View Full Version : Map versus Story

01-17-2010, 10:35 AM
Story vs Map. Okay, I'm sure this has come up before. I did a search on this and found some topics that were like this but didn't quite answer my question.

I know I'm not alone when I say that "building the world" that a map is set in is just as fun as making the map itself; by building i mean creating things like cultures and history and stuff. The problem is that while my maps get put together at a reasonable pace I've not yet got my world down track just yet, and when I make a change to that story the map is normally rendered obsolete/inaccurate. I'm sure alot of people have been annoyed at some point at having created or knowing of a world being created and then having it scrapped because of conflict between the story and the map, I'm especially guilty of this :oops:

So before I actually try and do a map that will actually get to the finished map section I wanted to know what the forum's opinion on the matter is. Should the story come first and then the map adapted to that, or should the map come first and the story adapted?


01-17-2010, 10:46 AM
for me. Map First. as I draw the map, my imagination starts to flow, and I start thinking....'Hmmmm...what's in that wood? And those mountains, what secrets do they overlook, and just how many ships crashed on those jagged rocks...."

01-17-2010, 11:31 AM
I'd say story. That is, if you want it to be more than a generic barbarian hero kills big green dragon with enchanted sword while saving elf princess. Not that those are bad, but its nice to have some originality. let your story create your world, not vice versa

imo, at least.

01-17-2010, 11:33 AM
I'd say story first, but I definitely keep a map in mind as I'm working on the plots.

01-17-2010, 11:54 AM

To me, the story helps drive the map, and the map helps drive the story.

When i'm doing maps just because, i can't help but seeing stories evolve in them as I go. And when I'm making a map based on a story, the story is obviously a huge influence.

So to me, the two processes are inseparable :)

01-17-2010, 12:22 PM
For me it's a question of what the map/story are for, but they work in tandem. If you're writing a novel for example, then I would say the story drives the map, but by drawing the map as you go along you may find bits of the story that may not 'work' eg a journey that took 2 days by horse is a distance of 500 miles, so drawing sketch as you go along is invaluable. For RPGs I think the map can drive the story as much as the story drive the map as it will be the players that create the story anyway and from that point of view getting interesting locations etc should be a priority.

01-17-2010, 12:24 PM
I'd say make a rough map and do it fairly quick and easy. Then write your book. Then see how well the map fits the book and change accordingly. Sometimes the storyline requires more or less time to get from point A to point B and the map will change. Sometimes the story will require certain things to be in place that are not there currently so the map will change. It's a fact of life that any map that comes before the story will change. Being more of an artist and less of a writer the map comes first for me so every map I make I start stories in my head and that's where names and unique features come up and get put in.

Also look at it this way, every time I do a commission I ask for a rough sketch. That means the writer has written his stuff and has a better idea of the layout of the world than I do and probably has that idea roughly in his head while writing and that image changes to fit his story as he writes. Since you're the writer and artist do a simple map sketch first and then write. Once you have a section nailed down or a chapter written then go back to the map and flesh it out some more in detail.

In the end either way works just fine.

01-17-2010, 04:37 PM
I write the plot (big picture, few details just the big key points), sketch out a map (making sure I have the key elements detailed), flesh out the plot & map simultaneously.

The Big WIP project I'm working on is actually digitising a map I did across 3 or 4 A4 grid-paper sheets about 8 years ago. The guys I was playing with loved the plot and I wasn't up to speed with computerised drawing at that time, so they were living with my "pen line and pencil line" maps on grid paper. Super-lo-fi, but effective.

01-17-2010, 04:50 PM

To me, the story helps drive the map, and the map helps drive the story.

When i'm doing maps just because, i can't help but seeing stories evolve in them as I go. And when I'm making a map based on a story, the story is obviously a huge influence.

So to me, the two processes are inseparable :)

This - I'm in complete agreement. I'll have to admit that I am a mapper first, but as many of us also part author, game master, illustrator. For me its a collaborative process with all levels of creative arts - that's what makes fantasy maps such an exciting task in practice. I'm kind of a visual guy, so when I know the story, I see it in my head like a movie. Where one's place is located at any given time within the story is intrinsic to some location on a map, or an encounter scale map. The story and the map are one in the same. The creative processes embarked on one aspect integrates the other simultaneously. Eventually the written dominates the time element of course, but I see the map in my mind, while I write the story.

It's difficult for me to separate the two, even ideologically.

Still, I voted "story" first, as the seed of an idea is needed, even for a map - that seed is story.


01-17-2010, 04:53 PM
Well, for me its generally story, but that doesn't mean a map doesn't come first... For the most part a map is really required, at least a quick rough sketch...

We need to remember thats maps become out of date as soon as their made, so for every story a map will only be accurate for a tiny portion of it... So, if the map is rendered obselete because of story evolution (a city is taken over, a drought dries up a lake)... then that is to be expected... but if you change a place name, or the locations, or cultures, thats where you run into a problem... and thats where a rough sketch map comes in handy, since its lays out the basics before you start anything, it will highlight the guidelines to what your doing, and you know (if you decide to keep the rough sketch as law) that whats on the rough map won't change...

01-17-2010, 05:46 PM
I've answered "map first", but that's only partly my way. I prefer physical geography first - landforms, climate, land cover, drainage. With that mapped, maybe even not in exquisite detail, I can come up with some story. not "John left the castle, setting off on the King's Road into the sunset...", but the big sweep of history, society, culture. Then I'll go back to mapping and devise some politics - borders, habitation, transport, land use. Then that level of geography suggests story opportunities.

While it's iterative, I usually don't backtrack on the maps. Maybe that's a measure of the strength (or NOT) of my plots - the world having attained more solidity in my mind than what I have to say in a story.

Of course I do have a backlog of story and plot fragments, characters and situations. As I wander around a new setting, one or more of them will crawl out of my memory and slap me upside the head. So would that be "story first"?

01-17-2010, 07:01 PM
The McChicken* came before the McEgg**

Here, the McChicken is the Story and the McEgg is the Map.

* The alien entity that is McChicken was banished aeons ago by an ancient, elder race of unknown and unimaginably powerful beings. Entombed in a small meteorite, the octopoid deviant known as McChicken was sent hurtling through the frozen depths of space, covering untold light-years, until his prison-tomb smashed into the primal Earth and was buried beneath the crust.

Millions of years past, and McChicken was trapped, incarcerated beneath rock and ocean. Dreaming evil dreams, he laid waiting throughout the ages until weak-willed and power-hungry creatures called humans, in their folly and blind curiosity, came to know the dreams of McChicken and became enthralled by his promises of power. A plot was set in motion to release the alien being and today we approach the day of reckoning, when McChicken will rise from His slumber and break free onto the surface world. And he will bring with him one huge appetite…

** The original McEgg, laid 100 million years hence, had a diameter of two miles. This gives you an idea of just how big McChicken is.

01-17-2010, 08:57 PM
To me, the story helps drive the map, and the map helps drive the story.


I think the more ways you look at the same thing the more facets you can bring to bear on it. I dont write books but I do write software which is kinda wordy but we all make diagrams to sort out in our head how to make it in a succinct and clean way. Some people are more visual than literary and vice versa but few people are all of one and none the other.

It bugs me in books when there is a logical inconsistency and it also bugs me when the visual aspects don't seem to line up. It also awes me in books when they are strong in both too. You can usually tell which writers like their maps and which don't cos some of the characters wander aimlessly with almost no references to anything that pins them to a location and for others it makes a big deal.

I'm reading Tolkien at mo with the Hobbit and he is always referencing whether the sun is setting behind the Mistys or rising in the morning from them or that Gandalf had to travel X number of hours to get to a point where he could cross a river, he knows how much rations they need and when they will run out and so on. He clearly had the map done when he wrote it and knew where they were on it at all times and used it to add to the text. I also think that the Mistys running all the way up the middle (an improbable geological effect) shows that he needed that barrier so must have had an idea about the story requiring them going underground to find Gollum and the ring before the map was drawn up too.

To and fro between them developing them in turn or together. Therefore I abstain !

01-17-2010, 10:19 PM
I say story mostly. Especially as I make more and more maps. Ages ago, I'd just throw down a map and then try to come up with a story to fit it.

But lately, I like to think of a story behind features (particularly in city maps). Why a city wall is in a certain place. Why it was built where it was. Whether it was a planned city, or just grew up, etc etc.
History has some place in this. Cities like florence and its towers that were used as district control points. Old city wall towers that, as a city expanded, weren't torn down but just reused while the walls they were connected to were.

I like to do it for city buildings in my key as well. Like on one map I named a brewery "Vallin's Company", and I thought about how it might have been an old army officer who, after being discharged, formed a brewery with a few of the same men from his company. Little things like that.

Ryan K
01-18-2010, 02:42 AM
I always go for world-building first. Nothing extremely detailed, just a good workable map that I'm not going to bin after looking at it a dozen times, and a general idea of where I want to have my story take place.

Then comes the story, which expands in step with expanded world-building.

For instance, I know where my towns and countries are going to be, but I won't name them, and instead have a lot of dots labelled 'Town' or 'City' and other 'Country' labels ready to go. Then as I establish in the storyline where places should be, local history and politics, I add it to the map as I go along, so it sort of feeds back into it.

It's the philosophy of setting the board before you play chess.

01-18-2010, 04:18 AM
The two need to grow together to be coherent. Usually it's form the big ideas (the purpose for the map along with the places needed), then do a rough map, then a rough story, then a better map, then a better or more story, and so on.

Having said that, there are stories that don't require a map, maps no requirement for a story (pure art), and maps that lead to stories.

OK, I think that covered all the bases on the way to being totally noncommital.

01-19-2010, 12:22 AM
Wow I didn't expect to get so many answers so fast, cool. So I guess the safest option would be to try and find a mid point between the two, develop both story and map at the same time, like what Waldronate said. Thnx guys.

On a side note, would anyone be interested in reading my fantasy back stories and stuff, I would really need some outside opinions on my world's story before I get too indepth with a story.


01-19-2010, 11:24 PM
For me it varies. Sometimes I have a story in mind and work on it a little, then begin mapping and changing the story as I map to fit the map, and ideas generated from it. Other times, like what I am working on now, I have begin working on a map and come up with varies story/plot lines as I go on. so basically I agree with waldronate. Story and map building go hand in hand and need to be worked on together.

Ryan K
01-20-2010, 01:42 AM
On a side note, would anyone be interested in reading my fantasy back stories and stuff, I would really need some outside opinions on my world's story before I get too indepth with a story.

I'd be glad to help, mate.

01-20-2010, 07:14 PM
I find it much easier to create a world, then draw a story from it.

When I have a developed world, all the political conflicts, history, social issues and everything just pop out at me.

If the story is involving a rebellion against an unwanted duke, I can gather my thoughts and place everyone in a reasonable location and plan out where they would go, who would become involved... although I suck at writing stories and never get very far. Lots of ideas, just little ability to put it down.

01-20-2010, 07:16 PM
Map first, I've recently found out the hard way. After 55,000 words on my novel sans map, I was quite literally lost and uninspired. Forgetting the story and drawing the map from scratch has me reinvigorated and centered. Next time I'm not writing a word until I have a map.