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The Use of Maps and Outlines in Works of Fiction

Updated on September 10, 2011
Barbsbitsnpieces profile image

Barbara Anne Helberg is a Fiction freelancer, Internet writer, WordPress blogger, former Journalist, and a Famous Writers School graduate.


Outlining Works of Fiction

For a professional fiction writer, outlining over time may become a mental exercise, something he does in his head as he moves his story along. Chances are, he didn't start out that way. His first works were probably outlined on paper in some way, briefly perhaps, with paragraphs of chapter divisions; or with intricate sidebars; or, possibly, by use of the traditional, as below:

A. Chapter One
....1. Tommy awakes suddenly
........a. moon is bright through curtains
........b. night breeze is sweet
....... c. Tommy thinks of Karen

Outlining fiction is more difficult by sheer content than is a work of non-fiction. A non-fiction presentation has several points to make, which easily can be whipped into a first-to-last, or last-to-first alignment of importance.

Fiction is far different, for many times the writer doesn't know exactly where the story is going, or one character takes on more importance than planned, which may change the story and its direction. Fiction is cantankerous with curves, highs and lows, blanks, and pitfalls, unanticipated roadways that develop on their own, so to speak.

Outlining can also change with the story flow, however, keeping the writer on the general track of the ideas he wanted his characters to convey. Using a separate, small spiral notebook for the traditional outline will ensure better organization, as well as allow for expansion and changes in the outlining process.

Guides for Outlining

Outlining a work of fiction is a personal matter; that is, it should take on the persona of the writer. A writer who chooses a method of outlining that doesn't suit him, or his particular way of thinking about his writing will struggle with the outline. Outlining should be a writer's best friend, a tool he chooses, to help him organize and maintain his course.

The traditional outline, as seen above, may seem a tedious and overly long task even to the extremely organized writer. But nine times out of ten, the extremely organized wordsmith will choose to use it because it suits his thinking processes.

The Sentence Method...

A good choice for the writer who sees his work in the "big picture" may be the sentence method. The sentence summary works as follows:

A = A general sentence describing the story's main idea
......1. Describe the story's conflict
B = Name the story's protagonist (main character/narrator)
......1. What is his conflict?
......2. Name the antagonist (protagonist's chief opponent/conflicting character)
......3. Who is a supporting character? How does he fit into the conflict?
......4. Next character/conflict
......5, 6, 7, etc. characters and how they relate to the conflict
C = Describe the story's developmental steps
......1, 2, 3, etc. (descriptions of each step, each of which will become scenes, or the core of single chapters
D = Write one sentence about the story's climax
E = Describe in a single sentence the story's resolution (ending)

Using the above breakdown, the writer can extend his outline by writing a brief summary of the entire story. Six to eight sentences may be used to achieve this in a "flash fiction-like" approach, which will put characters, complications (developments), climax, and resolution right in front of the writer at all times and guide him from beginning to end.

Introduction, body, and conclusion are the simple developmental building blocks of any story. The sentence outline keeps them organized and flowing.

The Notebook and Note Cards Methods...

Many writers use a notebook, or note cards to record their daily observations, or incidents that strike them as "book worthy". A notebook itself can become a tool for a project outline, as the writer thinks out his ideas and records them in organized, divided sections of the notebook -- characters, continuing conflicts and developments, and the like -- before he actually begins writing his story.

Note cards are another animal. The principal reason for using them as writing tools is that they are easy to sort and organize into categories and they handily are stored in a note card box, if preferred.

They may be the method a writer uses for research notes at the library, or in his general daily routine. He can divide his cards into notes on characters, the story's plot, its setting, conflict, climax, and resolution, thereby creating an organized outline resource.

Outlining is really a matter of choice for each writer, depending on his comfort zone.

Creating A Story Map...

Some writers can visualize their story more clearly by using a story map which they create. Formulating an imaginary town, county, or city in which his story takes place can bring the writer's story into greater focus.

Where is Kibble Railroad in relation to Spitz Lane and the Big Blackie Biscuit and Specialty Items, Inc. of Northwest, Ohio, plant? If the writer can see it mapped out himself, he will be better at describing his settings to his readers.

Maps can be good writing tools, just as well as outlines. Maps give a sense of substance and place. They are a snapshot of where a story is born and grows. Working on a story map can also enhance the writer's creativity, give him a picture of time and setting and movement of his characters, and even clear those days of cloudy indecision about what comes next.

From the continuing 2011 Short Story -- A Dog's World.
From the continuing 2011 Short Story -- A Dog's World. | Source

As with outlines, there are no definite rules that govern story mapping. A map can be precise, a project of itself beyond the writer's story that helps him relax and absorb his tale and its characters. It can be a separate, organized place to which the writer goes for inspiration.

Scribbles of streets and stores and houses work just as well for writers who want to have a visual aid but need to get on with the story writing while the keyboard (or pen and paper under a tree) is hot.

Rules Don't Apply

Plan the work, then work the plan is a common adage. It applies to writing as well as any project. Almost every writer plans his work with some form of outlining, mentally, on paper, with note cards, or in some inventive way that suits his purpose. Literally mapping out his settings may be part of his plan.

What is important to remember is that every writer may choose his own method of planning his work and working his plan. In the end, there are no rules for the use of outlining and mapping in story creation. It's a to-each-his-own field.


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    • Barbsbitsnpieces profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Anne Helberg 

      3 years ago from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA


      Organization is key in any writing project!

    • poetryman6969 profile image


      3 years ago

      I clearly need to get more organized!

    • Barbsbitsnpieces profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Anne Helberg 

      6 years ago from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA

      AKDuBarry03 -- Thanks for your confidence!

      It's true that fantasy/sci-fi fiction writing may require more thought to outlining, or finding an adequate way to keep track of one's work. Lots of details in those areas can't be overlooked in order for a story in those genres to ring true to the reader.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Ah yes, writing fiction is quite tedious. Yes, I to practice writing outlines heavily when working with my novel right now. The rules for writing fiction become more complex once you start writing fantasy/sci-fi fiction! Well, it applies to all subgenres since there are more rules to follow with different styles of writing, so on and so forth. Overall, this was definitely great advice!

    • Barbsbitsnpieces profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Anne Helberg 

      7 years ago from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA

      @JSParker...Thanks so much for commenting!

      Strange, sometimes the first way you learn something remains the best way. The first example you mention is how I learned my first outline lessons in elementary school. It is tedious and may not be the one I prefer, but it is thorough and keeps any writer on track!

    • JSParker profile image


      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      I enjoyed your hub. What challenging work fiction writing is! Whether I am reading a novel or listening to a symphony, I am generally not thinking about the technical side of the creation. It's hard work! The first outline you showed seems most laborious and tedious, yet may be required for the good writer to avoid repeating or contradicting her or himself.

    • Barbsbitsnpieces profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Anne Helberg 

      7 years ago from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA

      @Doug Turner Jr....Thanks for stopping by and commenting, fellow Ohioan!

      I do the mini-bios thing, too. It really helps the writing process to be able to visualize and focus on the individuals who are telling your story.

    • profile image

      Doug Turner Jr. 

      7 years ago

      Some sound advice here. I use charts and maps sometimes, as well as conjur up mini-bios for the characters.

      Greetings from a North-east Ohioan!

    • Barbsbitsnpieces profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Anne Helberg 

      7 years ago from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA

      @Hyphenbird...Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this Hub!

      As a planner type, I enjoy the use of some kind of outline and the visualization maps provide, as they keep me tuned in to the place I'm creating.

      I'm happy you enjoyed this Hub and found it useful, too!

    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 

      7 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      I don't use outlines with short stories unless they are part of a continuing saga. Then I must to keep every character and plot lined up. An unprepared writer is not a good or successful writer. I have never been one of those "I just write from the heart and all id great" people. I think if one is to be a serious writer, one must plan and think. Emotions are great, that is the end result. We want to stimulate emotion.

      What a great Hub. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned from it. Thank you.

    • Barbsbitsnpieces profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Anne Helberg 

      7 years ago from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA

      @Dave Powell...Hey, thanks for sharing that about the Dell Mapbacks. I didn't figure my map-mania was brand new, but I hadn't known about the Dells. Good information!

    • Dave Powell profile image

      Dave Powell 

      7 years ago from Winchester, MA

      Hi Barbara! I just noticed this hub, and as an aspiring fiction writer, I loved it. So voted up, useful, and interesting! You might want to investigate a whole other use of maps. There's a type of mystery paperback (from the '40s) called the "Dell Mapback." Collectors love 'em because they usually had a story-related map printed in color on the book's back cover!

    • Barbsbitsnpieces profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Anne Helberg 

      7 years ago from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA

      @FloraBreenRobison...Thank you for sharing your helpful thoughts on this Hub about outlines and maps.

      Yes, I agree, an outline can be a retrospective tool, as well. It keeps the inevitable tangles and snares in line and is a map in its own right for the mystery novel.

    • Barbsbitsnpieces profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Anne Helberg 

      7 years ago from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA

      @lovelyplayer...Thanks for commenting on this Hub!

      I'm with you on "piles of notebooks full of would-be novels"! I'm spending my retirement sorting through those!

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image


      7 years ago

      I enjoy outlines. It clears your mind. Sometimes it can be a good idea to do it retrospectively too- a way to briefly remind yourself what has already gone on so that you do not contradict yourself in some small detail without having to re-read everything constantly for non-editing purposes.

      One genre of fiction that is absolutely vital to have an outline-no matter what version of the outline you use: the mystery. whether a whodunnit or Howdunnit you need to know everything in advance-who the killer is, how the crime was committed, that the killer doesn't have an unbreakable alibi-I could imagine starting from scratch and then realizing that nobody could have committed the crime, Or that the method involves a process that has not yet been invented-thus a magic type solution which stopped being written in the Victorian Era

    • lovelypaper profile image

      Renee S 

      7 years ago from Virginia

      Great ideas for fiction writing. When I wrote fiction I just let it flow then edited, revised and edited some more. I loved those days and have piles of notebooks full of would-be novels.


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