Thursday, November 14, 2013

How to Storyboard in Four Easy Steps

(The title of this post may or may not be mildly sarcastic.)

At one time or another, we've all faced the same question: do I outline my novel, or do I wing it?

For years I was a staunch SOP writer—seat of the pants.  I wrote four of my novels in that way. I prided myself in keeping myself from being "saddled" with a "constrictive" outline.

As it turns out, my first four novels were junk, mainly because they were my first four novels.  My seat-of-the-pants writing style changed, however, when I was require to outline with OYAN.  The result was The War Horn.  It had a generic plot, but pacing was good, and I figured that outlining wasn't so bad after all.

Fast forward.  I got to the point where I couldn't function without an rough outline.  As much as I hated to admit it, SOP writing wasn't working out for me.  I reluctantly laid down my arms and surrendered to the devil—er, outlining.

Now, before you throw up your hands in horror, let me say that I'm not insulting SOP writing.  It can work, but it's not the most efficient way to write.

In the last year, however, I discovered a marvelous compromise—it gave me the open-ended freedom to do what I want with the tightly plotted structure of an outline.  

It's called the Storyboard.

It goes by other names, too.  Timeline is a popular word for it.  You can do it on a computer or on paper—personally, I prefer the delicious inkiness of my Pilot G-2 Extra Bold. 

But how do you do it, and how do you do it in a way that is the most effective?

Glad you asked.  I'll show you.  I plotted out a storyboard just for you guys, my illustrious blog-followers, with me and my Pilot G-2.  (Pardon the blurriness of the scanned papers.  This IS Africa, you know.)

I present to you: How to Storyboard in Four Easy Steps!

STEP ONE.  Draw a line on paper, with two endpoints in the form of vertical lines.  Also, title it, if you feel so inclined.

This is the easiest part of the Storyboard.  (Although it seems that even a straight line was too much for me to ask.  My line looks more drunk than sober.)

This is also a good place to find out how much your storyboard is going to cover.  Point A is the first vertical line, and Point B is the second one.  These represent separate events.  All of the content in your storyboard should take place between these two events.

Sometimes I brainstorm two or three chapters in one storyboard; sometimes I brainstorm an entire novel.  This year I wrote three storyboards for my NaNoWriMo novel, one for each POV.

STEP TWO.  List the main plot points between Point A and Point B, indicated by smaller vertical marks spaced throughout the line.

As you can see, that's exactly what I did below.  The main plot points of the story are summarized.  If you're doing a storyboard for an entire novel, then you should take careful note.  

There are four crucial moments that your novel storyboard should include.  The first one is the event that sets the novel in motion ("Turkey's brother is brutally eaten").  The second is the moment of decision where the main plot of the novel starts ("Turkey turns to the dark side").  The third is the black moment, the point at which everything goes wrong just before the climax ("Saves his sister by sending her to another dimension").  The last one is the climax of the novel ("Has a change of heart and sacrifices himself").  If any of you have done OYAN, you should be familiar with these concepts already.

If you're simply mapping out a scene or group of scenes, then just summarize the main developments in the story.  None of this is set in stone, which is the beauty of the Storyboard.  Random ideas are welcome.

The point of this part is to map everything out so that you know the general direction of your story.  Having the end in sight helps in two ways: first, it'll give you the opportunity to foreshadow and have the beginning make sense in light of the end; second, it'll help you know what you're going to write next.

STEP THREE. Expand your plot points, giving them more detail and direction.  Specifically, focus on visualizing where the story is going.

This is probably the hardest part of the Storyboard.  There are two objectives here. 

First, give detail to the summaries that you wrote in Step Two.  In the "Turkey's brother is brutally eaten" section, for instance, I gave a number of details: the turkey sobs, buries him in corn, and when the turkey priest stands up to give a few words, he talks about non-violence.  All of these are a consequence of the plot point and expand it. This part of the Storyboard will require some brainstorming.

Second, visualize the summaries.  Visualizing where the story is going to go is a huge advantage when you sit down to write it.  If you can follow the "movie" of your story in your mind, you're going to be able to follow it with your keyboard.

Sobbing is a great visual; burying him in corn is a poignant and unexpected detail.  (Apparently I had neglected to remember that since the turkey was eaten, there wouldn't be a body to bury.)

Another thing that this step does is to flesh out the practical consequences of your plot points.  As a result of Turkey's sister being a target for someone's Thanksgiving dinner, Turkey has a pretty awful decision to make.  Does he save his sister and kill the humans, or does he stand by while his sister dies?  Luckily, there was a wise buzzard priest walking by at the time and informed him of the concept of inter-dimensional travel.

Where would we be without random priests?

This is also the point where I had an epiphany about the ending of the novel.  You may find that the same sort of thing happens to you.  If you're poring over your story details, new ideas are bound to come.

There's another great side-effect of seeing all of your ideas in one place: it becomes possible to connect them together in a way that you hadn't thought of before.  You'll find a prime example of this in the "Saves his sister" column where I wrote Circularity in big underlined letters.

STEP FOUR.  Finish expanding your columns and jot down any ideas that may come to you, whether or not you will actually use them.

This one is pretty straightforward, although it may take a little bit to brainstorm.

Ideas are often seen with a question mark, and sometimes they get crossed out.  My killing spree idea, for instance, got nixed about five seconds later.  However, this establishes the fact that Turkey is struggling with nonviolence and his need for revenge, so it was still an integral part of brainstorming.

The nice thing about blank space is that it motivates you to brainstorm something to fill it, and as a result I got a few ideas that I wouldn't have otherwise thought of.

Once your blank page is filled with notes and scribbles, lean back and give yourself a high-five, if no one's watching.   You've written a Storyboard, and a page full of inky ideas isn't a bad day's work.

And this way, you won't forget everything you brainstormed when you wake up tomorrow morning.  I've had it happen, and it's not pretty.