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Wednesday, 12 October 2011

A guide to managing complex storylines – Part 2 – Swimlanes

My previous blog concentrated on tips for building suspense in stories and how to leave hooks that the reader can grab hold of.

This week I am looking at planning and managing timelines, character storylines and how to ensure each thread is not lost in the mass of words that a book becomes.

So the concept I use is swimlanes. Anyone familiar with a project management textbook may know this already. It’s not quite a project plan, which can be a painfully detailed document to manage, but does borrow some principles.

Please don’t run off now that I have mentioned the words project and management, I’m not going to get all theoretical and start boring everyone with powerpoints and clip art. Writing is a creative activity but sometimes we need to borrow a bit of structure to stop ourselves descending into a confused mire.

The metaphor of swimlanes is to look at the timeline of the story as a swimming pool with lanes mapped along the pool. You can then plot storylines or characters within each lane at each point of the story. By using a swimlane for each element of the story you can visualise your characters at each stage and see where the overlaps are or gaps.

Before this gets too heavy here’s an example.

If I use the example of A Very English Revolution, the time line for the book was four weeks. I used Microsoft excel, the best piece of PC software ever, You can use a piece of paper on the wall, whatever works for you. I use excel because I can transport on my laptop with the text and and as opposed to MS word you never run out of page. Even the Lord of the Rings is not going to challenge the excel page limits.

I drew a column for each day of the 4 week period and then defined a row/lane for key characters in the story, Rachel, Joe, Lucy, Sarah. I then summarised the key story point in each day for them. Lucy on Saturday would meet Joe in the park at 2;00 p.m. I write that in the cell for Joe and Lucy for that day. I can then see for each of my other characters where they are at the same time. And it goes on.

Cell by cell you can plot out the storyline

There are probably numerous other ways to do this and I believe there are software packages that can be purchased for the purpose of. But I believe this is as good as anything. The key point is to take the time to think about how your story will pan out. I’m not saying you need to know every angle when you start but you can keep it up to date as you write. Use a different colour to show things you’ve done or yet to do. Things you have to come back to.

Every author probably has a how to structure a story methodology. It’s each to their own. I like this one as I can see where my characters are and can easily cross-reference key elements of the story to tick off.

© S.G.Norris

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