Sunday, February 19, 2012

Making a Map of Your Book's Structure--Three Different Kinds of Storyboards

Storyboards, the visual map that filmmakers use, are a lifesaver for writers needing to brainstorm the structure of their books. I use them to chart the primary pathway through my piles of material.  A great tool for organizing and structuring novels, nonfiction books, and memoirs, they can be approached in three ways.

Both my online classes and my Grub Street workshop on February 26 play with storyboards , so I wanted to revisit the three kinds you can use, depending on where you are in developing your story.

First, remember that storyboards benefit both writer and reader, but in different ways.  For the writer, they give the first glimpse of the book's structure.  I couldn't possible create publishable books without them.

For the reader, the storyboard smooths the pathway through the story.  Holes in the narrative become very apparent and can be filled.  Too much talking also shows up clearly--as well as digressions.  Storyboards help you trim the fat and bulk it up--wherever each is needed.

But storyboards can also help you chart a character's growth, or the development of a place (setting).

Storyboard Resistance
Many writers resist storyboards.  They aren't always as fun as the "flow" writing that we think of when we imagine creative writing.  You have to use the more linear part of your brain. 

On good days storyboards yield tremendous insights into why that &*%% chapter feels so out of sync or what kind of ending might work best. 
On bad days, storyboards feel like bossy mother-in-laws, telling us what we're doing wrong. They point out exactly what we don't want to look at about the book-in-progress: where we have too much blah-blah-blah, where we've skipped a juicy opportunity for conflict, where we've stayed on track or gone on a tangent. Essentially, it becomes clear as day where the book isn't yet working.

This can derail some writers. 

Storyboards also present, often for the first time, the glimpse of how your book will be when it's actually published.  Sometimes this is so scary (the thought of actually being published!) that writers abandon the project in emotional overload. 

But I believe in storyboards.  I create several for each book I write and I keep the best ones on my office walls, reminders that I am grateful for their linear know-it-all attitude.   Better realize the problems now, via a piece of posterboard in the privacy of your own home, than later via a rejection letter from an agent, yes?

The Golden Opportunity of Storyboards
A big question as you begin your book is this:  How are you going to know if your story flows when it's outside of your own inner worlds?

You can craft a draft, of course.  Get it typed out and printed, read through it.  But it's still hard to see if the idea you presented on page 31 will thread through to page 231 in a way your reader will track.

Some writers make long lists.  I do this too.  Facts to check, threads to follow.  The lists on my desk are as numerous as my printed drafts, after a while, and I start to go crazy under all that paper.  Here's where storyboards present a golden opportunity, like a good map out of a swamp.

A writer needs to know the structure of her story flow, the placement in time and space of each idea or plot point.  It's not just enough to churn out the words. The sequence matters, a sequence that readers can follow, and you need some method to clearly see sequence. Filmmakers use storyboards to provide this.

I use a giant W to structure my storyboards or a row of empty boxes lined up on my posterboard. I place Post-it notes along the W that represents scenes or ideas or chapters, then I move them around until the sequence of ideas equals a reasonable flow for my book.

This kind of storyboard charts the events, the outer story, and you can see if you have enough happening. 

Character Storyboards
Another kind of storyboard charts the character's growth through the book. 

Early in the revision process of my novel Qualities of Light, I did a storyboard for each of the main characters.  I learned, to my dismay, that one of them, Chad, had dropped out of sight in chapter 10.  Not so great because he was competing for Molly's attention as the other love interest in the story.  By crafting a character storyboard for Chad, I could immediately see the problem--and it was not apparent when I read the draft. 

I used a character storyboard to chart the progress of my reader through my nonfiction book, Your Book Starts Here, and realized I had planted too advanced material too early in the book.  Once I saw that the reader (my character, in a sense) wouldn't have understood some of the basic principles by that point, I could rearrange the chapter order to not overwhelm or confuse.  Much better sequence. 

It's not uncommon to emerge from a storyboarding session with an awareness of what still needs to be written--whether it's an event or a scene to show an aspect of a character.  I usually find missing sections or even chapters, places where a character or location has dropped out of sight, transitions that need to be made. Research still to do. 

Setting (Container) Storyboards
Sometimes a book's setting is so real and vivid, it is like a character.  I love books like this.  When I want to create them, I use a storyboard to track the "development" of my setting--how it grows in influence and changes in impact through the story.

So a third way to use storyboards is for your setting, or the "container" of your story--its culture, value and belief system, its history and atmosphere, the physical and psychological effect it has on the people and events. Chart the images, when you do this one.  How do they change as the story proceeds?  (Scroll down to review the impact of images in the post from last week.)

What If You're Just Starting ?  Using a Storyboard to Brainstorm I also use storyboarding during the first weeks and months of my book journey--when I have little written.  I imagine, or brainstorm, ideas for how I might create the narrative.  On the Post-It notes, I jot scenes or ideas or things I want to include.  Then I begin arranging them on the W storyboard, just to see what I have.  Most of the time, I get more ideas from this.  In fact, ideas start flooding in.

Storyboarding really lets you see possible ways to bring your book into manifestation.

So you can use storyboards to begin your journey or to organize it when you start to feel restless and overwhelmed with the amount of words you've collected.  It's always a good time to storyboard when you want a clear direction and development of your original idea.

This Week's Writing Exercise
This week, watch the video below. 

Then get yourself to an office supply store. Buy a posterboard and some Post-It notes. Go home, take a deep breath, and try creating your W storyboard.  Start with just two moments:  the opening and ending of your book, by asking yourself the questions below.

1.  Where might you begin? What moment do you see launching your reader into your topic or story? Write a note about this on a Post-It and place it on the storyboard.

2.  What moment might end your book? Where would you like the reader to be at the last page--with what new understanding, hunger, idea or feeling? Write a note about this too.

If you get brave, if you get enthused--as I did--see how many of the other Post-its you can place on the W.