Sunday, February 7, 2010

Remedies for Writer's Block--How I've Been Using My Storyboard to Break Through

How you open your book determines whether it's read. What's opening your story right now? Is it compelling? Exciting, like a flower about to burst into bloom?

This week my on-going book-writing classes at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY, are working on this question. We're studying Act 1 of our books, asking ourselves if the opening chapter of Act 1 is strong enough.

I like working with the three-act structure in books, because it makes the hugely unweildy manuscript more manageable. But it means doing a storyboard. If you've been reading this blog for the past weeks, you know my love-hate affair with storyboards. They force a writer to structure the story, to know what it's about. And the opening chapter stares you straight in the face.

But the beauty of a storyboard is this: It is fluid, compared to an outline. Parts move around as you learn. Writers in my classes will bring in their storyboards this week and we'll rearrange stuff. Maybe chapter 5 will become chapter 1. Maybe the other way around.

Inner Story Comes Through in a Storyboard
Storyboards also reveal that serendipitous inner story. Inner story is the surprise element that emerges when we're not looking, and it's directly responsible for theme, voice, and elegance of manuscript--those memorable bits that delight both writer and reader. Inner story explores meaning versus event. Inner story can't be forced, and in my experience, outlines tend to make the book's structure rigid and hard to change, much as we want to.

Storyboards are very successful because they are organic. They evolve. But you still have to decide what you're really writing about. That's the other beautiful aspect of storyboards. They make us choose.

Choosing Act 1 Elements
Your storyboard of Act 1 should contain certain elements. If you look at three-act plays, at books that use a three-part structure, you'll see some very important elements in these opening chapters. From my study of Act 1, I've compiled a little list:

1. Act 1 needs an opening that's strong enough to launch the rest of the book. It delivers the main question or quest of your book and make us want to read on.

2. Act 1 also benefits from some parallel action or discussion or moment in its final chapter (say, chapter 7 or chapter 18). In other words, whatever you start in chapter 1 gets echoed in the final chapter of Act 1. This creates a very satisfying loop for the reader: we believe the writer is truly on the ball, because we recap what we've covered so far. Not in obvious ways, just as a parallel moment. For instance, letters received in chapter 1 of Act 1 could be revisited and then burned in the final chapter of Act 1.

3. This final chapter of Act 1 must launch more trouble, a bigger question, to propel us to Act 2.

4. It's helpful, especially if the book has multiple locations, time periods, or points of view in Act 1, to create a strong thread that runs through all of these, to hold all the chapters together. For instance, a recurring object in all chapters, or a metaphor or symbol.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Line up seven Post-It notes on your desk. Close your eyes and drift into the creative imagination. Of all the ideas you have for your book so far, what's the strongest possible opening? Jot it on the first Post-It. Close your eyes and consider what possible ending for Act 1 would echo that first chapter idea. Jot it on the last Post-It.

Now go back to your outline, storyboard, or book notes. Compare what you just came up with and the ideas you originally had for opening your book. Which is strongest?

See if you can fill in the remaining Post-Its. Add more if needed. Then look at your storyboard. Sometimes this exercise results in surprising openings. And the storyboard changes. Make those changes--see how they feel this week. Do new doors open for you? Does writer's block disappear?