Until very recently I had a world building first approach (architecture writing) to writing. But now I've found a compelling character to write about, I'm making choices about the setting and her background on the fly (gardener writing).

I've already noted the same detail down twice, but differently in the same document (the character's parent's names), so I've definitely got room for improvement.

How do I effectively take notes when exploration writing to avoid those issues?

3 Answers 3


I build plots and world on the fly.

My approach is the MOVIE approach. I keep notes on each character (just one document, with for example "JOHN:" as a heading for a character), and for each SET. In a movie this is a shooting location, like JOHN's apartment, his workplace, the diner, the basketball court, a hospital exam room, etc.

My notes are not particularly well ordered, and notes may be in different orders for different characters or sets. They are not a narrative, but if I need the names of John's parents, they will be under "JOHN:", and under "Parents:". The same thing for John's apartment, if I ever gave his apartment number, it will be in there. These are separate documents, one for all my character notes, another for all my sets.

Some of this is tied to the way I write; I proof and adjust what I wrote in the last session, and the last thing I do before I put something to bed is see if I invented anything and need to add to my notes.

Sets are slightly different, in that I do more world building and may even sketch out like a neighborhood or floor plan if the writing demands it.

But also like in the Movie Industry, I am sure you have seen "Making Of" documentaries where we see that the apartment (that looks whole on the screen) is actually just two and half walls, no ceiling, and a lot of overhead lights and mics and cameras.

Film professionals only build as much set as they need to give the illusion of completeness.

That is my approach as well, both to characters and sets. I don't build Marsha's past, her childhood traumas, her lifetime sexual history, unless I need that to justify something I will write about.

The same thing for physical settings. I may do some world building about the places my characters live, work, and must visit, but if it doesn't appear in my story, I don't build it.

Some of those notes might be on distances and such, it takes 30 days of running to get from Point A in my fantasy world to Point B. In one story I did have to devise a map, but it was mostly blank and extremely rough; basically labeled cities as points, a mountain range, a river, a lake, on a piece of graph paper.

Other times I have skipped making maps altogether, and just decided my map looks like Washington State, or Greece, or Italy, or Eastern Canada. I don't say so, but that's what I am using, including city locations. What could be more natural?

World-building can be its own fun entertainment, but usually I'd rather work on my story and my characters. Do as much world building as you like, but at some point I feel we aren't writing a story anymore, we are just building the equivalent of a model train set. Maybe even dithering and procrastinating instead of writing a story.

My approach is to invent and build on the fly what I need to tell the story, but to also be diligent and for the purpose of consistency write notes on what I built, or at least pick a real physical location as my model. e.g. My own first apartment, my own hotel stays, etc.

  1. post-its
  2. only note down what may break your story

Post-its are clearly underrated. First and foremost, taking a note on a post-it does not really interrupt your writing. This is true especially if you would have to shift from a software to another. In addition, they are easily movable, can be arranged inside a notebook, around a monitor, on a wall, on a door, on the desk. You can also place them with visual cues according to their relevance and importance. It is also very easy to edit a post-it.

The secret is to only worry about the details that may break your story. If the name of the parents is important because it is the clue to solve the mystery then note it down; on the other hand if it is mentioned in various conversations without any downstream effect, then: who cares? You are writing a draft and there will be a revision phase to review, correct and unify all these details.

  • 1
    The first part is excellent advice, however unfortunately harder for me to follow as I'm stuck writing on my phone most days, however the second piece of advice, that I can follow, is absolutely fantastic. Jan 1, 2022 at 23:16

Different people have different approaches to writing.

Wherever you start, you still need to be able to create a consistent world and portray credible characters.

There's a third element that I find particularly useful which I've explored in depth but haven't found covered to the same extent elsewhere - and that's the element of structure - as it applies to the story structures which individual characters' story lines follow.

As for inconsistencies in note-taking, you could take a couple of approaches and only you will be able to identify which one is applicable.

I'd argue it's not about note-taking techniques - it's about what happens prior to the note-taking.

If you were driving the process, then you will most likely have been imposing the parents' names onto the character, in which case, try leaving a blank space or using placeholders (Ma/Pa) until the names emerge spontaneously and you have no doubt they are the correct ones.

If you were open to revelation, then you may find there is a reason for the inconsistency - did they change their names at some point? If so, when, and why?

Ultimately, the note-taking should end up internalised, which is where working with oral traditions of storytelling is so useful.

In the meantime, you may find engaging with story structures and the way I've developed for notating them beneficial.

You can find out more from on-line lectures I've given (YouTube Playlist here) and in my book 'The Unknown Storyteller', The Squeeze Press, 2022.


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