Friday, August 28, 2020

Using the Storyboard for Short Pieces as Well as Long

 Lila came to my remote "learn to storyboard your book" class to work on her novel.  Recently, she emailed me, wondering if storyboards also were useful when planning shorter pieces, such as short stories or essays.  "I often know how I want to start and end a short story," she wrote me, "but the part in the middle gets a little foggy. I like the idea of using a W structure but I also don't have much time to have 3 turning points. So maybe it's  just a V?"

In my short stories, I also (usually) know where I want to begin and end.  And Lila's right, that there's a lot less time to develop a full storyboard.  But if I look carefully at my most successful short stories and essays, I can see at least the five main points of the storyboard in action.

Just to review, and apply to a shorter piece of writing, here's how those five might look:

1.  Point #1, the opening action that is also called the "triggering event" since it starts something.  My favorite short stories start right in the middle of action.  It doesn't have to be huge, dramatic action (although it can be).  I'm going to refer to Tobias Wolff's classic short, "Say Yes," as an example.  We begin with the couple washing dishes, the man feeling proud of himself for being a guy who helps out.

2.  Point #2 is when something changes the game.  What we've begun, washing dishes, is going to be altered in some way.  This happens when the wife cuts her hand on a broken mug or glass.  The husband rushes to help.

3.  Point #3 is a second triggering event--a bigger change than point #1.  In Wolff's short story, this is the question the wife asks:  would you still love me if I were black?  The man doesn't answer immediately, he doesn't "say yes," and this also changes the game.  The wife gets her answer in his silence. Notice how well this fulfills the requirements of point #3--it deepens the conflict in an unexpected way and causes things to slide downward to point #4, the lowest moment.

4.  Point #4 is the withdrawal of the wife, after they argue.  She moves to the darkened bedroom, and when the husband steps in, because her face is in shadow, he almost doesn't recognize her.  They are estranged because of this outer and inner conflict that's accelerated since the beginning.

5.  Point #5, the ending, is a brief touch in with that estrangement, as the husband realizes he doesn't really know his wife after all--he thought he did, he thought everything was settled and secure, especially his role in the marriage, but everything is in question now.

The cool thing about using the storyboard to analyze and assess the strengths of each turning point in a story, whether fiction or nonfiction, is it gives you immediate information about weak areas.  In my stories, I sometimes don't design an acceleration to point #3--that second triggering event that makes the conflict more intense and more personal.  When I test my stories with the storyboard, I often come up with a V, as Lila mentioned, but if I can find that second triggering event, the story comes out much more satisfying--to me and the reader. 

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