I actually came up with the Scrabble Tiles technique more or less at the same time as the Mental Map – which pretty much indicates the level of complexity I had already hit in my writing (or at least my storybuilding). One key difference is that I only use the Mental Map occasionally, when the story development hits a particular point; but I use the Scrabble Tiles all the time, starting when I first begin to think about a given story.
The technique is simple: I take one Scrabble tile for each character – M for MacGyver, P for Pete, S for Sam, etc. Or for Stargate, it begins with J, D, S and T, plus H (Hammond), plus whoever else I know is going to be involved. Inevitably, some characters will inconveniently have names that begin with the same letter – Murdoc was especially annoying in that regard – but if nothing else, it does tend to inspire me to work up a wide variety of names for additional characters. (If you’ve read Aftershocks, you may recall Xavier -- life was very easy with an M and an X!)
Some characters might start out as abstracts or nonspecific IDs; I’ve had tile collections that started out with H for Henchman or B for Bad Guy. (Ask Lothi someday about the character in The Rainmakers that I inadvertently named Gus, which actually stood for Guy in Ugly Shirt.)
So what are the Scrabble tiles for?
They allow me to keep track of the characters – all the characters; since I’ve set aside a tile for each character, even when I’m wrangling a good-sized cast, I’m not going to misplace a character. As I work through the story and the scenes, I can use them as a physical reminder of who is currently with whom (Mac is off doing exciting stuff here while Pete and Sam are conferring there with C, the Corrupt Politician). I can use them as a tool when I’m blocking scenes, especially complex scenes (Mac enters the house with Jason and H, the Henchman, while V and B are in this room and S is sneaking in by the back way).
I can use them for blocking fight scenes and action sequences. In that case, most of the process is in my head, but the tiles give me a physical anchor, as it were: Jack and Teal’c are over here shooting at the Redshirts (R, R, R, S, S, S, S) while Daniel is over here talking to the Fearless Leader (L) and the Vice-Leader (V), and Sam is en route with the Cavalry (C). Three Redshirts down (flip the tiles over), Jack and Teal’c get overrun and separated, Sam arrives on Jack’s side but C goes to help Teal’c, and so on. In this example, I have to keep Sam apart from the second set of Redshirts, but that isn’t too difficult.
It goes beyond just physical interaction: I can use the Scrabble tiles as a prop when I’m thinking about how characters relate to each other on other levels. Often, I’ll have one set of tiles ‘in play’, as it were – the main narrative thread is following Mac, for example – but the other tiles, the other characters, are still affecting what’s going on. Emotional relationships can be held in mind – no matter what Pete is doing, he’s probably also worrying about Mac; and his actions will both reflect that, and have a bearing on the movement of events within the story.
I originally started using the Scrabble tiles when I was working on Phoenix Rising: in one critical chapter of that story, I had almost a dozen characters wandering around a single large house, hiding from each other, running into each other, eavesdropping on each other, or sending each other here and there.
I had tried to keep track of the mob by doing a rough floor plan, and then realised that it didn’t really matter how the house was laid out at all: what mattered was who was physically with whom, and who was elsewhere (and with whom). I abandoned real estate specifications and scribbled notes for Scrabble tiles and a bare section of my kitchen table, using individual pieces of paper to represent the different rooms without worrying too much about the actual floor plan. A given Scrabble tile could not simultaneously occupy two pieces of paper, after all; and it not only kept me from leaving henchmen unaccounted for, it told me how many goons were still standing at any given time.
At least for me, the simple physical prop – a placeholder for the character – provides a huge boost even when I’m just pondering. And the pondering is a major part of the process.
The Scrabble tiles are also easy to carry around, and if you lose one, well . . . old, incomplete Scrabble sets can be found cheap at Goodwill. Just make sure the Q is still there if you’re writing for Star Trek TNG.