It’s not usually the case for short stories, but novels will often come with a story map. As someone who loves maps and is very visual, I’m always happy when a story has a map in it. Maps can help you picture where things are taking place as you are reading. Not everyone feels the same, but they have their place in writing. I want to talk about maps and when they are useful, plus how to make them, if necessary.
Why Include a Map
The point of a map is to help the reader visualize where the story is taking place. You should be doing this through the prose too, of course, but in stories where the setting is very complicated or where details in the story hinge on places in the story, a map can help out a lot. Your job is to bring the story to life for the reader and a map can help with some of that heavy lifting.
Even if you don’t include a map with your story, it is good to use one yourself, either a real one like Google Maps if it takes place in real locations, or just one you’ve drawn yourself. This will help avoid errors that readers might pick up on. For example, it might sound fine to have your characters walk five minutes from Westminster Abbey to the Tower of London, but if you look on a map, you can see how impossible this is. This would absolutely kill the credibility of the story for anyone who knows London well.
When to Include a Map
Here are some times when you might need a map for your story:
- If you are writing a journey story in an unknown place. This might be in a fantasy world or in history where places have different names from today. This will help the reader track the journey and where the different places are in relation to each other.
- If you are writing in a known location, such as New York City, but the story takes place in an alternate world where things are slightly different than in real life. This will avoid confusion for people who know the real place.
- If the story takes place in a small area (like a small island or village) and each place is very important, especially where they are in relation to each other. If one of the main plot points is if the murderer could have gotten from the boat dock to the greenhouse before the fisherman could alert the police, it’s good to have a map so that people can visualize the relationship between the places.
Most maps are at the beginning of the story. This lets the reader have a preview of where the story is going to take place. The bad part of this is that the map can contain spoilers. If a story about a family taking a vacation on a Caribbean island has a spot marked Dragon’s Lair, it’s not going to be a surprise when a dragon appears in the story.
One way to get around this is to include several maps in the story as it progresses. This way, you can show the initial layout and then show more and more as the story goes on.
How to Create a Story Map
How you make the map is going to depend on the location and how artistic you are. If your story takes place in a real place, it is easy to find a map online and add your own details to it. You can either print it out and mark them in yourselves or use photo editing software like Photoshop or GIMP to add your own details digitally.
If your story takes place in a completely new place, you will have to make it from scratch. You can do this by either drawing it on paper or on the computer. There are also sites like Inkarnate, where you can draw fantasy maps easily with lots of pre-made elements. Here’s one I drew there for a story I’m working on now.
Another consideration is the style of map. The easiest type is looking straight down, like a street map. If there are mountains or hills, this would mean making it topographical, so you can tell the height differences.
Another option is from the side, like the map above. This is where buildings and other structures are drawn and mountains can be drawn at different heights. The problem with this style is that if there are many things together, some things can get hidden behind the ones in front.
A final option if your story is about caves or something else where there is a lot of vertical difference is a cross-section map. This shows the vertical very well, but will miss some of the horizontal depth since it can still only show two dimensions.
One of the best map-making authors has got to be J.R.R. Tolkien. He drew very detailed maps for both the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. For Lord of the Rings, he actually drew three maps: one of the Shire for The Fellowship of the Ring, the main map of western Middle Earth and then a close-up map of Gondor and Mordor for the Return of the King. The first two were in his distinctive side-view style, but the last was a top-down topographical type.
What do you think about maps in stories? What is your favorite story map? Have you ever created a map for any of your stories? Let me know in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.