Storyboard Your Way Out Of The Forest

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Can I see a show of hands for each category?

I’ve always hated that question a little because I just don’t get it, at least for my own writing. Plotters plan ahead, arranging the sequence of events in their novels with the precision of a German train schedule. Plungers take a blind leap off a cliff and write whatever their heart tells them to put on the page.

I do neither.

Or maybe I should stand up and proclaim (with pride rather than shame) “I do both.”  Now with a creativity technique I learned from my wonderful advisor Carolyn Coman I can do both at the same time. Her planning/reviewing method drops me off at the corner of creative and organized, right where I need to be to get an accurate view of my novel, its strengths, and its gaps.

What exactly is a storyboard?

A storyboard is a sequence of images that tell your story. In the 1930s, Disney Studios’ artists began taking on more complicated projects- intricate stories with many scenes- and before long one cartoon generated so many sketches that it was impossible to keep the flow and sequence of the story straight.

Sound familiar? This is exactly how it feels to me when I have an early draft of a novel. So much great material– backstory, dialog, action sequences, contemplative moments– but it’s a jumble. Some parts drag. Others race. Worse of all, with hundreds of pages of material and almost no perspective from my position close inside a project, I can’t pinpoint  the problem spots.

Disney animator Webb Smith had a solution- storyboarding. Basically a sequence of images arranged in the order of the final product.

Follow this link to see Walt Disney leading a bunch of Washington big wigs through a storyboard.

Neat isn’t it?  Is this what my storyboards look like? No way. For one thing I’m no artist. But believe me, that’s not a handicap for storyboarding a novel. In fact in some ways it may be an asset because my drawings are free and spontaneous. We’ll talk about why this is important tomorrow— and how storyboarding can pull you into the “flow state”. But let’s stick with practical matters today.

What does a novelist’s storyboard look like?

I’ve had a more or less hellacious time downloading images today… if I can get my camera to work with my computer I’ll post a photograph of the actual storyboard I’m working on right now. Until then take a look at this template-

This is generic but it will work for our purposes. There’s a block for an image, and underneath, lines for text. So how do you fill it in— what goes in those blocks? I have some recommendations but ultimately it’s up to you.


1) Consider including three elements for each storyboard “segment”. Below the block make a brief note about the major ACTION in the scene or part of a scene you are storyboarding. In the block draw what’s happening. Above the block write a one word description of the overriding EMOTION in the scene. This will gauge both the arc of the story itself (what is “happening”) and the emotional arc of your protagonist or of the story. If every block is “Sad” “Sad” “Sad” that’s a good clue your story is emotionally stagnant.

2) Play with the pictures. At least until you’ve decided one method works best from you draw whatever you feel in each block. It may be one strong visual image (perhaps I’d draw a handprint in one of my blocks). In the next block you may chose to draw the major action (how about two characters embracing?)  When you stay loose and free you’re going to surprise yourself. Something entirely unexpected might pop up anywhere. Don’t “overthink” it. Just do it.

3) Don’t get hung up on how it’s coming together while you’re working on it. You’re not storyboarding for Disney. It’s going to be a mess in the middle of the project. Give yourself license to be messy.

4) Step back- literally and figuratively. Tack your storyboard onto a wall or prop it against a table. Stand back and take the long view. (At least in my case this means my storyboards are at least poster sized) Take your time. This isn’t a fifteen minute project. It will probably take hours. Maybe even days. Then let it cool off and come back to it. What do you see now? What do you want to add?

5) Don’t erase. While you’re working leave in the blunders. Yes, sometimes they were mistakes. Often they’re your unconscious mind rearing it’s head. At this stage be receptive, not judgmental.

6) You can storyboard an entire novel, scene by scene or chapter by chapter. You can do three blocks, beginning middle and end. You can make a block for the inciting incident, the three major hurdles, the climax, the realization, the denoument, and the wrap up. You can break it down any way, with as many or as few blocks are you want. Too much freedom? Start with four rows of four. Make the first block your inciting incident and the last one your conclusion and just work from there. Experiment.

7) Make it yours. This is JUST for you. Don’t show it to anyone else. Maybe you’re an “awful artist”. Who cares? This isn’t a drawing project. It’s a creativity and organization project.