Diagramming Sentences

John McPhee’s essay “Progression” in The New Yorker http://byliner.com/john-mcphee/stories/progression takes an interesting look at the process of writing.  At one point, McPhee expressed the structure of a piece he planned to write as an equation, ABC/D, in which A B and C are different people who share some common connection, D. As far as equations go, this is probably just my speed (there’s a reason I’m in publishing and not physics) though I also liked Alain de Botton’s quasi-scientific formulations in On Love and other books.

I know authors who create the writerly equivalents of flowcharts, who doodle “idea webs” on legal pads before they sit down to write. I know of a couple’s therapist whose methodology relies on simple line drawings. When planning your own projects, do you rely on some actual, visible process of diagramming?

7 Responses to Diagramming Sentences

  1. Tamara says:

    It’s fascinating to challenge yourself in that way, I think. Not to mention fun.

    Antonia Nelson has written a story in the form of a gun. The form of Anthony Doerr’s “The Shell Collector” is a shell. Susan Sontag’s “The Way We Live Now” has 26 character names and they all start with a different letter. Lots of people have written stories in the form of a time spiral emanating from one moment, me included. Caitlin Horrocks does a great class on putting up roadblocks or limits in order to produce more interesting work.

    I think giving yourself formal challenges can yield interesting results. Like poetry, it can force you to go in interesting ways, as long as you don’t get too experimental.

  2. Lance Parkin says:

    It’s one of the tools in the toolbox. There are definitely places where it’s appropriate, it can definitely help me to see things from different angles. Usually it’s when I’ve got quite well developed blocks of information, parallel narratives say, and I need to get them into the right order.

    Zachary Mason, who wrote Lost Books of the Odyssey (which I really enjoyed) says he sees writing as a mathematical process:


    I don’t think I’d go that far, but stories are always meant to work ‘logically’. Things have to make sense, cause has to come before effect, all the various bits of information have to connect up. And there are definitely stages in any narrative – fiction or non-fiction – which are pure problem solving. At that point, stepping back and applying some basic logical analysis seems appropriate.

    I’ve tried using programs that do this, let me move things around and explore the consequences, but I’ve never found one that isn’t so fidgety it just gets in the way. But pen and paper isn’t perfect, either, I tend to end up with a page of squiggles and arrows.

  3. I usually rely on lots of Word docs and Post-it notes, but I once saw a post by a writer who shared his way of keeping track of plots with lots of characters. He made an Excel chart with character names along the top and scenes along the sides, and then marked the appropriate cell for whenever a character showed up in a scene. It really helped him keep track of the structure and pacing, which subplots went nowhere, how long it had been since the reader had seen a certain character (and their subplot), and so on. One of the ideas kicking around in my head involves lots of characters, so I definitely want to try this.

  4. Lance Parkin says:

    Oh, I definitely do the Excel thing. And in Word I mark different plot threads or characters in different colours, then I can look at pages in preview and see that I’m giving everything the right amount of time and I’m pacing things properly.

  5. Gilbert J. Avila says:

    I’m old fashioned. Index cards on a board. Makes arranging stuff more tactile and totally visual. Plus the fact that having kielbasa-sized fingers leads to hitting the wrong keys and messing up.

  6. Lance Parkin says:

    So, because of this thread, I went looking for just a simple corkboard type thing that just isn’t fussy, doesn’t get in the way, just lets me slap down virtual index cards and move them around and reformat them.

    This is really good, open source and free. A couple of days into using it and it suits me down to the ground, to the point where I now think there must be some horrible catch.


  7. Pingback: Regrettably, I’m not on commission | Lance Parkin

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