Kickstarting Creativity: MindMapping for Writers

While many know me as a social media expert, I’m also someone who is endlessly fascinated by creativity and the creative mind. In past years I’ve taught some Grub Street classes on creative writing exercises--unusual ones that I developed as part of my M.A. in Critical & Creative Thinking. One thing that I have learned over the years is that visually exploring plots, characters and themes is something that most writers don't do very often. We tend to stick to the pen and paper or the blank screen and a keyboard and often don't pair up our mind's images and methods of thinking visually to what ends up on the written page.

Developing visual thinking maps is definitely not a new concept. Tony Buzan and Gabriele Rico have cornered the market when it comes to mapping and clustering. Still, mapping is a tool that is primarily used in the business world by companies such as Nabisco, EDS, Boeing, Google and more. 

Writers can directly benefit from developing maps of visual thought. Maps can be a valuable tool for discovering new plot ideas, fleshing out characters and settings and even organizing research notes.

I teach mapping using big sheets of paper and colored pens and pencils, but I am also fond of mapping on the computer as well. It tends to be a bit slower and while I do think that by using the computer you are most likely not using your brain's full potential when it comes to making cognitive connections, using a mapping tool on your computer can be more convenient.

I am a huge fan of the free, opensource tool, FreeMind. Fans of Scrivener may also love Scapple, which is also fantastic. Here is one of the maps I did when planning out my book Feast of Sorrow.  This map was done while I was in the midst of the story (or in medias res as the Romans would have said) and it greatly helped to give me new perspective. I ended up incorporating nearly all of what I originally brainstormed at that stage. (click for a larger image)


Visual thinking is also an excellent mnemonic aid. When you mix left and right brain thinking it triggers different parts of your brain and helps you to better retain memory of the work you did. Maps are a great way for students to study for tests or to take notes for example.

Want to test it out? Download one of the tools mentioned above or get out a huge piece of paper. Toss an idea into the center and let your mind wander. A great place to start would be with a particular character. A name in the middle, then start branching off with:

  • Appearance

  • Values

  • Beliefs (prejudices, religious, political, etc.)

  • History

    • past

    • present

    • future

  • Strengths

  • Weaknesses

  • Likes

  • Dislikes

  • Possessions

  • Goals/Ambitions

  • Relationships

    • family

    • friends

    • lovers

    • employers

    • enemies

to name just a few.

But don't stop there. Toy with a plot idea as your starting spot, a question, a bit of dialogue or perhaps a setting (worldbuilders take note). Let your mind wander. Don't restrict your ideas, no matter how crazy. Play with the words and images that come to mind. Draw if you want. Use colors, shapes, icons. Let your brain enjoy the connections and associations it begins to make. Then put the map away for a day or so. Come back to it and view it with new eyes. See how amazed you are at all the new possibilities.

Oh yeah. This is your brain on some good, addictively creative juice. Go for it.

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About the Author

Crystal King is a 30-year marketing, social media and communications veteran, freelance writer and Pushcart-nominated poet. She is the author of the FEAST OF SORROW, about the ancient Roman gourmand, Apicius, and THE CHEF'S SECRET about the famous Renaissance chef Bartolomeo Scappi. Currently Crystal works as a social media professor for HubSpot, a leading provider of Inbound marketing software. Crystal has taught classes in writing, creativity, and social media at Harvard Extension School, Boston University, Mass College of Art, UMass Boston and GrubStreet writing center. A former co-editor of the online literary arts journal Plum Ruby Review, Crystal received her MA in Critical and Creative Thinking from UMass Boston, where she developed a series of exercises and writing prompts to help fiction writers in media res. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or at her website:

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