I started using mind maps through my day job a little over three and a half years ago. I’d been exposed to them earlier, but hadn’t really cottoned to them right away. If you’re not familiar with mind maps you can get a broad overview here.

I’ve used a lot of different methods for outlining story ideas. My earliest versions were breaking a script down into a collection of related scenes as segments and giving each segment a page in a notebook. These segments would then be broken out into their individual scenes. It’s a useful structure for getting content down, but fairly rigid in organizing. If anything is out of place you basically have to rewrite content.

This inevitably moved to the computer and I started doing this within a plain text document. This was better than the notebook method, but still had some problems easily organizing content. Reorganizing small bits of content was slow. Parsing through a long text file is equally slow. A heavy weight and fleshed out text document for a feature length screenplay could end up over thirty pages of point form notes. This isn’t terribly efficient for quick reference.

I’ve gone through a couple of other tools over time as process improvement is important to me. I’ve used some tools that were geared specifically toward outlining and story development. These tools primarily ended up being clunky to use. They were better at impeding the process than fostering it. The remainder were generally too stripped down to be very effective. I’ve also used the tools provided by some screenwriting packages. Again, they were either too basic or required some contortions to work well within my default operating mode. I’ve gone as far as outlining directly in the screenwriting editor itself. Functional, but not much more capable than the plain text file.

When I switched companies three and a half years back I was introduced to mind maps within context. As a software tester we were working to maintain some sense of hierarchical data for the things we were testing. Mind maps were a natural way to approach this. I spent most of my day working in mind mapping applications (I prefer FreeMind) and seeing how easily content could be generated, linked, and reorganized. Once that workflow was under my fingers I couldn’t help but switch over to it.

I use mind maps for a lot of content now. As an example, I’m using a mind map to organize the entire process for the audio drama production I’m pulling together. Here’s a high level idea of the structure.

  • Root Level
    • About Project
      • a couple of high level statements about the project
      • this is for reference when I start losing my direction
    • Potential Projects
      • Project 1
        • all notes I’ve generated around Project 1
      • Project 2
      • Project 3
    • In Progress Projects
      • Premise
        • the short statement of the general premise
      • Bulk Notes
        • all general notes about the project early on
        • this includes scene, setting, character, dialogue, and structure notes
        • this is essentially a dumping ground including ideas I’m not sure will be included in the outline
      • Character Notes
        • Character 1
          • subnotes related to the character
          • relationships, history, motivation
        • Character 2
      • Rough Outline
        • segmented outline
        • this is a broad overview of the general structure drawing from the bulk notes
      • Full Outline
        • scene by scene or beat by beat break down
        • this will include as much dialogue and flow as possible
        • includes everything from the bulk notes and rough outline that makes the cut
        • this can almost function as a rough first draft on its own
    • Project Ideas
      • Project X
        • high level premise notes
        • it may include some bulk notes, if relevant
    • Future Wants
      • production thoughts for the future
      • long term goals
      • future problems, including solved and unsolved
    • post mortem
      • this is a generalized thing I keep around for completed or abandoned issues
      • I don’t like to delete content unless it’s of absolutely no value
      • an example in here is when I was working out titles for the project

Even putting this into a list makes it seem like a lot of content. However, when in a mind map, with the capability to expand and collapse content, it becomes a lot more manageable. Parsing and reorganizing the content is extremely quick and easy. In general, this is skimming the surface of what mind maps are capable of in organizing a story structure. It’s a topic I’ll likely come back to in the future.