Visual Tools for Writers

Talking about the state of the publishing industry can be depressing these days, so let’s go back to why we write in the first place: We love storytelling. Many of us use visual tools when we write: collages about the main character or setting, plotting diagrams, charts, timelines, and photos. I’m just as guilty as the next writer in this regard. So here are some of the favorite ones I use, and I hope you’ll share what works for you.
This is the most fun. I keep a file with pictures of people I cut out from TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly, and other magazines. Then when I’m planning a novel and doing my character development, I’ll search through the pages to find the one person who looks just like my character. I used to staple these onto my character development sheets, but now I scan them into the computer and add them to my file on that person. Looking for the villain is even more fun. I’m especially fond of sneaky looking people. Perfect models won’t do. You want these profiles to be interesting and tell you something about the character. For a mystery, I’ll do the sleuth for the first book in the series, some of the continuing characters, and the suspects for each installment.
In the planning stages of a story, I’ll divide a poster board into the number of chapters I plan to fill my book and then I’ll stick Post-It notes on the poster scribbled with different plot points. This helps me see the story flow before I write the synopsis. Later, I’ll fill in the squares with ink after I’ve written the chapter. Thanks to Barbara Parker who taught me this trick, I use different colored inks for the main plotline, loose ends, clues leading to the killer, and new characters on stage.
It often becomes necessary to draw a family tree. I haven’t found an easy way to do this on the computer and manage with Word. Also, when I have to calculate characters’ ages, this is where they go.
This helps you get into the head of your character. Draw a head on a blank sheet of white paper and put your person’s name in it. Then draw cartoon-like balloons all around the head. Inside these spaces, write in what’s on your character’s mind at any given point in time. Solving a murder? Taking mother to lunch? Picking up laundry? Calling boyfriend? How many concerns are on your mind right now? Ask your character what she’s thinking about. Here’s an example from my current WIP (an artist, I am not!).
These are some of the visual aids I build when writing a story. Now let’s hear what you do.

20 thoughts on “Visual Tools for Writers


    I use these for research notes, and also for submissions. One page, and I have everything. I use keywords, pictures, and color.


    During the revision, I use a timeline to to make sure my story timeline is working. For a future project, I’m doing one for the first draft because it’s based on an actual event where I need to know what happened when.


    These are tools used in schools to represent information in visual format. I’ve been playing with this to help me figure out the big picture of the story.

  2. Nancy, the thrillers that my co-writer, Lynn Sholes and I write, always have a large number of characters. We also tend to globe trot. It’s important in managing them to know what each is doing at all times, even when they are not appearing in the current scene. We’ve developed what we dubbed a character matrix. It’s a simple MS Excel spreadsheet where we assign each character a column across the top. Then we label each row with an event or chapter. Going across the row, we insert a short note as to what each character is doing during that scene or chapter. The important function of the character matrix is to determine what people are doing that are NOT in a scene. This can be a huge help to maintaining an accurate timeline.

  3. I use Freemind for a lot of stuff. I put the story outline on one side and on the other I list the characters and locations. I can add character descriptions, details of various kinds and even pictures, occassionally. For locations, I will sometimes use Google Maps to find a location I like and grab a picture, which can then be stored in Freemind. I’ve used it to trace the causes of something that I know has to happen in the story. Family trees would be fairly easy to draw in Freemind. The one thing I haven’t been able to do well with it is to track the timeline. And it won’t write the story for me.

  4. Nancy, these are all excellent tools. I used to clip photos, too, then started using Google images and other like sites. I import a head shot into a character card I create in Scrivener.

    I create character maps using a program called Inspiration. It’s mind mapping software, and gives me a visual of the relationships at a glance. I can also put in notes as I like and the program can spit out a detailed outline for me.

    I’ve also used one of those high school science project boards, you know, the tri-fold cardboard deals, and sticky notes. The tri-fold is perfect for the three act structure as the middle portion is the largest. I use different colored stickies for the various plot lines.

  5. I go into Microsoft Word. Copy out pictures of men and women. I paste the pics in InDesign and write descriptions about them. Color code and everything. It’s quite fun.

  6. I used to paste a pic in the Character dossier or questionnaire on Word but now I upload all of these things into the files for the characters on Liquid Story Binder. It is for me the PC replacement for Storyist. I refuse to become an applehead,now, I digress. Love visual aids and I also create a “write track” similar to a soundtrack. Music and visual aids I write to it.

  7. I use them all but the life space, and the way you presented it here is making me reconsider its use. I’m reluctant to do character sketches, as I live to learn about the character as I write him, but what you have there is a good way for me to keep track of their personalities and eccentricities as they evolve in my head.


  8. My biggest visual aid is on site research. I know everyone can’t do this, but visiting the places about which I write cements so much reality into the story for me. (Will be needing a jaunt to Barbados one day to smell the air. LOL!) I take tons of photos to create my vision board along with pics of characters and images I find in mags, etc.

    I use plotting boards, too, where piece out my synopsis into managable chunks, i.e., chapters. 🙂

  9. Concept mapping to expand my thoughts and characters and places. See
    I’m still having a terrible time with knowing exactly where my characters are from scene to scene and grounding them in that scene. Does that make sense to anyone? I swear it’s almost like a learning disability. And one I cannot afford. I think I’m so caught up in the dialogue and description that I’ve lost track of time. Any thoughts?

  10. I wanted to respond to Family Trees. I had the same problem and tried out a lot of different solutions that didn’t work for me. And then…I found Connectors! I don’t use this as a timeline, but I’m sure it could be modified.

    Here are the Word 2010 directions:

    1. In Word 2010, you need to insert a drawing canvas before you can draw shapes and add connectors to those shapes. To insert a drawing canvas, on the Insert tab, in the Illustrations group, click Shapes, and then click New Drawing Canvas.
    2. Add your shapes or text boxes to the Drawing Canvas.
    3. The Connectors are on the Insert tab in the Illustrations group. Click Shapes. They’re in the Lines section after the first three actual line objects. Mouse-over and read the tooltips to select the one you want.
    4. With a Connector selected, simply mouseover the shape you want to connect. Click from any of the red connection points (“handles”) and drag to any red handle on the target object.
    5. Now you can reposition the objects and they will stay connected.

    Personally, I think it’s much easier in Publisher and recommend it. Note the handles are a different color though.

  11. Just back from critique group so am able to answer comments. Thanks, Linda, for sharing your tools. Can you offer more details on your idea map? Joe, I tried something like you’re saying for my paranormal series with a character grid to keep track of everyone. Timothy, Freemind sounds interesting. I’ll have to check it out. James, how do you find an image for a particular character in Google images? Do you say, like, suspicious office workers?

    Oh gosh, and the rest of you have such great ideas. I’m going to have to cut and paste all your tools mentioned into a file on the subject. These are wonderful; thanks for sharing.

  12. This is something I need to start doing. Too many characters are floating around in my mind and it’s getting hard to keep track of where they are.

    I like Joe’s excel spreadsheet idea. Being an IT guy for a day job, I am into simple technical solutions and a timeline like that seems pretty straightforward.

    (yes I am a computer dweeb, I even used to wear black horned rim glasses, but they were cool, cuz I got them in the Marines. Always remember one fact about us computer nerds, in Information Technology, we are IT)

  13. What I love about Scrivener is that a lot of these tools (except for the timeline) are incorporated into the program. I can see virtual index cards of every scene, color-coded by character POV, I can attach notes and jpgs to specific scenes, and all of my character profiles are in a drop down list below the draft (which is easily parceled out into chapters). Highly recommend it.

  14. By the way, several of you mentioned downloading pictures to represent your characters. You know, I tried to do that for a couple of my MCs and found that there were no images that came more than slightly close to what I imagined for my characters and anything I put to represent them became a distraction.

    At one point, because a reader asked me what actress my character Lonnie Wyatt looked most like, I searched the web for a Korean, Japanese or Chinese actress that came close. I must’ve spent at least half a dozen hours perusing pics of Asian women (no, not that kind of pics…real actresses…not fleshy doodle chickies…really … … no really….c’mon I mean it.) but found that none matched what I saw in my head.

    I should also admit that it is really hard to find pics of models without getting assaulted by skin vendors trying to convince you to look at their slave-ware. Really sad that.

    So I gave up trying to find a similar pic to any of my characters. Closest I managed to come up with was Zhang Ziyi for Lonnie, Dwayne Johnson for Mojo, Dennis Quaid for Farris and for the infamous Kharzai, Sendhil Ramamurthy with an Afro and Beard.

    Oops…I think I digressed all the way out of the park here…uh…I’m leaving now.

  15. Oh…I lied…I’m back, because I just thought of the tool I wanted to mention but forgot to mention when I got here because I got distracted…

    There are two open source programs out there, (open source meaning free and open for contributions) for novelists that may be worth looking into.

    Celtx (


    Storybook (

    Professional quality with timelines, note cards, visual aids etc, and free

  16. Nancy, an idea map is a graphical representation of your notes in a very non-linear way.

    It’s also called Mind Mapping or Clustering, and you should be able to find books at the library that go into detail about creating one.

    The biggest challenges people have is that the maps are messy — not everyone likes that. It’s also a challenge initially to come up with keywords. We tend to want to put things in phrases like “Hawaii has houses made of lava rock,” instead of Hawaii > House > Materials > Lava (or picture of volcano). Then you can add other branches as you find other types of materials.

    There are some pictures here:

  17. This is all great, but it’s making my head spin. Too much planning and graphing and mapping can kill the story flow. I have to do a lot of this before I write, because once the words start, the story follows.

    However, sometimes it helps to organize our threads of thought in the middle of the story by stopping and filling in these tables, charts, etc. Otherwise we lose track of where we are.

    Re photos, I like cutting them out of magazines. You can find interesting people that way who don’t look like models. Check out the society pages, for example, and advertisements. You want more the character actor type than the lead actor. I keep these cut outs in a folder, so when I’m looking for a pix to match my person, I flip through them until I find one and go, “That’s him!”

  18. Two quick comments. Basil mentioned Celtx and having used it I can tell you I liked it. It’s definitely worth a look.

    Also, as far as mind mapping tools go, you can google that phrase and get a lot of options. Some are easy, some difficult, some free, and some not. The best free one I found was Mindomo.

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