All About Story Boards

First and foremost, there are no rules in writing OR plotting. You are not required to create a storyboard if you do not wish to. (But if you haven’t found your method yet, it’s not a bad idea to try new things.)

Secondly, there are as many ways to create a storyboard as there are authors. Diana has one way, Julie has another, Robin and Laura have another, and so on.

This post is about mine.

So, what’s a story board? (Or plotting board)

A storyboard is a visual representation of your novel/screenplay/sitcom/whatever.

You can use the 3-for-$1 posterboard from the Dollar Tree or Story Board Notepads or color coded cells in a spreadsheet–whatever you wanna do.

Mine are on large, thick, tri-fold display boards.

The first thing I do is grab a Sharpie and a metal yardstick and grid out the board. Some people plot in pages. Some people plot in chapters. I’m in the middle–I plot by scenes. So, knowing I write approximately 75 scenes to a 400 page book, I create a grid 10 columns wide and 8 columns tall.

In my mind, I decide that each row signifies approximately 50 pages, and that the last square in every second row should be a turning point. (A tweaked version of 4 Act Structure, the only part of which I use being the turning points.)

If this is a first draft, I embark on this incredibly anal process by which I type up all my ideas for potential scenes (or snippets of dialogue/emotion/action/etc to go inside unknown potential scenes), print ’em out (column-style, so they’re skinny), cut ’em up with my Fiskars trimmer (a scrapbooking tool that makes cutting easy and fast), run ’em through my Xyron (yet another a scrapbooker tool that covers the backside of paper with adhesive) and slap them onto multi-colored sticky notes.

Feel free to avoid all of that.

The important thing for me at this stage, is to have a vague idea of the scenes to come (at least up until the first major turning point) and to know what sort of disaster will go down for the black moment, climax, and resolution.

For this first-round story board, I typically use a different color to symbolize each POV character, so I can see at a glance if the hero/heroine screen-time is balanced how I want, or if my villain drops off the face of the Earth for 200 pages.

Here’s an example for DATD (still in first-draft mode):

DATD Storyboard: Erica Ridley

Above, pink=Dorinda, blue=Gabe, yellow=Villain. I’ve heard people knock color-coding this way (by saying it’s “like a baby” etc) but I personally find pink=girl and blue=boy intuitive. You may color however you like.

A few things to point out about this story board:

– Some rows have more sticky notes than others
Yes. That’s okay. It’s because some scenes are longer than others. The first and third sets of 100 pages apparently have shorter scenes overall, compared to the second and fourth sets of 100 pages. That’s not on purpose, it’s just how it worked out.

– Some sticky notes have little round stickers
Ah. These were added later, once I got about halfway through the story. You may not be able to tell in the photo, but some of the stickers are pink and some are purple. The colors themselves mean nothing, but the pink ones stand for major events in one subplot and the purple ones stand for major events in another subplot. This is just so I tell at a glance whether I’m dwelling on a subplot or whether I forgot about it completely.

– Some sticky notes have handwriting on them
This would be because I tend to diverge widely from my original typed ideas. And just because typed sticky notes still remain does not necessarily mean I followed them. At this point, I am writing forward through a first draft, not worrying about the 100% accuracy of each individual sticky note. That said, if a scene in no way resembles what I thought would happen, I remove it, and put up a new sticky note with a handwritten summary, or I jot a note at the bottom of the existing Post It.

So. Draw a grid. Attach sticky notes. How you color code them and what you write on their surface is completely up to you. Some people (especially those writing first person POV) are not served by the POV character color coding system, because there is only one POV character. This is fine.

There are plenty of other ways to color code. You could do so on the basis of the Hero’s Journey, with a different color for each step of the way. (Or any plotting structure, not just the Hero’s Journey.) Or you could color code based on plotlines and subplotlines.

Which brings me to: the Revision Storyboard

TATTF Storyboard: Erica Ridley

Looks a bit different than the first-draft one, doesn’t it? Here’s why.

At the polishing point of the writing process, I’ve got the story down. I know which POV the scenes go in and which scenes go where. I’m not changing big chunks of the plot. I’m just making sure all the threads tie together.

So, on with the Sharpie and the gridmaking. And then out with a stack of yellow sticky notes and a pile of colored markers.

I keep my blue=boy and pink=girl philosophy for this one (although my villain for this board is green, not yellow) and the top line of each sticky note is the scene goal for the POV character. In other words, the point of the scene. In all caps.

Following that, each with their own assigned color, are notes indicating sub plot turning points or key events.

Click to Pop Up Sample: (WARNING! SPOILERS!)

DAISY GETS TOOTH
ENCYCLOPEDIA
BERRYMELLOW
HIMALAYAN L.C.

(I tried to abbreviate as non-spoilerific as possible. If you know what any of these items mean, please don’t give spoilers in the comments or I will delete the comment and then kill you. I’m a ninja.)

First item: Daisy Gets Tooth
This is the entire point of this scene, and a turning point in the tooth sub plot. She’s been after the tooth since page one. Before, she didn’t have it. Now she does.

Second item: Encyclopedia
This is a note-to-self about something I wanted to layer into this scene. It has nothing to do with the plot per se, and is more a characterization item. I put it on the sticky note so I wouldn’t forget to include it.

Third idem: Berrymellow
This is a sub plot event. Technically, where two subplots converge into one. The interesting thing (to me) is that these subplots converge for someone other than the POV character, but it is clear based on dialogue what conclusions Trevor draws (and that the other scene characters made their own, completely different, leaps in logic.)

Fourth item: Himalayan L.C.
This is the Scene Disaster, the event that turns the scene upside down and sends the plot–and characters–spiralling in a new direction.

Once again, I can see at a glance what’s going on with the story.

My agent mentioned the heroine’s best friend disappearing for 200 pages. Since she was not a POV character, I didn’t notice this by looking at my first-draft story board. But when I assigned her a color (Mauve for Maeve, ha!) and jotted a one line note on every scene she took part in, I noticed that she did in fact disappear for 200 pages. Oops.

Naturally, I had to fix this snafu. And since I could see my entire story at once and glance at all the other color-coded plot threads very quickly, I was able to determine right away where Maeve’s presence would really augment other scenes. And now it’s much more even!

In conclusion, (thank heavens, right? how freaking long is this post?) there are three main takeaways I want to impress upon you regarding storyboards.
1) They are an excellent visual tool to help you see your story as one cohesive unit made up of related parts
2) You do NOT need to plot in advance to use a storyboard. You can add to it as you go along and move stuff around however you please. That’s why everything is on sticky notes!
3) You can create your story board however you want. There is no One Method. Whatever works for YOU is the right way. K?

YOUR TURN: Have you (or someone you loved *g) ever used a story board? What do you think about utilizing visualization tools to physically “see” your story? What other spatial organizational methods have you tried?

21 comments

  1. Bill Clark - Reply

    First things first: Hurray for the Maeve-O-Meter hitting the 20& mark!

    Second things second: Am delighted to hear that Maeve is appearing more frequently. I found her an utterly endearing foil to Daisy, and a kind of Greek chorus in her comments on the action. I didn’t notice her 200-page absence intellectually, but I *did* feel it emotionally.

    Maeve rocks! (Among other four-letter verbs.) 😉

  2. alternatefish - Reply

    I have never used a storyboard, but I may be about to start. Instead of writing scenes onto those little flag things and moving them around in my notebook, which is what I did for this WIP.

  3. Carrie - Reply

    I’m with Diana on the scary organization – but whatever works! I’m also with Bill in that Maeve rocks!!

    I tried story boarding, but — unsurprisingly — I gave up because I couldnt’ figure out color and organization. This is the same reason I never outlined in law school although EVERYONE else did. While they were woried aobut typing in the law, I was worried about whether I wanted the header to be bold or underlined and how that affected whether the subparts should indent fully or not. No lie.

    I am jealous of others’ storyboards, though!

  4. Vicki - Reply

    I have a small story board. I bought it at conference. Haven’t used it yet.

    Really there is not place to put it until I move. At least that’s what I keep telling myself. 🙂

    I love the idea though. I’m taking an online course through my other chapter FTHRW on The “W” Plotting and it’s been great.

    Yeah on hitting 20%. The sooner you get to 100% the closer it gets to published and in the stores…I want to read it. 😀 You know I’ll be there to buy it the day it comes out.

  5. lacey kaye - Reply

    I’m with everyone else who’s totally freaked out, er, jealous, of your mad storyboarding abilities.

    Seeing as how you have an agent, though, and I *don’t*, I shall now slink around my house wondering if maybe this is where I went wrong.

    JUST KIDDING! Don’t hit me!

  6. sex scenes at starbucks - Reply

    Dorinda is my mother’s name. It’s very unusual. Old friends call her ‘Rinda, if you’re looking for a nickname.

  7. Isabel - Reply

    I’m back, I’m back! I have been off loop since last night!

    I have tons of household chores to do, but after that I’m back to comment some more.

    I’ve missed this blog!

    ~Isabel~

    *Who shouldn’t have eaten three cupcakes before typing this*

  8. Isabel - Reply

    You’re multi-talented and super organized! This is another one for my Mavenland binder.

    I picked the storyboard idea from you, after you blogged about it here sometime ago. I think it’s a fantastic idea, especially in these early stages and for a visual person such as myself.

    Thanks, Erica. 🙂

    Oh, I noticed my name is in the winners’ list. Yay! Happy dance tiime! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  9. Darcy Burke - Reply

    Favorite post ever. I’m way visual. Copying text to save on my laptop…

  10. Mary Witzl - Reply

    I am bowled over by your organization too, and wonder if I could make this method work for me.

    The way I have been writing is akin to what Nelson said about fighting: Damn the maneuvers, just go straight at ’em. I do keep a notebook with scribblings about each character and his or her particular foibles, likes, dislikes, skills, phobias, etc. And I have a timeline listing all the things that happen; I also have a biography of all my characters, listing their birthdates, war service, marriage dates, etc.

    But a color-coded story board! I think you need to start giving workshops! Maybe you could give one in Scotland…?

  11. Bill Clark - Reply

    *Bill stops by to acknowledge that the troll-o-meter has rolled up another couple of scenes – yay!!*

  12. Sam - Reply

    That is a terrific, useful post! Thaks! And I love your storyboard ideas!
    I just write outlines – the boring old ones we learned to write in school, with the 1,2,3 and the a,b,c…lol.
    But I love the colors and the boards – much more fun!

  13. B.E. Sanderson - Reply

    You are the organizational Queen, Erica. I don’t do anything like that, but I can appreciate the thought behind it. I’m disorganizational when it comes to my stories. Everything just falls into place, or if it doesn’t, I catch it on subsequent edits. (Or my betas catch me on it later.)

  14. December/Stacia - Reply

    I tried that once, with colored notecards. It was an absolute failure. I got so obsessed with the cards, and then the story felt jointed and wierd looking at the cards, and I scrapped the whole thing.

    I’m envious it works for you, though.

  15. Bill Clark - Reply

    Ah – the Nether-Nethermeter has bumped up again!

    *Bill stops wondering why Erica hasn’t come out to play, even though it’s already afternoon*

  16. Bill Clark - Reply

    As if waving to me, Erica notches the meter yet again!

    *Bill waves back*

  17. OpenChannel - Reply

    I am a huge fan of anal-retentiveness. I wish I had more of it. I can never seem to work in this manner… your process is admirable!

    I am a compulsive brainstormer and note taker. I have no idea how it all manages to get organized into a cohesive story.

  18. Katrina Stonoff - Reply

    This was fascinating, especially how you end every other row with a pivotal event.

    I do something much like your storyboard on software called Tinderbox. Each “sticky” is one scene, and I can attach multiple notes to each. In one direction (the x axis), they appear in the order they appear in the book. In the other direction (the y axis), they are ranked by importance (this helps if you overwrite and have to cut scenes, like I do).

    Tinderbox also allows me to link notes any number of different ways. I always link by time (i.e. which events happen first), by subplot-line, and by cause-and-effect.

    Cause and effect helps me the most. Elizabeth George says each scene should cause something to happen later, and I find those cause-and-effect threads do move the action forward.

    One of the nicest things about using Tinderbox this way is that if I rearrange the notes, I can instantly see how it affects other scenes. And I can move whole groups of notes together, preserving the internal relationships and even the relative locations on the storyboard.

    I also like the fact that my “storyboard” isn’t limited by physical size. The page expands to fit the document. On the other hand, maybe if I was forced to limit my outline, I’d do less overwriting, hence less butchering of little darlings.

    I just need to find a way to incorporate your great additions–like making sure each “Act” ends in a plot reversal! Thanks.

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Erica Ridley
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