Some of you know that Anthony is a comedian. He works every day to improve his craft, and one of his go-to methods is transcribing the jokes of stand-up comedians whose work he admires. Not to copy their jokes, not to steal their jokes, but to understand their jokes.
To analyze the structure and rhythm of a well-crafted set.
By writing out the joke on paper, he’s able to see the way the joke is built, and figure out how the comedian built the foundation. Discerning where the expert comedians insert act outs, call-backs, and how they build to the punchline helps him better understand the craft of joke-telling.
So. Why am I talking about stand-up comedy?
Because the other day when he was talking about this part of his process, I had a sudden flash to a long forgotten part of my writing journey.
I used to do something similar with books that he does with jokes.
Back when I was learning to write, I read as many “how to” books on writing as I could get my hands on. In hindsight, I’m sure they helped, I’m sure I internalized some of the learnings. But when you’ve never written a single word, and are staring down the barrel of 300+ blank pages, or almost worse, when you’ve taken those first wobbly steps and gotten stuck on Chapter Three with no clue on what to do next, reading advice like “show, not tell,” or being told not to use adverbs isn’t particularly helpful.
I didn’t want someone to tell me how to write a book, I wanted to see how they did it. How they got from point A to point B. How to figure out what happened in chapter four. How to determine the heck was supposed to happen in all those middle chapters until I could finally write the big resolution scene I envisioned.
So, I did what my husband does with expert comics’ jokes, except I did it with books: I studied the experts.
I’m calling it Story Mapping.
I didn’t transcribe entire books, obviously. But I did gather a few books by two of the authors I most admire: Susan Elizabeth Phillips and JK Rowling. I got a stack of notecards, and I began writing down what happened in each chapter of their books.
Again, I’m not transcribing anything. I’m not copying their words, I’m not stealing their plot developments, I’m not mimicking their style.
It’s more like writing a book report: “This happened in chapter one. This, in chapter two.” And so on.
Again, the aim here is not to copy story or voice or style. I want to be so clear on this!
But in same way my husband studies jokes to understand their underlying structure, I was studying books to understand their underlying structure.
I’m not going to pretend this is a magic bullet. Having a stack of index cards summarizing the plot of someone else’s story will not help you write your own. It’s still going to be hard.
However, story mapping was instrumentally helpful in helping me figure out to add bones to my story. Prior to the exercise, I’d romanticized (pun!) romance novels to thinking it was all about stringing along together pretty words. And technically, it is.
But, imagine your book as house.
The foundation is the idea. The words are the paint. And what do you need before you add paint? The walls.
That’s where your scenes come in, the actual knowledge of what happens in your book. Not just the meet-cute, the first kiss, and the I Love You scene. Those are the easy ones to plan for. You need all the other stuff. The scene in chapter four when a phone conversation reveals to the reader that the hero’s brother stole his fiancée years ago. Chapter Seven when the hero and heroine find each other at the same fundraiser. Chapter Sixteen, when the hero and heroine reluctantly agree to a truce at their mutual friends’ wedding.
Studying someone else’s book won’t give you the answers to your own book.
But when you write down the summary of their story, you’ll begin to notice patterns and gleam insights into how to build the walls of your own story.
Maybe you’ll see the way the author ends every chapter with a new conflict, and note that it keeps you wanting to turn pages. Or the way another author will lull the reader into everything will be okay for three chapters, and then bam, change it up in a huge way. Or you’ll understand the importance of spacing out kissing scenes to create anticipation for the reader, or the way they way an author drops in scenes of the heroine at work or having lunch with her sister in between the hero/heroine “flirting” scenes.
Anyone else remember back in elementary school when we had to diagram sentences?
Story mapping is a lot like that. It teaches you the individual building blocks of a story, and helps you figure out how to put them together.
How to Story Map
Grab a stack of note cards, your phone, computer, a notebook—it doesn’t matter. Don’t overthink it or get fancy.
Pick a book by an author you admire—I recommend a you’ve already read, maybe even read multiple times. If you already know what happens, it’ll be easier to focus on the note-taking without getting sucked into “what happens next.”
In one or two sentences, write down what happens in the scene. For example: “Chapter Three: Charlotte is packing up her office in San Francisco, explaining to her coworker why she’s relocating to NYC.” Do this for each scene until you reach the end of the book.
Now, I know some of you are thinking, “But wait, what do I do with those notes.” Nothing. Read them through if you want, but don’t hold onto them and reference them while you’re writing your own story. You’ll only set yourself up to copy them, even if inadvertently. Remember, you want to learn how the other author wrote her story, not actually write her story.
Some of you right now: “Wait what? You want me to do all that work, and then get rid of it?”
I do, yes. Story mapping is all about the process, not the end result.
Put Story Mapping in the “practice” category of writing, almost like doing drills in piano, soccer, or calligraphy. You’re working out that storytelling muscle, growing it stronger so that you’re ready to tell your own story.
Again, it’s not a magic bullet. You’re unlikely fo finish a story map of Fifty Shades of Grey and immediately find your own bestseller is just spilling out of you, easy-peasy. But it’s like I said, writing is just like any other muscle. You’ve got to start somewhere so you can get stronger.
Think of story mapping as the lightest dumbells on the rack. Do enough bicep curls with those, and you’ll soon be reaching for the bigger weights (building your own story.)