensively
- read through only their parts to check for development/flow/etc
See which scenes are “overloaded.” Scenes that have too many mentions or solve too many mysteries at once are prime candidates for cutting word count. These are often clunky, confusing reads, and their revelations should likely be moved or cut.
See which scenes are “underweight.” If you need to drop word count (and everyone does), find the scenes with the fewest mentions, the most-repeated characters, and no solved mysteries. Some can be cut, while some will be great when you merge their best parts with other scenes.
See if you hinted enough, or too much, at any given mystery or symbol. Are you beating the reader over the head with an image? Does that mystery come out of nowhere? The Map can show you exactly how and where you are making these mistakes – and can help you figure out where to cut and add accordingly.
See opportunities for streamlining at a macro level. Your book is in miniature now. Which scenes work better as one scene? Which chapters would be effective if moved forward or back? You can now visually – or physically – cut and paste to find out!
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