How a Screenwriting Tool Helps a Novelist
First, a definition: a storyboard is a visual representation or layout of a story.
A storyboard is an important step in the production of an animated cartoon, television show, major motion pictures, even a thirty-second TV ad. It shows the progress of the action, one step or scene at a time. Each scene is shown in a frame that includes a picture and some copy to describe what is happening, like this:
So, the storyboard is a collection of frames representing the action in the proper sequence. It can be as elaborate or simple as you like.
WAIT! A writer’s storyboard should be simple. It’s not another reason – like doing the laundry – to postpone the writing. Leave the fancy drawings to movie production companies that have art directors on staff.
I don’t know about you, but it is hard for me to manage the action, plot development, character arc and all the other important story elements over twenty, thirty, forty chapters. I came out of television and film where the guiding or limiting factor was time. The longest script I’ve ever handled was 130 pages and that was long, because 1 page = 1 minute. The ideal film length is 120 minutes (or 120 pages). Compare that to Painted Silver, the third book in the Silver Mystery series: 340 pages!
I realized early in my career as a mystery writer that I was in deep trouble. As a screen producer, the storyboard was always my anchor so I quickly started adapting the old tool to my new profession. This is how I made it work for me:
1. I went out and bought hundreds of index cards, some cork boards and colored markers.
2. I made one card for every scene in the story. I’m a terrible artist so I skipped the drawing and put a word or two to describe the place. Also, I listed the characters appearing in each scene and identified the stage of the story, like Ordinary Life, Dead Body, Red Herring, etc.
3. Each main character was assigned a specific color – yellow for sleuth, blue for police investigator, red for the bad guy, and so on. Every time a character appeared on the storyboard, the name was highlighted in the appropriate color.
4. Another color marked each stage of the story. Think Twelve Steps of the Hero’s Journey or the Five or Eight Basic Stages of a Mystery.
5. All the cards went up in order on the cork boards with push pins. IMPORTANT: When I was done, I did NOT step back to admire my handiwork. I made myself a cup of tea.
6. With a cuppa and a cookie, I came back, sat down and looked at a picture of my story then went to work to make it better.
A color-coded storyboard makes it easy to see the plot develop. It shows if the setup of the story is too long, if the murder is too late, if the investigation drags or the resolution is rushed (as in the new film, Malificent).
Focus on an individual character’s color. Do you see the character arc. Since an entertaining story requires the main character(s) to change in some way, it’s important to see how and where it happens. Is the change paced well or is it all jumbled up at the end? Is it so gradual that there is no real crisis or drama?
And a coded storyboard will show if a character disappears in the middle of the story and never seen again. This is critical since it’s important to “tie the ribbons” on every character’s story in some way.
GUARANTEE: It’s tough to see the shortcomings of what you thought was a terrific story, BUT it’s a lot less painful to see the problems on a storyboard than to throw out pages and pages of a manuscript!
Postscript: It turns out that I’m not the only one to see the advantage of using a storyboard for novel writing. John Truby, the great screenwriting guru and script doctor extraordinaire, is conducting a new seminar about applying the board to the novel in L.A., New York and London. Great Minds!