Saturday, September 10, 2011

My Love (Hate) Affair with Storyboards

Storyboards, the visual map that filmmakers use, save my books. They are my primary pathway through my piles of material.  They are my best tool for organizing and structuring my novels, nonfiction books, and memoirs so that a reader can make sense of the story.

I love them. I couldn't make publishable books without them.

I also hate storyboards. They are like bossy mother-in-laws, telling me what I'm doing wrong. They point out exactly what I don't want to look at about my book-in-progress: where I have too much blah-blah-blah, where I've skipped a juicy opportunity for conflict, where I've stayed on track or gone on a tangent.

Essentially, it becomes clear as day where my book isn't yet working.

I teach storyboards, I have several hanging on my office walls, and I barely tolerate their linear know-it-all attitude. But I think they're gold.

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.

What's a storyboard look like?  Check out  this video where I demonstrate a storyboard.  

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.

What Do You Learn from Storyboarding?
You learn all the things I grumbled about above:  What is working, what is not working in your manuscript.

It's not uncommon to emerge from a storyboarding session with an awareness of what still needs to be written.  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.

It's also not uncommon to feel discouraged. All that writing done, but it's not yet a book. Sigh.

Why even bother? Well, you could continue on with your story and not know what's wrong with it until you begin getting the rejection letters.  Or you could save yourself a ton of time and find out now, when it's fixing (and less embarrassing to your writing career).

Storyboards are the absolute best way I've found to see if I have a working book, to force myself to structure the flow of ideas, to see what's left.

How do you know when it's time to storyboard?  Most of my writing students tell me they begin to restless and overwhelmed with the amount of words they've collected.  Others like storyboarding when they're just starting out with a new book, as a brainstorming exercise to plan the structure.  Either way, it's a good time to storyboard when you want a clear direction and review of your original idea.

When your new or revised storyboard is complete, you'll have a working map for your book.  That's truly something to love.

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


  1. Thanks for sharing this. I'm about to watch the video. I saved this when it first crossed my path while on vacation several weeks ago. Just now finding time to do this.

  2. Thanks for visiting, Stacy! I hope you enjoy making a storyboard--they are really fun.

  3. This video was so very helpful Mary. I'm about 40,000 words into my first attempt at a novel and storyboarding will help me tighten things up a bit. Well, I hope it does :D

  4. Thanks for posting this Mary. It's very helpful. Do you have an image of the board you used in the demo?