Modularism – A Process for Your Process

Frameworks save time.

No matter what industry you’re in, frameworks abound. In manufacturing, they have systems like Lean and Six Sigma. In software design, they use Agile Scrum, and there are about a billion quality assurance processes. In fiction, there are popular models like Save the Cat and StoryGrid. (I’m going to mention The Heroine’s Journey here, because you really should check it out.)

Each one of these systems is intended to solve a problem for you. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Are any of them totally correct for any given situation? No. Will any of them handle all eventualities? Also no.

So why do we try to apply frameworks as a whole, instead of just taking the parts we like? Perhaps it’s an appeal to authority—after all, if you alter the process, you are challenging the authority. Maybe it’s an instantiation of the bitter pill fallacy, and we think that by doing the unpleasant parts of the processes, we believe the pleasant parts will reward us.

Bad news: just because part of your process is annoying or time consuming, doesn’t make it valid. Given that every process has holes, we need them to be robust.

Planning a book generates a world of complexity.

Far beyond what could be managed by any single philosophy. If someone wrote a Vonnegut-style journey map, or wrote a Vogler-style Writer’s Journey outline, their book would be heinously under-planned. (Obviously, there are people who like total pantsing, and I’m not judging, but it’s not for me.)

What if you did both? There’s nothing stopping you. The processes are inherently compatible. What if you tacked on a character analysis? How about analyzing your assumptions? What about a risk matrix?

For every creative need, there is a framework that can be broken down into modules, the smallest atoms of its process. By interlinking and remixing modules, we can create tailor-made creative systems out of proven methods.

Modularism: It’s Picking and Choosing, but Science-y Sounding

Every creative challenge is totally unique, and the prescription for discovery must be equally-unique. My indie debut, Every Mountain Made Low, was crafted in the traditional three-act structure, with an adapted Dixon Goals, Motivation, Conflict analysis. My most recent Alien novel, Alien: Into Charybdis, used a GMC analysis, geolocation over time, a journey map and an actor map. Both books are wildly different, so I approached them differently.

Modularism distinguishes itself by creating an anatomy for the modules:

    • Inputs
    • Processing
    • Outputs

Inputs are the information you will need to accomplish the processing in the module. For example, if you wanted a Tension Journey Map, where you map the relative tension of plot elements over the course of the book, you would need: your plot and nothing else. For an Adversarial Plot Analysis, you would need your characters’ motivations and conflicts. Without the inputs, you cannot begin the exercise.

Processing is the expected action you will take. In a Tension Journey map, you will place your plot elements on a horizontal timeline. On the vertical axis, you will raise the elements based upon perceived emotional arousal.

Outputs are the work products you’ll get from running the module. Think of them as the goals. On the Tension Journey Map, the output is the visualization itself. By looking at it, you can better grasp the shape of your story.

Example Modules

Adapted GMC (Dixon)

Inputs: Characters
Outputs: Insight
Materials: Paper

Processing: For each character, create the following notes—

    • External Motivation – What the character says they want: the passcode, magic elixir, etc. You may not say love or survival.
    • External Conflict – What’s stopping them from achieving their external motivation.
    • Internal Motivation – Why do they want the External Motivation? No one wants money; they want what money can do. No one wants power; they want what power can do.
    • Internal Conflict – Why is the character unable to conquer their own problems? What’s standing in the way of the Internal Motivation?

Benefit: These are like the wheels on a car. They don’t make it a Ferrari, but they’re pretty dang important. This module can inform everything else you write.

Tension Journey Map (Vonnegut-style)

Inputs: Plot elements, Target reader
Outputs: Visualization
Materials: Sticky Notes, Markers, Wall

Processing: Lay out your plot on the X axis—one element per sticky note, sorted by time. On the left side is the beginning of your book. On the right side is the end. For the Y-axis, use emotional arousal. The higher the post-it, the more emotional the reader should be.

Benefit: Visualizing plot in this way shows where there are inappropriate lulls in your story. Look at the shape. Does that seem exciting?

Actor Journey Map (UX-style)

Inputs: Characters, Plot Elements
Output: Visualization
Materials: Sticky Notes, Markers, Wall

Processing: On the left side of a timeline, make a swim lane (a row) for each character. Write the actions that character takes, and place them along the X axis to indicate time. Actions that two different characters take concurrently should line up on the Y axis.

Benefit: You should now be able to see exactly when your characters take actions relative to one another. This is helpful for mechanical plots that revolve around intrigue.

Adversarial Plot Analysis (White)

Inputs: Adapted GMC
Outputs: Extra-mean Plotlines, Awesome Heat Map
Materials: Red, Green and Yellow Sticky Notes, Markers and a Wall

Processing: Make one column for each character. Write an action your character takes against another on a sticky note. Color code the action by consequences to the victim: green means social consequence, yellow is financial/stability, and red is mortal.

Benefit: By phrasing every major action the characters take as a response to one another, writers are encouraged to have stronger causal links in their stories. This also provides a heat map to show how often the stakes are raised.

Fun Facts! (White)

Inputs: None
Outputs: Fun Facts!
Materials: Sticky Notes, Wall

Processing: Put up a big sticky note that says “Fun Facts!” While you’re working on your story, if you think of a fun fact, put it up there. Maybe it’s how your McGuffin works. Maybe it’s a backstory element. Just throw it on the wall before you forget it.

Benefit: Now you have a spot to put all the weird things you would’ve forgotten in the heat of the moment!

Losses & Gains (White)

Inputs: Plot Elements, Characters
Outputs: Insight
Materials: Sticky Notes, Wall

Processing: Every character who survives a long story potentially has gained and lost something major. Make a row for each character by putting a sticky note on the left side with their name on it. Then write what they lost on one color sticky note and what they gained on another color. Rinse, repeat.

Benefit: Some characters suffer from bland writing because their owners simply forgot to take care of them. This module forces the writer to pay special attention to the characters’ major victories and failures.


Some ideas are too basic to be a module on their own, but make excellent additions to other modules.

+ Time

Add a time dimension to any visualization to better grasp the relative speed of your story. Journey Maps naturally have time, but other modules don’t. Consider adding it to a Fun Facts module! What happens when you see how many of your cool factoids you drop at a time. Are you exposition-heavy in places?

+ Location

Add a geographic dimension to give you an idea of the book’s physical distances. Want to show the journey from Bag-end to Mount Doom? That’s Time + Location.

+ Characters

List the characters in individual swim lanes. How does that change the visualization to break up elements by character instead?

+ Plot Elements

Compartmentalize your elements based on what plot element they’re associated with. Adding Plot Elements to an Adapted GMC could yield interesting results: What are the characters’ motivations in response to the events of the plot? How do they change because of them?

There’s no reason to devote yourself to just one system.

All too often, the creators of frameworks are solely interested in perpetuating their own philosophies (this one included). Modularism offers a way to capture the successes while eschewing failure, all wrapped inside of a design thinking process. By modularizing your favorite ideas, you can also create a tailored solution for your project as unique as your fingerprint.

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