Joni M. Fisher

Storyboards and Structure

Having wrestled with scene cards, cork boards, Post-It Notes and other tools to organize a story, I found one that works for me. In the interest of full-disclosure, I am a plotter and a visual learner. Partly this storyboard concept comes from the four-act structure, part of it comes from my infatuation with crime investigation boards shown on television. (Please don’t say detectives don’t use these. I want to believe…)

Using an easel stand and the largest magnetic marker board that my husband will abide, I plot using 4 X 6 index cards–one scene summary per card. The card names the point-of-view character, the setting, the character’s goal,  motivation, and the conflict, ending with the character’s goal for the next scene. When plotting the story structure, I usually prepare the scenes in chronological order. Later, I arrange them in the order of telling to structure the story for greater impact and pacing. For example, rather than front load the story with events that happen in a character’s childhood, I move those scenes later in the story as flashback or backstory.

The template on the left describes what goes on the card. On the right is an example.

I use the back of the cards to jot important details. Say, the main character is transitioning through the five stages of grief [denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance], then I mark on the back of the card which stage the character is in. This reminds me how to shape the character’s state of mind and perspective of the world during that stage.

While writing the first draft, scenes combine into chapters. In a romance story one scene could be told from the woman’s point of view, and another from the man’s to create a chapter. Even if the action is simultaneous, they will appear as separate scenes, one following the other.

These scene cards stick magnetically on the story board along the timeline (a line drawn horizontally across the middle of the board). The scenes involving the antagonist appear above the timeline, protagonist’s below. This helps me track who is doing what and when. I watch for gaps in action, because neither the antagonist nor the protagonist should disappear from the story for too long. The protagonist’s scenes are linked by cause and effect or scene and sequel, like dominoes they follow a logical flow of action. Ditto for the antagonist. Using magnetically attached cards makes moving them easy. This encourages creativity.

By separating the story lines of the protagonist (hero) and the antagonist (villain), I can easily see if one character’s scenes dominate the story. Whichever character has the most point of view scenes becomes the focus of the story. Who’s story is this? If the villain has more scenes then the story becomes his, an anti-hero story. Which character do you want the reader to cheer for? Then be sure that character has the most time with the reader.

To my colleagues who write by the seat of their pants–those freaks of mental agility who do all this in their heads–let’s agree that readers don’t care how we produce great stories. All the reader sees is the final result. To my colleagues who buy fancy plotting software, or stick Post-It Notes on walls, may you find a way to efficiently plot so you can spend more time writing and editing. For anyone interested, here is a PDF example: Plotting with storyboard Enjoy!

7 thoughts on “Storyboards and Structure

  1. Joni M Post author

    Darlene,
    Thank you for letting me know about the glitch. I updated my website and this pdf link stopped working. I will email you the document directly. The pdf link is restored.

  2. Karen Fleming aka KD Fleming

    Now I’m not only “lefty”, I’m “freaky lefty”. Hmmm. I just can’t break it down that analytically. I don’t think I have as many scenes as you do in yours either, which by word count makes sense since I write category versus your single title thriller/suspense. But it is–whatever works for you is the best way to do it.

  3. Alexa Bourne

    I find it fascinating to hear how other people create their stories, and you’re right that the readers don’t care. They just want good stories.

    I’m one of those pantsers. I usually have an idea or two for a couple of scenes when I start a rough draft, but it’s during the rough draft when I learn what the story is about.

  4. jamie beckett

    Great insights. The construction of the story is every bit as important as the actual telling of it. How a writer accomplishes that task is only of importance to the writer. But oh how important a consideration that is.

    I appreciate you sharing your method. It’s a beauty. Simple, flexible, and easy to adapt to various formats (fiction, non-fiction, screenplay, etc).

    1. Jamie Beckett

      Truthfully, the longer the story, the more the first draft suffers. I can cut a considerable amount in some cases, but I always find myself adding dialog and embellishing descriptions. My first drafts tend to be relatively sparse. My goal is to get the story written down. I improve on the telling of it from that point on as I work.

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