One of the most important things I learned as a teacher was that children learn differently, and the best approach for reaching them all included a variety of methods. I find the same to be true in writing. I may have certain techniques or tools that work well for me, but I can still benefit from other resources. Barbara Linn Probst is here today to talk about some out-of-the-box tools you might want to add to your kit. I thought some images might help with visualizing how these could look, so I’ve included some screenshots of examples from these kinds of resources at One Stop for Writers.
Ten ways to raise the stakes in your novel.
Six steps to making your protagonist more likeable.
Twelve questions to ask your beta readers.
Much of the writing advice we encounter is offered through lists and steps. It’s not surprising; sequential formulations pervade our culture. We have shopping lists and bucket lists, schedules, manuals that provide step-by-step instructions. We’ve gotten so used to sequential formulations that it may seem as if that’s the only way to organize knowledge.
For about thirty percent of us, however, experience is processed spatially, not temporally – not as a linear progression through time, but as pattern, network, array. We see landscapes, mosaics, parts in relation to the whole. If you’re not sure which kind of person you are, think about how you “know” how to get somewhere. Do you rely on a series of routes and turns, or on landmarks?
Awareness of the visual-spatial processing style goes back to 1981, when psychologist Linda Kreger Silverman coined the term to explain the challenges – and gifts – of youngsters whose “upside-down brilliance” made it difficult for them to learn in traditional ways. Despite the work of Silverman and others, the sequential approach still dominates our educational system. That’s true for adult learners as well as for children. Thus, writers seeking to improve their skills – who happen to be visual-spatial processers – may find much of the available “advice” difficult to implement. They need other tools.
In fact, we all need visual-spatial tools. Some aspects of writing do lend themselves to checklists –making sure one has covered the important points in an opening scene, for example – but others, such as organizing the relationships among characters, are best served by non-sequential techniques. A well-stocked toolkit needs both. The strategies below are for all of us, regardless of our primary learning style, and can provide an important complement to the plethora of sequential strategies that are already available.
Ironically, the only way to offer sample tools is through – you guessed it – a list! But the tools themselves are not based on lists. The examples below illustrate the kinds of tools that can be utilized. They are neither exhaustive nor prescriptive; writers should feel free to develop their own.
Relationship Mapping. Stories have characters, and characters have relationships to each other, as well as to the novel’s protagonist – relationships based on affinity, aversion, power, vulnerability, motivation, history, temperament, age, gender, and so on. As author, you need to understand and keep track of these relationships, which are often quite complex – too complex to be depicted by an index or list.
Social work has a tool called an ecomap, developed by Ann Hartman in 1975, that can help. The ecomap is a diagram that shows an individual in relationship to the people and social systems in his environment. The person is placed in the center, at the hub, with people and systems arrayed around him and connected – to him and to each other – by arrows and lines. The lines can be thick or thin (strong or weak), solid or hatched (positive or negative), with arrows indicating the flow of energy.
Writers can easily adapt this tool by placing the novel’s protagonist in the center, with other characters arrayed around him. The lines between the characters will illuminate patterns of isolation, alliance, dependence, power, and so on.
Thematic webs and tapestries. Structurally, stories contain elements or motifs: emotions like jealousy, ambition, fear, regret; concepts like sacrifice or the power of secrets; narrative movements like choices, reversals, and betrayals. Some elements are central, serving as hubs from which secondary motifs radiate. These motifs intersect, like crisscrossing trails or threads in a tapestry, to thwart, divert, or reinforce each other.
To capture the interplay of these motifs, each can be drawn in a different color as it moves across the linear story. A motif can have peaks, valleys, and plateaus. Overlaying the “journeys” of several motifs will reveal their connections. When one element peaks or intensifies, another may have a valley or a corresponding intensification.
Scene Grids. Other visual-spatial tools use grids, with “cells” formed by the intersection of elements along two axes. For example, if we want to look at the variation in our scene openings, we can list the chapters along the right-hand axis. Along the top or lateral axis, we can list the type of scene opening: dialogue; a statement indicating a change of date or setting; a sensory detail; a bit of exposition in the author’s voice; and so on. Reviewing the number and placement of cells in each column can help to show, at a glance, if (and where) certain openings are over-used and ought to be varied.
Grids can be used to map scene endings (e.g., an upturn, a setback, a surprise); settings (e.g., scenes that take place at the kitchen table); which character takes action and which reacts; or any story element that warrants tracking.
The best novels tend to be both sequential and spatial, of course. They’re sequential because the story moves forward, horizontally, in a chain of cause-and-effect developments. But they’re also spatial because each point in the story has multiple layers, a verticality or “thickness” composed of the elements in relationships to one another.
Think about your own story. Which visual-spatial strategies—ones mentioned above or those of your own creation—might help to illuminate aspects you’d like to understand better?
Barbara Linn Probst, author of the groundbreaking book on nurturing out-of-the-box children, When the Labels Don’t Fit (Three Rivers Press, division of Random House), is a writer, teacher, researcher, and clinician living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. She holds a PhD in clinical social work and is a dedicated amateur pianist. To learn more about Barbara and her work, including her present focus on upmarket women’s fiction, please see