Several years ago, I started making something I call a “motif mural” or “concept map,” a kind of freeform visualization tool that helps me track the recurring themes, ideas, and interests in my stories and writing. While the practice is similar to writing a reflection essay on your work or going through a portfolio, the concept map is a more organic meditation piece. It uses handwritten notes and pictures to make a concrete illustration of the common threads and topics I recognize in my stories, like a physical representation of my literary mind.

pierce concept map
This sample concept map based on Tamora Pierce’s Tortall stories has a serious tone, with lots of text and sparse illustrations.

When finished, the motif mural resembles a cross between a brainstorming word web and a spread of storyboard art. It’s an intuitive fit for my creative style: it contains all of the information I would put in an essay or dataset, but its more fluid, artistic structure makes it easier and more fun for me to make and read. I love how the form encourages me to think about my literary motifs in a relaxing, stream-of-consciousness fashion, allowing me to discover the connections between them in a way that supports how complex and varied my ideas might be.

I have introduced my motif murals to friends and writing circles, and most people enjoy making them, even when they feel their visual artistic skills are limited. It’s fun because it’s a change of pace from demanding literature to a forgiving learning experience with crayons and colored pencils. It’s rewarding because it shows you what defines your literary life, as well as which characteristics continually shape and color your pursuits. Because the process is so personal, flexible, and open-ended, the murals are highly customizable to how individual people think and what they want to focus on with their writing. We can figure out our priorities and habits without worrying about typical categories and classifications like genre, medium, and audience or about what our end results should look like.

Sometimes, just getting away from a computer screen and putting pen to paper is enough change to spark discovery for keyboard writers. I usually write by hand first, but I still appreciate the chance to figure things out on something that doesn’t have to be perfect or make sense to anyone but me. In one of my early concept maps, for example, I focused on the kinds of characters I preferred and the major themes I explored with them. I noticed some big themes, like how I often focused on one-on-one character relationships and had an unexpected fascination with examining selflessness and loneliness. I also discovered some smaller habits, like my tendency to give characters black hair or write “green men,” male characters strongly associated with gardens, forests, etc. Once I had some of these things on paper, I started picking out the specific characters that fit these trends and noting which story they came from. Then I was able to make connections between themes I often paired together or stories that turned out to have very similar cores.

To make your own concept map, get a blank sheet of paper and some pens or pencils. You can start with the first idea to pop into your head and work from there, or you might already know some themes you want your concept map to explore. If you find yourself at a loss as to where to begin, it may be that you’re stuck on the “structure/form” and “logical presentation” aspects of writing, or you have a plethora of ideas you’re having trouble crystallizing into abstract themes or core connections. Remember that the map is a personal tool for your use only, and it’s totally fine to use a little guiding structure to help move your creativity along. Consider drawing your map items in a clockwise direction or up-and-down pattern, moving across the page to fulfill your need for structure or a starting place. To get your thoughts in order, try thinking about your most recent work, your biggest written project, or your favorite story. Longer pieces usually have a multitude of themes and major characteristics that you can match with smaller pieces, and your favorite and most recent stories are likely to be the ones you remember best.

concept map 2
This sample map for a fictitious realistic fiction author is messier and more playful, with big connecting lines and additional commentary.

Once you’ve gotten started, let loose and have fun! Write down ideas as they come to you, wherever you feel like putting them. Draw simple doodles or elaborate illustrations. Make lists of titles and characters and events. Label, connect with lines, circle things, and use different kinds of pencils and pens. Color your drawings. Talk to yourself in little comments and speech bubbles. Concept maps help you explore your literary mind, so wander around and get lost and make new discoveries. Enjoy the process. Hang it on your wall to remind yourself of how your writing has improved and changed, recycle it later, share it with your friends to explain your interests or laugh about your art skills, or invite your writing circle to try mapping as a fun meeting activity.

If the motif mural doesn’t work for you, that’s fine. Not everyone is a visual learner or enjoys making crazy webs or scribbling with crayons. Some people might feel that the end result is just a mess—an interesting diversion, but not productive. But I think that’s good to learn, too, so that you have a better understanding of your style and needs when you want to reflect or critique your work in the future. Give it a try and see what happens!

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2 thoughts on “Concept Maps: A Tutorial for the Writer’s Most Colorful Tool

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