NaNo Prep: Outline Your Story Like a Subway Map

We’re deep into NaNo Prep Season, and this week, we’ve asked participants to share their thoughts on how to craft great plots and build immersive worlds. Today, author and entrepreneur Gabriela Pereira shares her method of mapping out her story:

As a New Yorker born and raised, I think of an outline as being like a subway map. What I love about this approach is that it allows you to see how the various threads of your story work together, but you can also tease those elements apart and look at them individually to see how each thread holds up on its own.

When you make a subway map outline, each line represents a different subplot or story element you want to track. The dots (or stops) represent scenes in your story. Some scenes are like local stops on a subway and apply only to one story thread, while other scenes are like express stops and represent intersections between the story threads and mark key moments in your story. For an example of this technique in action, check out the subway map of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.

Want to learn how to put together a story map like this? Here’s a step-by-step guide.

Step 1: Write out your scenes.

List out all the scenes in your story or novel. I like to use index cards for this step, because it allows me to move scenes around and also look at each one apart from the rest of the story. On each card I’ll give the scene a title, then list the major characters who appear and what happens in that scene. I also make a note to myself about why the scene is important to the story overall, because if I can’t think of a compelling reason for that scene to exist, then I should consider cutting it altogether.

Step 2: Choose which elements to track.

You can track just about any aspect of your novel or story with this mapping technique: multiple plot lines, different points of view, and recurring images or thematic elements. You can even use story-mapping to keep track of your supporting cast and which characters appear in which scenes. To avoid letting your map sprawl and become out of control, I recommend focusing your map on either plot, character, or imagery. Once you have chosen which elements I recommend color-coding your scenes according to the thread (or threads) where it appears.

A plot-centered map focuses on your novel or short story’s main plot and subplots and each of these threads has a dramatic question that drives it. In our Hunger Games example, the main plot concerns the major dramatic question (MDQ): “Will Katniss survive the Games?” This book also has a series of subplots, driven by lesser dramatic questions (LDQs), like “Will Katniss return Peeta’s affections?” Notice that the dramatic questions—both major and lesser—focus on the protagonist, since this is the character driving the story.

A character-centered map is useful if you need to keep track of a sprawling supporting cast or are using multiple points of view (POV). For this type of story map, instead of worrying about MDQs for the different plot threads, you will need to think of dramatic question specific each character you are tracking. This question usually centers around that particular character’s biggest desire. For example, the dramatic questions for characters in the movie The Wizard of Oz would be: “will Dorothy ever get back to Kansas?” or “will the Scarecrow finally get a brain?”

An imagery or theme-centered story map can be useful when you need to track recurring images or thematic elements as they appear throughout your story. The elements you track with this type of map can be anything (e.g. music, color, art, weather, nature, etc.), but relate to the emotions you want to make your readers feel. This type of story map is extremely powerful because it helps you understand and enhance how your readers experience your book.

Step 3: Create Your Map

Once you have created your scene-by-scene outline and labeled each scene according to the various threads or elements you want to track, the only thing that remains is to draw the actual map. Start by plotting the scenes where two or more threads intercept (the express stops), then fill in the other scenes (local stops) around those pivotal moments.

With this map, you’ll be able to look at how different plotlines, characters, or thematic elements intercept, but you can also pull these threads (subway lines) apart to see how they work independent of the rest of the story.

While this approach might look very different from a traditional outline, you can easily extract a list outline or spreadsheet from your map. You can also adapt this technique and use it in concert with other types of outlines. As you gear up for NaNoWriMo, the most important thing is for you to find an outline technique that work best for you, and I hope you will give story mapping a try.


Gabriela Pereira is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur who wants to challenge the status quo of higher education. As the founder and instigator of DIYMFA.com, Gabriela teaches at national conferences, regional workshops, and online. She is also the host of the podcast DIY MFA Radio and author of the book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community (Writer’s Digest Books, 2016). Go to DIYMFA.com/storymap to download a print-friendly version of the story map from this post.