This Is Your Brain On CREATIVITY! Storyboarding Part 2

There are sound neurological reasons storyboarding works for some of us. It literally probes the deepest recesses of the creative mind. How?


A human brain is a mysterious thing and as a writer I’m always looking for ways to push inside my unconscious, to lift the veil between what I know on the outside and what my heart and mind know about my story on the inside. I’m trying to enter “the flow”. Even though I’m no great shakes as an artist drawing a scene is a powerful tool to lead me through the curtain into “the understory”.

Huh? This sounds a little like hocus pocus. Its not. Its science. Clinical psychologist Carol Kaufman posted a great article about brain function and creativity titledBEING CREATIVE: THE RIGHT-BRAIN/LEFT-BRAIN MYTH AND FLOW In the article she explains how brain function and creativity converge and argues that free writing and other “mind freeing” exercises are the way to achieve flow.

Great. We know taking a walk or hopping into the shower can somehow put you into a more contemplative frame of mind. But I wanted to travel deeper and direct my unconscious to particular story problems- specific spots in my novel that needed work. Could I direct my brain to those places with a pencil and paper? Why did I notice things in storyboard images I hadn’t considered when writing scenes? Could it be that drawing a few quick sloppy lines open a door deeper into my story? If so why?

First I want to start with the caveat that I’m not a neurologist or even a particularly “sciency” person. And I haven’t spoken to a neurologist about this. Or an occupational therapist… or anyone else who might study thought and brain function as their life work. But I’ve experimented- on myself. And I’ve done tons of reading on brains and creativity and talent and growing as a writer. Here’s  a bit of what I found-

At the school where I worked children with small motor skills issues were often given laptops to type their work rather than write it by hand. Keyboarding seemed to unlock a door for some of these children, not just freeing them from an unwieldy writing instrument. It was almost as if they had a new brain when they typed rather than scrawled.

At about the same time I purchased Scrivener, a powerful computer program for writers. It has pretty interfaces, including a snazzy “bulletin board” where you can tack notes about your novel. It’s easy to paste images so theoretically you could generate a gorgeous storyboard or extended outline on Scrivener. So I tried it. My outline/storyboard was over 20 pages long. It was BEAUTIFUL. And an utter failure. I couldn’t remember scene sequences. The narrative arc was off and I couldn’t tell why. Looking at images from that pretty outline made me feel like I’d sunk into a vat of brain clogging tar.

Why did working on a laptop free certain children at my school but shut my creativity down? I’m a very very fast typist. And I’m generally happiest writing drafts on a keyboard. Why didn’t planning on a keyboard work for me? Could it be something about my brain? I had lots of questions, a few suspicions, but not many answers until I read a story in the Toronto Star.

In Writing Is A Whole Brain Enterprise, reporter Andrea Gordon writes

“In handwriting, the motor cortex in the frontal lobe directs movement. But it also acts in concert with other regions that provide sensory information, such as whether fingers are holding the pencil tightly enough, and visual and fine motor feedback to guide the arm and hand, adjust the tiny finger movements and achieve precision.

The parietal lobes are the source of spatial sense, directing where on the page to begin the task and how to form the curved and straight lines for letters. The parietal lobes also provide for directionality, which makes sure the letters go the right direction and keeps the hand moving left to right.

In contrast, printing and typing are more a product of the left hemisphere of the brain, the side associated with linear, logical, sequential functions and learned behaviour that has become routine. While typing requires similar tactile and motor functions to cursive, researchers now know it also requires separate skills: bilateral coordination for using both hands, acute finger sense as each digit moves separately, and fine motor skills and motor memory to produce a different type of movement to strike the keys.”

So… is it possible, no likely, that writing an outline by hand is triggering different regions of my brain than typing that same outline? Brain regions that, in my case at least, are “more creative”?  Based on my personal experience I think the answer is yes.

Then there are the pictures. There’s a whole science of art therapy and lots of research on how drawing can retrieve memories or spark ideas. I’m no expert on this field either. But I believe when those drawings are focused on specific areas of a novel- sections I’ve identified with an emotion above the box and an action below the box half formed ideas and unconscious images bubble to the surface. My pictures aren’t pretty, certainly not as intricate or visually pleasing as the cut and paste photos in my Scrivener outlines, but they are unlocking bits of my story. That’s all I want or need as a novelist.

I don’t consider myself an expert in any of this, by any means. I’m just looking for what works for me. But this stuff makes me incredibly curious. I’ve done other reading you might find interesting. Some books I’m reading right now include-Dreaming By The Book by Elaine Scarry, Drawing On The Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards, and The Talent Code by Dan Coyle.

So… now you’ve scribbled and noted and drawn and you have a huge sheet of paper full of – stuff.  What then? It’s time to step back. This is when I see- graphically- that my protagonist is sitting and talking three scenes in a row. BORING. This is when I see the antagonist is absent for a good third of the novel. This is where I see I need some character motivation because there isn’t much connection between one block and the one next to it. This isn’t a mechanical exercise. You have to bring all your story intuition into the analysis. But I’m consistently surprised about what I see when I study a storyboard, even if I thought I knew the story backwards and forwards.

Now it’s time to share again. Have you found techniques that you think help you be more creative or that generate surprising ideas? Or maybe you are a neurologist or psychologist or one of the many other experts that I’m NOT. Does my theory of accessing the creative side ring true? What works for you?