The sun crept behind the towering Cascade Mountains, turning the sky red. My kitchen glowed, the ruddy light reflecting off of dirty dishes and a mottled counter top. I’d been writing for three weeks and had just come up for breath. To my horror, the kitchen had not cleaned itself while I was lost in words. As I often do when faced with a mundane task, I plugged in headphones and put on a little candy. When I need to be swept away I
listen to romance novels. You know the kind, raunchy, dark little pieces that I’d be ashamed to be caught with (well, if we’re honest, I’m hardly ashamed of them). The kind of novels that I won’t waste good reading time on, but that do the trick when my mind is numb from over-stimulation. The problem with this particular piece was that the author repeated herself, A TON. Instead of cleaning, I found myself yelling, “You already said that” at the author (yet another reason why the neighbors avoid eye contact when they walk past). This novel would’ve benefited from a bit of charting.
So, what is charting?
In short, charting is a way to track different elements of your novel to ensure you are doing what you intended to do, that you have consistency, and that you aren’t unintentionally repetitive. It comes in many forms and can be tailored to meet your exact needs. I will cover a couple of different types of charts here, but there are more out there, so be sure to explore and let me know what you find!
Charting as outlining and brainstorming:
This kind of charting is done before writing (and sometimes during) to aid in developing certain narrative elements. I often do this in a notebook, so that I can easily refer to my charts as I am writing. Keep these charts simple, with only essential information.
The kind of things I chart:
- Character basics on 1 page for all main characters.
- Supporting character list
- Locations with basic details on 1 page
- Big worldbuilding details (I update this list as I write)
- Big themes, symbols, metaphors, echoes (echoes are intentional repetitions of a word, situation, etc. for effect)
- If you are a big plotter, an outline of plot points (I don’t write this ahead of time, just list as I go, but I’m weird like that)
Tip: Try out this kind of charting in different modes to see what works best for you as you are writing. Is it more helpful to have a notebook by your side, another document open on your computer that you can toggle to, or charts tacked to a bulletin board?
Charting to deepen and discover:
Is there something lacking in your narrative? Maybe your character is feeling flat. Maybe you need more conflict, better conflict, deeper conflict. Maybe your world is in need of a makeover. This kind of charting is a fantastic way to expand on what you have written and make it more compelling. It is also an excellent way to work through writer’s block or to develop your narrative if you are under on your word count. I usually perform this kind of charting after I’ve finished my first draft, but you could do this at any point in your writing process.
Some things to explore:
- A character’s wants or fears
- Conflict (one great way to deepen and expand conflict is to track all the fears and wants of your main (and sometimes supporting) characters and see how those wants and fears can interact with each other.
- World development (What do you have? What can you add? Where can development add to plot, conflict, and character depth?)
- Theme (are you milking your theme for all it is worth? How many plot points, fears, situations, etc. relate to your theme and reiterate what you want your reader to take away from the story?)
Tip: Using free association during this kind of charting can help break into new creative realms. Set a timer and write whatever pops into your mind for that chart. Don’t filter. If the time goes off and you are still going strong, keep going. Some of it will be garbage, but there will likely be a nugget of gold hidden among the trash.
Charting your plot:
This is a simple(ish) chart to check for pacing, plot arc, and character development. It can be done as an overall glimpse of your narrative, or chapter by chapter. For this kind of charting track your rising action (I like to change the steepness based on the intensity of the action and the stakes). Below this line, I make a note of subplot development and essential elements I want to pull throughout the narrative. You can keep track of as many or as few things as you want. This is a fantastic way to get an at-a-glance visual of your novel. Too many gradual rises and you may need to work on upping the stakes for your characters or increase your pacing.
Tip: using a big piece of butcher paper will give you plenty of room if you are charting your entire novel. Bonus–Once you are finished with it, you can use it to dispose of the bodies of those who interrupt your writing time.
Charting your chapters:
This kind of charting is intense, and not always the most fun. It is a perfect way to spot inconsistencies, repetitiveness, and areas that need expanding or developing toward the novel aims (theme, intent, topic, etc.). If you are over on your word count, this can be an effective way to spot areas to trim, characters to eliminate or combine, and parts to cut.
A list of what to track for each chapter:
- Who are your characters in this chapter? How do you describe them?
- Identify the climax of your chapter
- Define your purpose in the chapter.
- Explore motives behind your characters
- Important props or items
- Symbols or Images used
- How does this chapter contribute to overall themes?
- How does this chapter impact the plot or propel it forward?
- What backstory details are presented in this chapter?
- Outline of action:
- Anything else you want to track.
Tip: You can chart this information in many different ways. Play around to see what is the most useful for you. For me, it helps to have it all on one page for each chapter, and I have finagled a word document to make it happen. Then I can print that page for each chapter and lay them all around myself (and the weep uncontrollably as I try to figure out which of my darlings to kill). You could use a journal and do a handwritten chart similar to the chart I show in the section above, with a rising action line. Or you could use an Excel spreadsheet. Whatever suits your writing style.
Charting your world:
This is especially useful if you are writing science fiction or fantasy, but any novel can benefit from this. It can also help you keep track of your research. For me, I use a separate chart for each element of my novel. For example, in my current WIP, Sabiak’s Creed, I have an incredibly complex galaxy populated with all manner of vibrant creatures. I have charts for planets, systems, species, timelines, histories, etc. I use a table to track elements as I add them. As I write, I make charting a closing activity each day. When I finish a draft, I go back and update my charts. When I completed book 1, I printed the charts and kept them next to me for books 2 and 3, updating them with each book, so that I had a quick reference to keep my world consistent.
How do you use charts in your writing?