Maps vs. Headlights

CC image by Jason

If you’ve been a writer for any amount of time, you have probably been introduced to the idea of maps and headlights. Simply put, this is a way to label how you tend to write. Do you outline your books, chapters, and scenes like a planned route on a map? Or do you drive in the dark, only writing what you can see in your headlights, knowing you’re going somewhere but not quite sure where?

Neither writing to a map nor writing in the headlights is bad. They both have strengths and weaknesses, but if you don’t know what those are, you won’t know which tendencies to watch out for. Hopefully this will help make it clearer for you.

A story needs structure. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, so approaching a story idea with that structure from the beginning can be helpful in the long run. You know exactly where you’re going and how long you expect it to take to get there. There are minimal surprises and detours and consequently little stress about the structure once you actually put your pen to paper.

Because you know your structure, you have the freedom to write any part of the story at any point in time. If you don’t feel like a scene is coming well, you can just skip to one that interests you more and come back to the troublesome one later.

CC image by Jason

CC image by Jason

However, you may unintentionally restrict your characters. Because you know your character has to get from point A to point B in time Y to Z, you may be forcing them to follow your agenda rather than letting them really take what has happened to them and make a decision that doesn’t follow the map. They could come across as flat, and the story may feel stiff or scripted to the reader, even if doesn’t to you.

Mappers can tend to think that they are better than those who write using headlights. You have it all figured out and you can’t believe that anyone would write without knowing where they are going. You might have the tendency to think that stories written in the headlights are bad simply because they feel less structured than you would have done them. But no story is birthed with a map from the very beginning. Technically you did use headlights to plan your story, even if it all happened in your head. So be humble when approaching those who use headlights. Learn from them.

A story has to be told to be a story. Even if you don’t fully know where your story is going, it can be helpful to get something written on a page. You can explore who characters really are, what they really want by actually spending time with them and letting them roam the pages of your world. You can more easily draw readers’ interest because you are experiencing the magic of intrigue and mystery firsthand as you write.

You have the opportunity to discover new things along the way. Because you have no set destination, you have the freedom to explore concepts you wouldn’t have otherwise. This can create a well fleshed out story, with details that help slow down the journey and enjoy it for what it is.

CC image by Nathan Rupert

CC image by Nathan Rupert

You tend to write in order because you know a character doesn’t just get whisked away from point A to point B. If something happens at time Y, it affects your character’s decisions and emotions and they might not be ready for point B just yet. You will more easily allow your character to do what is natural to them.

However, your story could end up feeling like a cloud, floating from one place to the next, spending a lengthy amount of time on one thing and no time on another, or circling back because you hit a dead end. It can feel directionless or like events were just strung up mismatched together (and then this happened and this happened and this….). This can make your story feel disjointed.

You might also end up with characters that are over dramatized. Because you are always in the moment as they experience the events in your story, you will be hyper aware of those feelings and it could affect how you write them.

Headlighters can also tend to think they are better than those who use maps. You don’t have to figure it out because the story will take you where you need to go, like you’re merely a vessel for the story to write itself. You might have the tendency to think that stories written with maps don’t breathe enough. But even though you have words on a page, you still need structure to make it a cohesive story that other people can read. So also be humble when approaching those who use maps. Learn from them just like they should learn from you.

As in most things, I am ultimately going to recommend a balance of the two. Mappers, create your structure. But when you get down to the actual writing, let your map be more of a guideline and be open to letting your characters develop differently than you expected. Chances are you’ll still end up where you planned, but maybe you’ll refine the route a little more along the way.

CC image by Luis Romero

CC image by Luis Romero

Headlighters, you first need to have at least an idea of an ending before you start writing, even if that ending changes or you don’t know how you’ll get there. Know that every draft you write becomes a type of map for you to look at later. It’s okay to write in the headlights, but you need to pull back afterward and see where you went and if it’s where you really wanted to go. As you begin the editing process, remember that it is okay to shave off scenes that don’t work. It’s okay to bring in structure back to your characters and have them get to point B even if they feel like they’re being stubborn.

Nobody is one hundred percent one way or the other. And both are important. You might even find that you tend toward one for your long fiction versus your short fiction. Either way you find yourself leaning to, remember these strengths and weaknesses and make intentional choices. Don’t just let your tendencies drive your story. You be the driver. Use your map and your headlights. And remember that writing is a process either way. You don’t just drive to your destination once and call it good. You need to drive it multiple times and have it down pat because how else can you guide your readers along the same journey?

By Tracy Buckler