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I want to visualize the internal structure of my plot. I noticed several contradictions, and want to better understand what's going on in my tale.

I'm not talking about differnt characters doing parallel stuff in different places. My plot has one single chronological thread. Want I want to visualize are topics, themes, artifacts, that appear and reappear during that plot, are related to and influence each other.

For example, my two protagonists argue about something, sometimes leaning to this, sometimes more to another conclusion. When they take up the argument again a few days and pages later (having been together but not discussed the topic), both may have thought about it for themselves and changed their opinions, but at the same time, the other person will not know where they now stand, so that person must continue as if to the last opinion of his partner.

I'm getting a bit confused in my rather convoluted plot, and want to get the continuity straight. Since I'm a visual person and am currently lost in a flood of paper notes and computer files that I cannot view at the same time and therefore can't put in relation to each other with my small working memory, I'd like to somehow draw it all in a timeline-like graph.

What would you recommend? What do you use?

How do you visualize plot structure?

Also, what tools do you use for this?

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2 Answers 2

This XKCD strip shows a visualization approach for tracking character interactions -- who's with whom when. It works pretty well even with a complex plot with many characters (one of the examples is Lord of the Rings).

While I haven't tried this myself, in your shoes I would try a similar approach, adding lines for the artifacts and themes you want to track. When a character "touches" a theme (talks about it, takes action based on it, etc), treat it as that character "meeting" that theme. Artifacts can be modeled as characters directly using this approach.

As for tools, since my goal is information not art, I would use any graphics tool that can model lines and connections (Visio, Open Office's drawing tool, Visual Thought, etc). Or, lower-tech, consider a whiteboard -- or possibly a corkboard with push pins and string.

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Have the ending in mind and backtrace from there.

The events serve one fundamental purpose: reaching the final resolution. Everything else is secondary, hides or reveals motives, caveats and necessities, introduces complications or resolves them - but there is this one primary thread that inevitably leads to a certain end. An end you should know*

See where you are, see where you want to get, and think of points in time where current themes morph - towards the desired outcome.

I'm less visually-oriented, I think more in terms of abstract graphs of dependencies, but that doesn't change the essence: think of state of every major character, item, problem, conflict and relation as they are at the end. Possibly draw them out - the rightmost side of the graph Monica linked. Think of them at the current point of your story. Then think of all necessary transitions that will lead to that end. If they seem overly simple, complicate them; add unexpected encounters or wrong, non-intuitive outcomes. Personally, at this point I don't need to draw anything, I just grasp all the necessities and simply write them out. It's a rare case for them to be too simple; more often I need to butcher fragments because they would be too lengthy.

Nevertheless, work in nodes: given character's opinion morphs from A to B, passing through (...). The morphing occurs when confronted with another character, whose opinion was C, but it's to reach B if they are to come to agreement, so it goes through complimentary transitions. Then think "down" to arguments that would affect the opinion given way, revelations or insights that would affect it, and work down from goals to dialogues that achieve these goals, solidize abstracts into words, put them in writing.

*) There is another method to write. Start with interesting conflict, interesting characters, and interesting setting, and then iteratively progress each by a step ahead, a bit like playing chess against yourself, both sides of the chessboard taking optimal moves in sequence. You don't know the outcome until it looms at you all by itself, obvious and awesome. Or you reach a stalemate and put your never-finished story aside, that happens too, it's a risk firmly bound with this method. Still, thanks to the writer not knowing what is to come, writing that way is quite attractive - similar to reading a fascinating book, each page giving new revelations - not just filling gaps in, in a story you already know.

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