Narrative Cartography: Mapping My Way to the End

Writing a book is like wandering in a strange country. You’d think since I made up the country I’d know my way around, but I don’t because I only think I made it up. My theory is that the core of the story exists in my subconscious and that my job is to get out of my own way and let that story emerge as I write. That’s great for a first draft, but that’s also how I end up in a strange country.

So then I take a step back and start to try to make sense of things. For some reason tonight, it struck me that what I do is make a map. I’m lost in a wilderness, and I stand in the middle of it and I say, “Okay, where’s the north star? Right there, there’s my protagonist. Now what does she want and who’s keeping her from getting it? Keep your eyes on that, Jenny, because that’s true north.” (Actually, the symbol I usually think of is Wallace Stevens’ jar in Tennessee, but that doesn’t work with the map metaphor, so we’re deep-sixing that for now.) Then all I have to do is figure out what kind of map I’m going to make to get myself to the end, keeping my eyes on the True North of the heart of the story.

Usually it’s the four act structure which I diagram out on my big white board in four columns. I look for turning points, first the point in the middle where the protagonist experiences an event that is so life-changing that she can’t go back to where she began the story, she’s too much a different person now. Then I look for the event before that, midway between the beginning and the midpoint, that also had a remarkable impact on her, turning her in her journey. And the point on the other side, midway between the midpoint and the climax, the dark moment, going to hell in the classics, where the protagonist is tested the most. Those three events divide the book into four chunks or acts, four shorter stories if you will, each with its own narrative arc that I can then diagram out on my big white board, but this time with Agnes, the map just didn’t fit the terrain. We had an excellent three act structure, but the fourth wouldn’t diagram, I couldn’t even get it on the white board, so I couldn’t find my way home.

Then I went to my intuitive map: the collage. I’d tried collaging the book earlier and it wasn’t working at all: bland, predictable, no oomph, no excitement. I chalk this up to the fact that I was writing to my partner’s outline at the time, but I may just have been pushing too hard. Sometimes you have to wander around the strange country for a while before you try to map things out. Then many months later we finished the first draft, and I rewrote and did my four act structure map and my partner signed off on it and we sent it off to our editor and it came back smartly with the rewrite notes: his stuff was great, mine needed work.

Rats. (That wasn’t what I said, but I’m trying to clean up my act.) So I went back and ripped the collage apart and threw myself into the revision of that, just taping things on intuitively, doing a first draft of the collage all over again, and ended up with something pretty interesting. The top twelve inches or so turned out to be Agnes’s life and her relationship with Shane, the hero, and it held together beautifully. Everything else was a mess (which I knew from the revision letter). So I sat down with my paper and my pen and started to look at the elements of the collage and, basically, drew a map of the collage. Instead of “here be dragons,” it was “here be the love triangle complication,” “here be Shane’s troubles in the swamp.” I couldn’t figure out what Agnes’s Mothers were doing in Shane’s swamp until I remember that they were nearby while he was under fire, just as Shane’s stripper was nearby during Agnes’s bachelorette party debacle. That had to mean something, there had to be some road connecting those, so I looked for the paths, the way the characters traveled through the story. Then I pinned the map to the wall and started to structure the collage as I added the missing pieces. And as the collage started to make sense, the book finally started to make sense; the collage began to become the map to the book that I needed.

But there was another map. I went back to the book where both our editor and agent had said that they’d have a much better grasp of what Agnes did for a living if they could actually see some of the columns that she wrote as a food critic, maybe as chapter headings. I was against that because you really need to break chapters at turn-the-page moments, and quotations at the top of chapters pretty much stomp on momentum, but then I thought, “Okay, so maybe on this one, we don’t use chapters.” And I took a step back and looked at the book again. There’s a time lock on this plot: The wedding has to happen by noon on Saturday or Agnes loses her house. With a time lock, one structure that can be effective is one superimposed on the book that lets the reader count down the time to the climax. So I divided the book into days instead of chapters. I hate chapters, they have no narrative meaning, but days had narrative meaning because each one brings Agnes closer to disaster or victory. Of course the big drawback to days is that they usually end with the POV character falling asleep, but in this book, at midnight, Agnes is either having sex or being shot at, and Shane is either having sex or killing somebody, so basically, every section ends with a bang. I also found out that with some cuts which we already knew we were going to have to make, we could almost certainly make each day grow shorter, which would give us the pacing we needed. And I could put the column quote at the beginning of each day since there was going to be a page that said TUESDAY in between each day, not just a “Chapter Twelve,” and a turning point at the end of each day, although I’m still not completely sure I can make the stakes get higher in each of them since they all have to happen at midnight. I’m not a miracle worker. The important thing is, the structure gives the reader a map to the book. She or he knows with each passing day that the climax is drawing closer because the day page is right there, tick tock.

Of course we’re still in the middle of rewrites. By the time this book is in stores in August, all of that may be gone. But right now, I’m happy. I’ve still got the collage to finish, it’s only about two thirds done, and I have those midnight turning points to arc and some how, God help me, I have to raise the stakes each time, and there are about fifty other things to fix, but I know where I’m going. I’m not wandering any more.

I’ve got my maps.