Making Work Play the Sociogram Way

I've been working away toward the end of a big, hairy haystack of a draft and couldn't begin to keep all my spaghetti strands in order. My spreadsheet (which I resorted to for the first time with this manuscript because it has so many characters) wasn't doing it for me. Index cards weren't helping, and neither were my usual legal pad notes.

So I decided to try a lower tech version and trotted out the sociogram, something I studied all the way back (lo, these many years ago) in a college education course. Sociograms are used in many fields, but as a teacher, I used them to map out social relationships among my students. I'd start off by telling the class something like this:

The class is going to be doing a project soon for what will be a major grade, and I'd like you to work in groups. Before I assign groups, though, you can help me by writing the answers to these three questions. Be sure to keep your answers covered up and private. We don't want anyone's feelings hurt.

Then each student answers these questions:
1. Which classmate would you most like to have in your group?
2. Which classmate do you think would make a good group leader?
3. Which classmate would you rather not have in your group?

After you collect the papers, you make a chart and use circles for each kiddo with solid lines to show affinities, broken lines to show antipathies, and a different colored line to show leadership - using directional arrow to show whether each of these as one-way or mutual.

You can learn so much about a group this way. Who's the natural leader? (If it's a trouble-maker, you'll have the whole class with you if you can get him/her on your side.) Who're the cliques? (Break 'em up, or at least diffuse them.) Who are the loners, with no real connections? (You can help them out by putting them into groups with popular but kind kids, maybe those broken out of cliques.) Who are the outcasts no one likes? (Often because they have horrendously inappropriate social skills, which may be addressed by special services.)

As a writer, I do the same sort of thing (minus the questions) to graphically depict character relationships. I can then look at them and see where it's possible to make one character serve multiple purposes or eliminate a character or even create a surprising connection (surprising connections being my stock in trade) between characters. The photo I've posted shows the sociogram I made for the current work in progress (with a few deletions so my critique partners won't hunt up spoilers ).

I need a large sheet, so I coughed up the tax deductible funds to by a giant-sized Post-It Easel Pad and a 12-pack of color Sharpies, and some on-sale stickie notes (any brand'll do) so I could move around, change, and/or write on the backs of some of my comments. Then I went to town, using color and stickies (I drew the line at glitter, which makes such a mess it should be outlawed) with the joy of a third-grade girl.

And I saw things as I worked. Really saw them for the first time. Maybe it was the physicality of the ideas. Maybe it was getting away from the computer for a while. Or maybe it was just because I stopped grinding so hard and took the time to make work play.

After I was finished, I peeling off my completed page (happy to learn the Sharpies hadn't bled through several layers of my high-dollar Post-It Easel Pad and stuck the whole sheet on my office closet door, where I continue tinkering with it.

As a technique, it worked for me on this occasion, as collaging, notecards, and a host of other methods sometimes have in the past. Is any one method the right way or only way of doing things? Absolutely not, but the moral of the story is to keep making creative use of a variety of tools until you find the one that turns a knotty problem into child's play...

For that may just be the key to the locked door of imagination.

What are some fun ways you have used to play with ideas, develop characters, or brainstorm a plot? We'd love to hear about them.


A few of my Oncology Times columns (yeah, I actually write creative stories for a professional cancer publication) are mini-play scripts of under 1,000 words. I haven't had to worry about sociograms, because most of my pieces have only two characters. But I still have to think about their relationship.

My characters are contrived to serve a purpose, usually to present two sides of an issue. One character gets assigned to prompt the discussion - or argument - about the topic of the day, and the other character helps the reader learn the lesson.

Here's where it gets challenging. My characters can't look or sound like they are simply serving the function I designed them to serve.

I begin by writing whatever comes to me naturally, as I imagine the scene. I often get my message across by focusing on how the characters' relationship evolves over the short course of the piece.

Then I read the first draft aloud to myself. When it feels ready, I read it to one of my "readers" (i.e., friends who enjoy offering feedback). Joni is one of my cherished - and most favorite -- readers.

Maybe this idea of the sociogram will help me venture out, writing a piece with more than two players.

Here's an example.

thanks for encouraging me to think about what I do. Wendy
I slipped over to take a peek at your article and fell right into it. For one thing, every author who's every suffered through a table signing can relate to being at the mercy of whatever Person with an Agenda who happens to stroll over. I had no program believing in Ms. Redhead's agenda, either. Seemed very real to me.

If you want to try for something more complex, though, the sociogram's a good tool to keep in your kit.

Good luck.
Joni Rodgers said…
Holy mother of invention, Colleen! Great idea.

And Wendy, just think what would have happened if you'd been drinking DIET Coke!
Jomar Lipon said…
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Paty Jager said…
I like this idea! Thanks for stopping by our blog and offering the info.
Happy to do it, Paty! Thanks for stopping by BtO.
Usman Riaz said…
Incredible post.
Nisho Hozy said…
The Basics of Sociograms. A profitable tool for opening information on relationships. I like your article which you have clarified in points of interest. I will likewise prescribe reviews reviews to individuals for discover system in associations of assorted types, cooperation and coordinated effort are more essential than any other time in recent memory.

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