Friday, March 1, 2013

Lesson from Argo: Why Storyboards Are Great Tools for Building Great Books-- And How You Can Make Yours Unique

I recently watched the movie Argo, which was just released on DVD.  Movies like these I prefer seeing at home, so I can study their structure.  This one was amazing.  As most people know, it's about a classified mission that took place during the Iran hostage crisis, where six Americans were secreted out of Iran on the pretense that they were part of a film crew scouting locations.
At one point in the movie--and I won't give any more away, in case you haven't seen it--there's a great episode with storyboards.  In Argo, these are half-sheet sized poster board, with drawn-in scenes.  Each shows a different pivotal moment in the movie, what the outer story (action) is, where it takes place, and who is acting in the scene.

Put together, these boards give us the "essence" of the movie's high spots.  Which is exactly what a storyboard is designed to do. 

And these small boards, surprisingly, help win the happy ending for Argo.

 In my classes, I propose they will do the same for any book.


Various Ways to Design and Use Storyboards
I like offering a basic storyboard design in my classes, then seeing how each writer reworks it to best fit her book.  Never one for the "cookie cutter" approach in my own writing, I love it when people experiment in my classes.

The idea of the storyboard is to get the book out of your head.  Not just as words on paper, but as a visual map.  If you're into drawing, you can sketch the storyboard like the producers of Argo did.  You can even create a storyboard with images clipped from magazines (like a series of small collages). 

In my classes, we begin with a storyboard built from words.  Each scene or idea in the book is jotted down on a Post-It note.  If I have a scene with Kate, a pilot, I might write on the Post-It "Kate at the hangar argument with Cary."  In short, I put down the person, place, and a tiny bit of what's happening.  This is just to remind me--so I don't have to look at the printed pages to remember the scene.

If I haven't written the scene yet, I might write down an idea, who might play and where it might be.

For nonfiction, it might be a point in my developing theory, a piece of research, a quote, a story from someone I interviewed.

The idea is to get a sketch of the scene on paper--so you don't have to slog through the mountains of material generated as you write your book.

Classic W Format--The Simplest Structure for Your BookThe simplest and most classic storyboard structure is the W.  You can watch a video of me explaining the W format below.


Your Book Starts Here - Storyboarding for Writers
My video:  Your Book Starts Here-- Storyboarding for Writers


I teach this W format in my workshop, "How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book," and in my online class "Your Book Starts Here."  It is the most commons story structure, used by many filmmakers and writers.  Maybe because it follows the classic hero's journey, starting with a quest or a question, and ending with a change or resolution, readers tend to feel very satisfied and engaged with books that use it. 

The W format is also the easiest to create, especially if you're working on your first book. 

Many writers also work with a chronological flow in this W format, meaning that the story moves through time in a sequenced way. 

I've used the W format in many of my books, especially my nonfiction and memoir books.  It's been quite successful.  If you are just starting out, this is a great one to learn from.

A Slightly More Complex Structure--The Woven Structure
What if you want to try a slightly more complex structure?  Or you have lots of backstory to somehow incorporate into your present-time tale?

I usually recommend trying the W format first, just to learn it, then taking a test drive with what's called a Woven Structure.

A Woven Structure uses more than one W, placed on top of each other.  For instance, you might have a past era and a present era to blend.  Or two or more characters who are telling different stories.  This is hard to place on a single W. 

Our reading culture is growing toward more interesting structures like these.  An excellent example is the memoir, Wild, by Cheryl Strayed.  Strayed has two parallel stories in this book:  her months-long trek on the Pacific Crest Trail to come to terms with her shattered life and her mother's death, and the story of her childhood that caused that shattering.  Although the PCT story is chronological, the parallel story of her mother's death, her marriage, her childhood, is not.  It's woven thematically into the hiking story, and each flashback is perfectly matched in its point and theme with the moment on the trail.

I've seen this kind of woven structure beautiful presented in every genre.  A great nonfiction example is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which weaves the parallel stories of Rebecca Skloot's research with the history of Lacks, whose cells were stolen for research and became the famous HeLa cells.


Circle Structures--Harder to Pull Together But Very Effective If You Can Manage

Some writers prefer the Circle Structure, which starts with an image and threads that image throughout a winding circle of smaller stories within a story.  Some great examples are Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad and Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin. 

The reader has to work a bit harder to follow the path of a Circle Structure, so these are most commonly the territory of top-notch writers who have an unusual content and a great mastery of language. 

Not to discourage anyone from trying--but these are hard to pull together.  They also tend to be the books that win prizes, if done well.

Finding--and Practicing--the Book Structure That Works Best for You
When I began learning book structuring, I found it easiest to explore and test the various formats in a group--whether a writers group, a class, or an online class.  So that's how I recommend you try it, too, if you can.

This week I am teaching a storyboarding workshop in Boston and working with my online book-writing class on building a first storyboard.  In three weeks, I'll be teaching the same workshop in Minneapolis.  We learn about the different structures and each writer tries out the W, if they wish, then moves on to explore other structures.

In both my workshops and online class, I encourage feedback.  How do you know if the storyboard works?  If you share your storyboard draft with others and get feedback, you can find out if the book  flow "tracks" well for a reader--an invaluable thing to know.

No matter what stage of book development or genre, no matter your writing background or lack thereof, you can benefit from trying a storyboard.


Storyboards, ideally, capture the essence of a book.  Just as they did in the movie Argo, they may save the day as well. 

If you are new, use the W storyboard as a brainstorming tool.  Write your ideas for chapters or scenes on Post-It notes and play with a possible flow.  If you already have a draft or part of one, begin to arrange the "islands" in new ways, finding a pathway that might better engage your reader.

It's always exciting to see what comes forward.

If you'd like to join me in learning the different storyboard structures for your own book-in-progress, feel free to check out my upcoming workshops.  More about them here:  I'll be teaching in Boston this weekend, in Minneapolis on March 22-23, and again in Boston in April.  Summer online classes begin in June.