After emerging from an intense script-writing season, I’ve been reflecting on my writing process, pondering what techniques worked and what didn’t. I certainly have plenty to improve on and new methods I want to try, but I thought I’d share one technique that helped me as I wrote my latest play.
Isn’t storyboarding for films? Yeah, originally. But the idea can be (has been) adapted for many art forms, and I’m finding that it works for scriptwriting. In short, a storyboard is a visual map for your story. You take index cards or post-it notes, one for each scene in the story, and arrange them on a bulletin board or somewhere so that you can see your whole plot at a glance. When you visualize the story this way, you can improve its structure and identify plot holes or redundancies.
In more detail, here’s how it works. First you need to have some kind of generic plot structure that you’ll be using, even if it’s simple. Here’s a good basic template that lays out the traditional three-act outline of a story.
Some plot templates and explanations go more in-depth than this, and those can be wonderfully helpful (especially if you’re a planner by nature, like me—if you’re not, you might find a more detailed template constricting). I always begin with the story structure I learned in high school from Daniel Schwabauer’s One Year Adventure Novel curriculum, which divides the typical plot into twelve sections and describes the key turning points that move the story forward. For my most recent script, I also drew from Blake Snyder’s beat sheet for screenplays, from his book Save the Cat. (Two amazing resources right there, which I’ll have to praise at length some other time. Check them out if you haven’t!)
Regardless of what structure you’re using to plot your story, a storyboard will help you visualize it. If you’re storyboarding before you write your first draft, like I did, you likely won’t know all your plotpoints yet, but you’ll have ideas for at least some of them. Character A faces X obstacle, resists, meets Character B, achieves Y, and eventually wins by doing Z. (Or something like that.)
This is where you pull out index cards. Some folks prefer post-its, but I wanted more space to write on. You take your stack of cards and write down whatever ideas you have on individual sheets. I used twelve cards and labeled them all according to the twelve-part structure I learned form Daniel Schwabauer, and then I jotted down the few plotpoints I did know on the appropriate cards. I knew the catalyst that would first propel the plot into motion, I knew the basics of a subplot I wanted to integrate with the main story, and I knew the horrible thing that would hit my protagonist at the story’s crisis moment. I wrote these down, then laid out my twelve cards in order as well as I could, with the filled-out cards arranged where I thought they fit in my plot template. Then I stepped back.
I still had quite a few blank notecards at this point, but now I could see where the gaps were. I had ideas written on Cards 1 and 3, but Card 2 was blank. Well, I just needed to get my characters from the event of Card 1 to the event of Card 3. That’s not too bad. Some other gaps were bigger, but at least now I could see exactly where they were.
From there, then, it was a process of filling these gaps by creating transitions between the plotpoints I already knew and by using my story templates (Schwabauer’s twelve-part outline and Snyder’s beat sheet) to help me brainstorm new ideas. So, I knew Card 2 needed to move my characters from plotpoint 1 to plotpoint 3. It should also involve “promises, prophecies, and predicaments,” according to Dan Schwabauer, and a “debate,” according to Blake Snyder. That gave me a lot of information to fuel my creativity.
And that’s how you work through your whole storyboard of index cards. You identify the gaps, think about what you can supply to move your characters from the previous plotpoint to the next, and consult your plot template to know what should be going on in the overall structure of your story. Is this where the main character is having “second thoughts,” or where he faces a new “obstacle” (“Three-Act Structure,” above)? The storyboard tells you what’s missing, and your plot template tells you what kind of content should fill the gaps.
One more thing: the storyboard also proved its worth by helping me keep track of each scene’s location and the characters involved. In addition to a summary of the plotpoint that took place, on each card I also made note of where the scene took place and who took part in the action onstage. (You could also mention when each scene takes place to make sure you don’t accidentally create inconsistencies in your story’s calendar.) You can always change these details as you write, if you decide character so-and-so doesn’t belong in said scene after all, or this plotpoint would really make more sense in a different setting.
For that matter, you can rearrange your whole grid of index cards if you need to. You may be writing and realize that a scene you thought would take place early in the story will be more effective if you wait until closer to the climax. That’s fine! Plot structure is meant to guide your creativity, not imprison it. Ultimately you have to do whatever makes the most sense for your story. And that’s the beauty of the hands-on storyboard. You can move cards around at any point, or get rid of a card, or create a new one and insert it where it fits best. I certainly did plenty of this as I was writing my play. Details got added, and scrapped, and adjusted. Plotpoints merged and I ended with only eight scenes. That’s just what happens when you write.
And that’s storyboarding in a nutshell, as I understand it. It’s visual and kinesthetic, it’s practical and easy to adapt. It’s also kinda fun, like a puzzle you’re creating as you go. And you can see at a glance things about your story that would easily get lost in a typed list or outline of scenes.
Thoughts or questions? If you’re a fiction writer, have you tried storyboarding before? I look forward to experimenting more with this technique on future scripts! If you’re interested to know more about my writing process, check out my post from June of this year, “The Writing Process: Pen or Keyboard?”