Story Trees

Last night Dear Daughter finished up her family tree project.   When we went to bed, we were stupid tired from all the work she put into this and another uber-crafty project.

When I woke up this morning, an epiphany struck. 

Hello!  Why not a Story Tree?

I’m a highly visual person and informally creative.  Plotting and planning and outlining makes things lose their magic for me.  Yet sometimes we desperately need to keep track of details while writing.

Enter the Story Tree.

In my DD’s version, you can see the branches that make up her genetic history.  The leaf puffs provide the genetic traits and family traditions she has collected from the generations that came before her.  The two teepees beside the tree represent the Native American ancestry–a tribe from each side of the family.  Each teepee is decorated with facts from each tribe.   As I was adopted by my dad, the clouds at the top provide a loose connection to the physical traits passed down from my biological father. 

So, what can a Story Tree do for us as writers?

I picture it in context of the story.  The trunk is the MC and his goal, while the two main branches would indicate the internal (right branch) and external (left branch) conflict that my MC faces.  The smaller branches would provide a nice visual of the obstacles my MC must overcome.  And each leafy puff would record the outcome–or rather, the impact of each obstacle on my MC and his goal. 

Now, I didn’t just visualize this, I actually sketched it–at 5:22 this morning–and the theory holds beautifully.

My Story Tree lays out all the elements of a manuscript in a very simple format.  It’s easy to see at a glance where one plot line dies and produces no leaves.  It’s easy to pinpoint the cumbersome plots that threaten to topple the unbalanced tree.

And for all you story arc fanatics, my Story Tree shows this as well.  Look again at DD’s family tree project.  See how nicely the leaf puffs round out at the top?  A good Story Tree does this as well, because ultimately if the external conflicts are met in a way that impacts the character, the internal conflict has a nice resolution at the end of the novel.  Right where it should be.

In addition, each teepee (if you want to make one) can flesh out the protag and the antag with all the quirks and details that need recorded and remembered.

The clouds?

We all need to dream right? 

How do you keep track of your manuscript as you write?  Do you meticulously outline every detail or do you scramble during rewrites to see how everything flows and fits together?  Sketch out a quick tree and let me know what you think!

19 responses to “Story Trees

  1. I love your Story Tree! I’m also very visual and I made a storyboard with index cards for my first book. This time I’m testing out an open source writing program called Storybook.It’s free and user friendly.

    But I may try your Story Tree as well for an overall view-at -a-glance…and it would like nice on my wall!

    • I love the thought of making them for all my manuscripts. I’d love to have them framed (when the manuscript is done) and hanging on my wall for inspiration. I think it would create an atmosphere condusive to writing.

      I’ll have to check out your Storybook link when I get a few free minutes…next year! I swear I’m so busy I don’t have time breathe some days.

      Hope all is well for you. When you get some time, you’ll have to let me know about your NaNoproject and how that all turned out.

  2. Cool! This is an interesting idea. I love plotting and planning and outlining, and I’m always up for trying something new. Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. I, too, am very visual and the index cards-character sketches don’t quite do it for me. I’ve also done character sketches on a Word document, heavily detailed, but they don’t quite do it either.

    This sounds like an intriguing idea. I think I’ll try it!

    • I’m the same way. I try jotting down notes, etc…, but they leave me cold. This was really fun to make and it helped me SEE my story in a different way.

      If you give it a whirl, let me know if it works.

  4. I am going to do this! I’ve been struggling to find a plotting method for my new ms. I pantsed the last book to some degree, but since I used a folktale, I had a basic plot ready made. I’ll eventually have to tighten what plot I have, but right now the spaces between plot points are so wide, it gets really difficult to know where I should go next. I’d love to get a better idea. Thanks!

    • Victoria,

      If you do this, it will be interesting to see if it helps. When I quickly jotted down one of my stories that I’ve been struggling to edit, the bare branches on one plot line were so apparent that I actually spent today heavily pruning. I lost all but a few lines of one chapter that was full of character, great dialogue and enough humor to send any Middle Grader into a fit of the church giggles. Alas, it was going NOWHERE.

      Talk about killing your darlings!

      It hurt, but I got more done today than I had in the past week. Seriously, I couldn’t seem to get away from pages seven, eight and nine. Now they are gone and I have been able to be productive again.


    • I’ll pass the kudos along to the social studies teacher for the assignment and Dear Daughter for taking it to the next level. The visual is really striking.

      I hope it works as well for you as it did me.

      Thanks so much for stopping in!

  5. Sounds like fun! I usually don’t outline anything. Instead I keep a file open and add some important details as I go – eye colour, name of places, who is connected to who… I’ll have to give this a shot and see how it goes!

    • Jemi,

      I won’t lie, it was a lot of work–but thoughtful work. My quick sketch took a lot less time, but I think I’m actually going to make one of these posters for the manuscript I’m editing.

      If you try it out, I hope it works and you don’t spend too much creative energy on something that can be done in a word doc!

      If nothing else, it would be a fun book project for students…

  6. The story tree is a GREAT idea! I’ll have to try this instead of/in addition to an outline sometime.

  7. Great idea, Cat. I’ll need to ponder it for a while to see if I can make it work for me. I’m a spreadsheet kind of girl and have a tab for each character and plot-lines and settings. I’ve also tried color coding major characters and do that on my spreadsheets as well. Keep us posted how this idea progresses and tell your daughter her project looks great.


    • See, you are way more organized in that formal kind of way than I will ever be!

      Funny how that works…

      She got an A+ on this and on her French menu. I guess creativity passes on a certain level!

  8. Late to the party, but I love this idea. I’m going to use it on the manuscript I’m getting ready to completely rewrite . . . again . . .

    • Thanks for the comment! Good luck with the rewrite. And I totally hear you on the “again” portion of that statement!

      • Okay, I figured out why you are having to approve me. I transferred my blog to a different account, due to an email change, and so YOUR blog thinks I’m someone else. I am trying to get my profile to be recognizable again . . . but “Anonymous” is really me, Michelle!!!!

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