How About Drawing Your Plot?

by James Scott Bell

Carl Reiner (1922-2020)

When Carl Reiner died recently at the age of 98, I pondered again my theory about comedians and their brains. It’s not scientific or scholarly or anything other than my personal observation, but it seems to me that comedians who daily exercise their brains by being funny, often on the spot, resist dementia as they age. Ditto trial lawyers.

I’ve written about this before:

What got me noticing this was watching Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks being interviewed together, riffing off each other. Reiner was 92 at the time, and Brooks a sprightly 88. They were both sharp, fast, funny. Which made me think of George Burns, who was cracking people up right up until he died at 100. (When he was 90, Burns was asked by an interviewer what his doctor thought of his cigar and martini habit. Burns replied, “My doctor died.”)

So why should this be? Obviously because comedians are constantly “on.” They’re calling upon their synapses to look for funny connections, word play, and so on. Bob Hope, Groucho Marx (who was only slowed down by a stroke), and many others fit this profile.

And I’ve known of several lawyers who were going to court in their 80s, still kicking the stuffing out of younger opponents. One of them was the legendary Louis Nizer, whom I got to watch try a case when he was 82. I knew about him because I’d read my dad’s copy of My Life in Court (which is better reading than many a legal thriller). Plus, Mr. Nizer had sent me a personal letter in response to one I sent him, asking him for advice on becoming a trial lawyer.

And there he was, coming to court each day with an assistant and boxes filled with exhibits and documents and other evidence. A trial lawyer has to keep a thousand things in mind—witness testimony, jury response, the Rules of Evidence (which have to be cited in a heartbeat when an objection is made), and so on. Might this explain the mental vitality of octogenarian barristers?

There also seems to be an oral component to my theory. Both comedians and trial lawyers have to be verbal and cogent on the spot. Maybe in addition to creativity time, you ought to get yourself into a good, substantive, face-to-face conversation on occasion. At the very least this will be the opposite of Twitter, which may be reason enough to do it.

In that post I offered a few creativity exercises to help writers keep the brain primed and playful. Today I want to add something else to the list.

I recently came across a scholarly article published a couple of years ago which demonstrated the effect that drawing has on memory.

We propose that drawing improves memory by promoting the integration of elaborative, pictorial, and motor codes, facilitating creation of a context-rich representation. Importantly, the simplicity of this strategy means it can be used by people with cognitive impairments to enhance memory, with preliminary findings suggesting measurable gains in performance in both normally aging individuals and patients with dementia.

So how might drawing operate as an aid to plotting your novel or scene?

Most of you know about mind mapping. Early in my writing journey I read Writing the Natural Way, which teaches mind mapping as a practice for writers. I use it all the time. For example, I was trying to come up with a great big climax to one of my Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law novels. I took a walk to Starbucks, got a double espresso, and sat for awhile. Then I took out some paper and starting jotting ideas as they came to me. Here is that paper (the numbers I added later to give me the order of the scenes):

And that’s the ending that’s in the book.

When pre-plotting, I’ll take a yellow legal pad and turn it lengthwise and start mapping. Now I’m thinking about adding drawing to the mix. I don’t have to be a skilled cartoonist (good thing, for that is not one of the gifts bestowed upon me). But I can doodle, have a little fun, and trigger another part of my brain.

If you’re writing a scene with a closed environment, I can see value in making a map of the place—office, city block, house—and drawing the characters (even stick figures will do) as they negotiate the action. It might stimulate new ideas for the scene you wouldn’t get any other way.

Your friend, the brain. It is quite versatile indeed.

What about you? Do you use any visual techniques for your writing or creativity? (I’m on the road today and will check in when I can. Until then, talk amongst yourselves!)

35 thoughts on “How About Drawing Your Plot?

  1. My dad died 2 days before his 92nd birthday. He had Alzheimers, or at least some form of dementia and his doctors were always astonished that he never lost his sense of humor. Whatever parts of his brain were affected, they weren’t the ones that let him crack wise. He chose his own epitaph. “It was fun while it lasted.” On the night he died, my sister-in-law was visiting and she said, “I love you Jack.” He replied, without a pause, “As well you should.”

    As for my writing, I’ve sketched maps of my towns in my series, or made notes of what’s where. For Deadly Fun, I printed out a map of the US to keep track where all the killings had taken place. A lot of time, as my cops are brainstorming or using their white boards, I copy what they’re writing down.
    I’m not organized enough to mind map. I use sticky notes so I can move them around as needed.

  2. What a great idea! I’ve only recently started mind-mapping for my characters and scenes in my murder mystery, and creating multi-generational family trees for my characters. I’ll give sketching static settings a try too. Can’t hurt, after all.

  3. Jim, my mental exercise today is trying to decipher your handwriting! If I can figure out what your note says, I’m sure it reveals the secret to successful writing!

  4. Thanks for the good advice, and the great George Burns joke.

    I’ve found that mapping a plot is an effective way to make the whole shebang stick together. My latest mystery novelette has a lot of moving parts, and mapping it helped me shape it into a unified whole.

  5. Interesting theory. Sounds plausible. Being humorous is rarely my thing so I need to work on that. 😎

    I’ve tried a *bit* of mind-mapping but never used it much, and never have used drawing as a means to plotting. Might be worth a shot.

  6. I’ve not engaged in mind-mapping, but I do draw cartoons (Snoopy and Woodstock mostly) and animals for my grandchildren. Does that count?

  7. I always loved mind-mapping, until my plots got so huge and my list of characters so massive that I had to switch to a spreadsheet. 😀

    I’ve seen other research suggest that diet plays a giant role in brain function. Folks who eat a high protein, high-fat diet (steak and eggs!) retain cognitive function, whereas folks who eat bread and sugar quickly experience cognitive decay. Seeing as your brain is composed mostly of fats, this makes sense to me. Oh, and remember your posts about how exercising improves your mind so you can write better? I saw an article about how they only just discovered that the lymph system runs through the brain. The lymph system is only stimulated via exercise, and it’s a huge part of your immune system. So I think you were exactly right.

  8. Happy Sunday, Jim

    Your post today motivates me to give mind-mapping a real try. I’d messed around with it before, including looking at Rico’s book, but never really diving into it. Now sounds like the perfect time 🙂

    Safe travels!

  9. This is a great idea. I’m on to the third book now and it’s set on a university campus. Good opportunity to map it out. thanks!

  10. Holy Cow! I’d heard of mind mapping, but never learned anything about it. I now have-after reading this post and the links-a crude, novice mind map of my WIP.

    When I was in corporate, the thing that made my eyes glaze over in meetings was some learned exec-type drawing flow charts on a white board. I. Hate. Flow. Charts.

    But this…this is fun. Colorful. Organization meets Picasso. Wish I knew how to put a picture of it here for y’all to see…there’s a way, but I don’t know how. 🙂

  11. Impeccable timing, JSB, as I map out Act III of my latest.
    Also, I draw out (in Photoshop) complex settings.
    And also pull in TV/movie headshots for my main characters.

  12. In the late 80s, I read “Writing on Both Sides of the Brain,” by Henriette Klauser. The book includes a chapter on mind-mapping. I can’t find my book, but I think she calls the technique “branching.”

    Ever since, I’ve successfully used the technique for organizing and writing nonfiction articles and for setting up strategies for learning new subjects. I don’t draw, but I do use different colored pens and shapes, kind of like free form flow charting.

    I can’t figure out why, but I have never been able to make mind-mapping work as well for writing fiction. However, the private investigator in my novels uses the method, which he calls “case mapping” and it always works for him.

  13. I’ve always done the first stages of plotting my novels with a pen and paper. For a lack of a better description, I find it fluid and three-dimensional in a way that typing on the computer screen isn’t. I’m perfectly fine working on the screen when I’m writing short nonfiction. Whether that’s length or the way my brain works I haven’t a clue.

  14. While I don’t use the elaborate mind-mapping format I’ve seen others use so effectively, I do employ a “brain-barf,” Tourette’s-ian, kind of plotting–not usually on a yellow legal pad (although that happens) but on a software program that mimics the ol’ index card-bulletin board method. Same idea; put relevant and/or random thoughts into some physical form that can be revised, deleted, sequenced, connected, etc. Once I’ve distilled the chapter into a few summary sentences, I transfer those to my novel-in-progress and use them as a header–under which I do the actual writing.

  15. On pictures: I must have a visual of my settings.

    On mental processing: The Gregorc Styles Test delineates a thinker’s preference for random or linear processing.

    Random processors make good comedians. On-the-spot, they draw humorous comparisons from unrelated fields. Randoms win on Jeopardy. Facts materialize. Proof: When my husband and I auditioned for Jeopardy, he, the random, made it easily. I, the linear—with better grades—did not. Linear processing slowed me down.

    Your point about aged lawyers and comedians sharing similar quick-processing skills intrigued me. I took the LSAT, which definitely tests linear processing. Do lawyers develop the ability to draw up details randomly as well, or are the patterns just well engrained by seniorhood?

    • Courtroom lawyers have to deal with random events all the time, e.g., something surprising a witness says, or an invalid question by the opponent.

      On the latter, the lawyer has to make a split second decision whether to object and what rule of evidence he’s basing it on; or whether to withhold the objection at this point so as not to tick off a judge or annoy the jury.

      In other areas of the law, the successful lawyer is always being creative with application of law, e.g., creating a novel legal argument for a particular set of facts.

  16. I draw room interiors for scenes. I have to. I can’t tell what’s going on without it, even if none of it is mentioned beyond something like, “spacious living room”.
    And I mind map. It’s where my best ideas come from. For example, I have character with a choice to make, or a problem. I write the problem in only a few words, circle it, then scribble in ideas all around it. I circle the potentials and cross out the trash. Then I’ll take it another step until I get something interesting. My first outline is based on these maps.

  17. So far I’ve drawn house plans and aerial views of farmsteads and plantations, so I could move multiple characters around and keep things like “the fields are north of the house and the ridge is to the west and the house faces east…” straight, so they aren’t constantly shifting over the course of a novel (and I don’t have to keep stopping to remember the layout). What I really need to do is create a flow chart of how all my books are connected by overlapping characters that I’ve let wander book to book to such a degree it’s becoming hard to explain without said chart. At least one writer I know sees a shape in all her books (each book’s is unique), which emerges at some point toward the middle of her writing process. I expect this helps her going forward once that shape manifests, as she isn’t a plotter.

  18. As a professionally trained artist, I see “paintings” in my mind when I write scenes, never thought about drawing them out like I do my art. Mind mapping. I’ve heard the term but hadn’t thought to apply that either. Both good tips! Something new to play with and see how that spurs the writing.

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