Sunday, November 21, 2010

Mind Mapping, a Tool for Brainstorming

Although I've created mind maps and found them useful for generating ideas, seeing relationships, and clarifying thoughts, I don't know much about them. Thus, this post: A way to introduce this useful concept to those of you who have never encountered it before and to research it for myself.

First, I'll put up a crude mind map I created using free online software ( to show what it is we're talking about:
This mind map shows my brainstorming for this post. This is about as simple as a mind map can get; for examples of more sophisticated and better designed mind maps, go here.

What is a mind map? A mind map is a diagram that organizes thoughts, ideas, tasks, and other kinds of text around a central concept that links them all. Above, for example, the central concept, placed in the center like a tree trunk, is "mindmapping." Questions branch off on limbs, which can themselves branch as many times as needed.

According to my research, organizing knowledge graphically dates back centuries. Today's mind mapping concept was invented in the second half of the 20th century, although various people are credited in different sources.

What purpose does it serve? If you went to an American high school, you probably were taught rules for outlining and are well acquainted with the frustrations of trying to follow them. Mind mapping has several advantages over traditional outlining. For example:
  • Mind maps are more flexible and more accommodating of the real world. There doesn't need to be a III.B.2. to balance a III.B.1., for example.
  • Creating a mind map draws on your intuition and subconscious, not solely the areas of your brain concerned with logic and hierarchy.
  • Colors, shapes, and line thicknesses can add additional information without taking up any extra space.
  • Concepts can be illustrated with images rather than words.
  • Complex relationships can be shown by connecting branches or twigs with a line. If relationships are complicated enough, that line can have a secondary node from which new branches can sprout. This is called a "concept map"; mind mapping is a simplified version of concept mapping.
Examples of things you can do with mind mapping:
  • Brainstorm Christmas gifts for your nieces and nephews.
  • Expand a short story idea (see below).
  • Take lecture notes (especially useful for classes in which the professor routine wanders off on tangents).
  • Break down a book project into its various components and subcomponents.
  • Put information in graphic form so you can memorize it more easily.
  • Choose a dinner party theme and plan an appropriate menu.
  • Reconstruct a memory whose details are foggy.
How does one make a mind map? One of the great things about mind maps is that although there are some general guidelines, such as putting the core idea in the middle and labeling each branch with only one word or concept, you can organize your mind map in whatever way seems most useful.

I'll walk through a simple example (without drawings, so that this post does not scroll on and on for yards). I recently came across an anthology looking for submissions; I'll use a mind map to brainstorm.

First, I'll write the name of the anthology, "Zombies Without Borders," in the center of my paper.

My first branch will be labeled "submission information." This branch will have branchlets with the desired word count, deadline for receipt, pay rate, submission email, and other details.

The anthologist desires stories set somewhere other than the United States, with culture and geography used to showcase the setting. So my next branch will be "possible locations." Each branchlet will bear the name of a city or country. I will get some chocolate for inspiration and fill these in by free association. Haiti and West Africa are two obvious branchlets—probably too obvious, but I'll make a branchlet for each anyway. I'll also add branchlets for Egypt (maybe I could do something with mummies?), Antarctica (what happens when zombies don't rot?), and the Guatemalan jungle (because I'm interested in synchretic religions). Note that in the process of choosing labels for the branches, I've also come up with a couple of possible story questions.

My next branch will be labeled "zombies." Its branchlets and twigs will categorize the types of zombies in literature and folklore and their respective traits. Alternatively, this branch could end in a circle that encloses the words, "See Wikipedia article printout on zombies; it's in the pile of unread mail."

Because the anthology submission stories are supposed to feature their settings, my next branch will be "possible plots specific to locations." Again, I'll use chocolate and free association to label the branchlets. One obvious branchlet is "zombies vs. local supernatural beings." Sub-branches could be "media-style zombies vs. Vodou zombies," "zombies vs. mummies," "zombies vs. Legba," and "zombies vs. the Abominable Snowman." Other possible branchlets might include "fighting zombies with local fruits or vegetables" (what would be the effect of throwing stinky durians at a zombie horde?); "fighting zombies with local poisonous creatures" (would the bite of a Komodo dragon make a zombie rot away in a few days? I'll go back and add an "Indonesian islands" branchlet to my "possible locations" branch); "effects of local climate on zombies"; and "what happens when zombies show up in place where the people have no knowledge of zombies?"

Note that these branchlets do not have names that are parallel to each other in construction. In mind mapping, intuitive logic is as important as formal logic.

I think that's enough of a start to give you a good idea of how one can devise multiple plots for a short story idea by mind mapping around a germ of an idea—in this case, three words. In case you're curious, in the process of creating this mind map, I came up with an intriguing idea for a zombie story that perhaps I'll write.

Should one draw by hand or use a computer? Personally, I like the freedom of drawing my mind maps with colored pens or pencils on paper. It's faster, so my map can keep up with my ideas.

If you want something that looks more orderly (perhaps for a presentation at your office) or if your handwriting is unreadable, you can construct mind maps on the computer in various ways.

First of all, Microsoft Word is equipped with everything you need to make a mind map. The Object Palette contains shapes, lines, arrows, and simple drawings and photos that you can arrange on the page and label. The Drawing Toolbar has an even more extensive set of options, including flowcharts.

If you need or prefer more sophisticated tools, you can find many programs for drawing mind maps on the Web. Many of these are free. Here are two Websites where you can find lists and brief descriptions of programs for mind mapping and concept mapping:

Have you experimented with mind maps? Do you have any useful tricks, or have you found unusual applications for them? I'd like to hear your experiences.

Thank you for stopping by today. I'll be blogging again at Novel Spaces on December 5. Until then, I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

—Shauna Roberts


Charles Gramlich said...

Mind maps reflect the way our minds normally work better than outlines do,. I talk about them in class at times, or at least something similar. I seldom actually write one down or draw it out for myself though.

Shauna Roberts said...

CHARLES, I had guessed that might be the case since mind maps are so much easier to do than outlines (even for someone as analytical as me), but I'm glad to have a psychologist confirm it.

Farrah Rochon said...

Shauna, I love mind mapping. I don't necessarily call it that, but I engage in the process with every book. Just another way to get my ideas out. I always find a little node of connection between characters or subplots that I didn't realize would/should be there.

Terri-Lynne said...

This is SO COOL! Do you mind if I share this? I know a lot of people who might find it very helpful.

Liane Spicer said...

I don't think I've heard the term before, but I sometimes do a rough version of this when I'm outlining. Love the idea of using different colours and line thicknesses.

KeVin K. said...

I do storyboarding, which should be a verb. Or sometimes they look like flow charts. Or sometimes just circles and boxes and triangles connected by lines and arrows -- like a manic play diagram. Whatever you call it, I do a lot of brainstorming (and brain partly cloudy-ing) with my trusty pad of graph paper. For really complex situations I use index cards and the diningroom table.

Never was good at mind mapping, venn diagrams (which can be as simple as two circles or as complex as this) or any other formal thought-organizing tool.

I used to say that my thought process was akin to composting, but my wife has suggested that I use percolation as that implies some sort of activity.

KeVin K. said...

Oh, and thanks for the heads-up on Zombies Without Borders. Had an idea -- five boxes with lines (one with a circle next to it) on a sheet of graph paper. Now all I have to do is turn it into a story.

Penny a word in their word-count range means we're talking $40 - $70 dollars for a sale, which at my writing speed means something like half the minimum wage. Even after you throw in the free copy of the anthology, that's not paying the rent. But I've never written a zombie story, so in terms of expanding my skill set the time's a good investment even if it doesn't sell.

Let's see if we can't both be in this thing.

Shauna Roberts said...

Sorry to be so terribly late responding!

FARRAH, I never knew you did that! Does that link up somehow with your storyboard, or are those completely separate?

TERRI, you're certainly welcome to share this.

LIANE, for those of us who love office supplies, it's a great excuse to go buy colored pens and pencils.

KEVIN K, LOL at the Venn diagram. And thanks for reminding me about the Zombies Without Borders anthology. A busy week sent it completely out of my mind.