Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Mind-mapping: Using the Way We Think to Create Story

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

I'm going to make an assumption here. You are probably very similar to the other 7.674 billion +/- people in the world. So you probably also think like everybody else. Not the same thoughts or in the same language or with the same result, but in the same way.


Most of the people I know were taught to put general ideas about a subject down in a linear fashion:

Subject of paper

I. Main idea

1.     Subsidiary idea #1

a.     Sub idea #1

b.     Sub idea #2

                        i.     Sub/sub idea #1

                        ii.     Sub/sub idea #2

2.     Subsidiary idea #2

3.     Etc., etc., etc.


Right? Everything had to go in line, perfectly pre-determined and perfectly spelled. If you made a mistake or forgot/overlooked something, you had to start over.


But that is NOT how we think!


Almost every human is an associative thinker, although there are certainly some who have had it beaten out of them. Our brains have trillions of connections, put together in very specific—and unique—ways. Each neuron is associated with hundreds or thousands of others, based on what they have in common. For instance, the word “elephant” immediately brings a series of ideas to our consciousness. Most people have a commonality with certain aspects of elephants—size, shape, color, smells, sounds they make. Each of these is connected to each other in our brain and brings up memories. For me, I would add in peanuts. We got to feed the elephants with sacks of peanuts when I was a kid, and the emotions of excitement and pure joy are also associated with elephants and just seeing a picture of an elephant will make me crave a peanut butter sandwich.


Because we think in pictures and wild imaginings and fantastical ideas, we also create stories that way. A mind map is a simple tool that utilizes the way our brains work to capture the ideas floating around in our heads. It can free up your thinking, help you to collect knowledge and information, and create new pathways of creativity. It might even make you a better thinker!


To start off with a mind map, you need to know what you want. When I write a story, or even a blog like this one, I draw an oblong in the middle of a sheet of paper and put my story/blog title there. Next, I brainstorm. What is important in a story? The characters and plot, right? So I draw more oblongs in a circle around the title oblong, adding the names of the characters I know I'll be using. Susie, John, Ben – however many I know about. Then I'll start describing them, adding goals, motivations, conflicts, character traits, physical traits, and anything else I can think of. I may know that Susie and John are dating, so I can add a scene (in a few words) about an argument they have. Ben may fight with John over Susie, and that goes in. I can add other plot ideas as I go, simply by adding more oblongs and moving them around (it's not as easy on paper as on a computer to move things but you can draw lots of arrows and use different colored ink as needed). You can even add information on the setting. Or anything else, for that matter.

Ultimately, what you're doing is telling your story in a non-linear way. Not a Roman numeral to be seen! What happens with me is that, after a little bit, ideas start flowing (actually, they are "associating") and I find that the plot just streams out of me. I add something in one place and a new scene leaps into my mind so I quickly jot it down. Or a character trait I hadn't thought of jumps out. Even new characters can show up when we need them.


It's so easy! You can, of course, use paper. That's usually where I start. But there are lots of software programs available, from free to very expensive, depending on the complexity. The one I used for the attached diagram is Scapple, which is relatively inexpensive.

I hope you'll try the process and see if you find value in it like I do. I'd love to hear about your experience! 


Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals. 

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for almost twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. 

You can find her at or

From Sally: I wish to express gratitude to the giants upon whose shoulders I stand and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. Have used and taught mind-mapping for many years in my professional writing career. Thank and "Information Chunking" have been great tools that I've brought into my Christian writing endeavors. Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful tool to help other writers. God's blessings ma'am.

    1. Thank you for the additional information. There are so many really good programs out there, it's hard to name just a few.

      Appreciate it!

  2. Thanks, Sarah sally. Another one of your excellent posts. You always add to what I know and understand about the craft. I tend to write more poetry than prose. For that I use mind mapping, pencil, & pad to create my first draft. My A-ha is that I need to be doing that with the 4 stories in limbo. Creating mind maps for each would be most helpful in sorting out and focusing the pieces (mostly characters) that have become overlapped/blurred in my brain as well as my actual files. Perhaps the best reason is that it should tell me visually which story to finish first. Thank you for this insight.
    Jay Wright; Upstate, SC

    1. Thank you, Jay! I'm so glad to share information.

      And mind maps are perfect for poetry!

  3. Thanks, Sally, so much to learn, digest, and put to good use. Thank you for this excellent post this morning.