Diagramming Isn’t Just for Nuns Anymore

A joke I’ve told over the years is that I have a 1950s education because I went to Catholic school in the 70s and they were twenty years behind. But it remains true that I learned penmanship using the Palmer method and I was forced to diagram my sentences as a means of mastering grammar and syntax. I’m sure I would have learned the difference between a complex and a compound sentence without diagramming, but hey, I had the additional instruction in seeing how words make patterns, and looking back, I appreciate the sisters’ determination even if it meant a lot of embarrassment in front of a chalkboard.

Before everyone rolls their eyes and runs off lest I carry on about sentence diagramming, know that it isn’t the focus of this post. Yippee! Actually, I want to talk about flow diagrams for novel writing.

In college I learned storyboarding and as I’m not much of an artist they all looked like crap. My little stick figures crammed into the rounded edge boxes depicting what a television screen would look like if my art were brought to the small screen didn’t work for me. I was just fulfilling an assignment. Putting my scenes into an Excel spreadsheet made a lot more sense, and it was more flexible, too. Need to add some scenes in? Fine, just add a new row and voila.

For any novel-length project I make this spreadsheet, in part because it helps me keep my writing grounded—I’m not just writing with no direction—and because I’m a stickler for detail. I’m that guy who ruins the film when he notices all of the continuity errors. Each scene lists the setting and characters, but I also make notes about specific “props,” first appearances of a character, places where I’m heightening the conflict, and so on. I almost never print out this spreadsheet because its point is to exist in the back of my mind, not to be its own thing. But even as I’ve condemned it to an electronic existence, it’s critical to keeping me on track and helping me see when I need more action, more or less dialogue—it helps keep my prose balanced. At least, I think it does.

Even better than my spreadsheet though is my flow diagram. I do these in Visio or sometimes just by hand, since I steadfastly believe that there is something important that happens in a person’s brain when she takes the time to write down a thought, especially to draft a thought. More synapses are on fire upstairs, and that can only help one’s creative process, if I do say so myself.

So I will start at the top left of the page, where flow diagrams are born, and I’ll draw up the first bit of action, which hopefully happens on page 1 or near there. This is not a scene-for-scene analysis, this diagram is more like a 30,000-foot view. If I have multiple characters in separate places, I’ve got arrows reaching out to all of them. If they meet up, I’ll show that in the diagram by encasing the rendezvous in a happy circle.

The diagram can have back story in it, or it can continue on past the actual end of the book. It can overlap with a previous or successive story, it can show whatever one needs to include. I do mine with a lot of shorthand, since they’re just for me. But I like to put the diagram and other parts of my background—like character sketches—into the same notebook so they’re all on hand as I’m writing. I don’t necessarily peg these diagrams to my plan for the chapter-by-chapter synopsis, but I can see how that would help if someone is the kind of writer who has a lot of “chapter creep” to deal with as they write.

Part of why I diagram and write up all of these side descriptions is to help me better envision my characters, hoping that then they’ll be more specific and believable. I try to ask myself—whether I’m writing something short, a memoir, or long-form fiction—if I can picture how they would stand, what their faces feel like, if I’d want to meet them for coffee, what they’d all do if a dog ran out in front of a car while they were on the sidewalk. I want to know them well enough to be convincing and to generate sympathy. Every time I let up on the gas on character development, I hear about it. Experienced readers want to know why they should care, or why a given story matters. I don’t even want those questions to drift into their minds because the answer is so self-explanatory. I want them to know why they should keep reading even if they’re only on the second page.

I’ve realized that even when I don’t intend to, I start off every project writing backstory, explaining stakes for my characters, and giving context. Then I cut out this chunk of text, sticking it into my notebook for my own safekeeping. I like to start with action, in part because I don’t tend to write characters who are so out of the bounds from common responses that I need to explain their actions to the reader. I think readers can jump right in, even if cars are exploding all around them. And I like that in my diagram I can see if I’ve got a slow start. Those are exactly the kinds of lapses or nadirs diagrams point out for me. At least I can keep them if I want an ebb in there, but I don’t want slow points to sneak up on me.

One other thing I do with my flow chart is to extract the points of action from it and see if they conform to the standard story arc: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Denoument. If they don’t then I think about tweaking my diagram until I think it makes more sense. I’m not saying books outght to be cookie cutter, but hello, they have to have internal consistency and be readable, and that means that they rely on conflict and they must show character growth/change by the end. Matching my flow diagram against the typical plot construction lets me know how close I’m working to the model so that again, nothing comes back to bite me in my keister.

So I diagram. I just don’t do it with chalk, and I never stay after school anymore. Take that, Sisters of Mercy.

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6 Comments on “Diagramming Isn’t Just for Nuns Anymore”

  1. September 22, 2010 at 11:06 am #

    I diagram everything, from my individual scenes to the locations of my characters throughout the plot. I haven’t tried to do this in Visio as I only have Visio on my work computer, but I do use a program called FreeMind which more organizes information than places them into a coherent story. I think I might try your method later this evening.

    Out of curiosity, how close do your finished works actually come to your diagrams?

    • evmaroon
      September 22, 2010 at 11:14 am #

      From my first draft diagram to the finished ms, wildly different. From my most recent diagram to the finished ms, pretty darn close if not spot on. It seems perfectly rational to let a computer mock up the diagram, but sometimes I catch things while I’m drawing it out, so I can benefits to both ways of doing it. I’ll check that program out now!

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