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Storyboarding for Depth and Clarity

A Session with Earl Javorsky

There are lots of ways to create a novel. You can start with an idea—What if the Germans won World War Two?—then imagine an opening and just run with it, creating as you go. Or, you can start with a character, flesh the character out, put her in harmony with and opposition to other characters, and run with that, letting the characters’ interactions create the narrative. Some people take a popular novel, use it as a template, and plug in their own settings, character, and action—similar to what a songwriter might do to create a new but not very original pop song.

But what if you have your idea, and your characters, and a sense of what problems they might face, ordeals they’ll endure, betrayals and shifting alliances, disappointments and triumphs, and unexpected changes of the heart? How are you to hang it all together so that it not only makes sense but provides a rhythm, an ebb and flow of tension, and closure that really pays off?

This is where storyboarding comes in. You have your elements, your scenes and your scenery, and storyboarding is the visual aid that will help you string these gems together.


Exercise: An Instant Idea Here’s an exercise that will give you an idea of how storyboarding can work. Let’s create an instant idea (I’m making this up as I type—once you get the gist of it, try the exercise with your own instant material): A boy’s dog mauls his best friend—who dies—and the boy grows up scarred by the experience. Now we brainstorm—jotting down some notes:

  • the boy withdraws, his grades decline

  • a few years later, he discovers drugs

  • in and out of trouble

  • promising athlete

  • drops out of college

  • tries to be a musician

  • more trouble

  • problems in relationships

  • you just ran out of ideas

  • start throwing out “what ifs” and “maybes”

  • what if he gets a job at the animal shelter?

  • what if he finds redemption (did he cause or allow the dog attack to happen?) in dealing with animals? Or with kids?

  • he meets someone he likes, but there’s a problem

  • he finds out he has a terminal disease

  • if as an adult he thinks he’s at fault, go back to the original event and describe why

Add something to flesh out each note: For discovering drugs, describe his (or her) first time smoking a joint. For the college experience, what was the last straw? An F in Philosophy? A DUI that landed him in jail during finals week?


Now, there are a number of ways to storyboard. Some people like full-size notebook pages (or bigger), with text and images. You can tape them to a wall in your writing room and ponder them like a movie detective with all the elements of his case spread out visually. There’s software for storyboarding—lots of it, and I imagine it can be really useful but I haven’t tried it. I prefer to use 4×6 index cards.

So, transcribe notes to cards. Spread them out. Do you have an armature or a skeleton to hang a story on? Can you see a storyline here? Can you imagine scenes to connect and complete your story? Add them. Throw out the terminal disease idea—you don’t need it, it’ll just interfere.

For structure and dynamics, I found The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler to be hugely helpful. Vogler looks at novels and films in terms of Joseph Campbell’s work on mythology—the stories ancient cultures told about creation, life, gods, and heroes. Campbell emphasizes the common themes in these stories and casts them as expressions of Jungian archetypes playing themselves out and revealing themselves through the various cultures. Vogler goes a step further and examines the commonality of structure throughout all classical mythology and then goes on to show how our best contemporary works—as well as the mediocre pop-culture blockbusters—conform to this structure. It’s not about cranking out cookie-cutter tales, but rather it’s about tapping into a deep vein of storytelling that has proven to resonate with people for thousands of years.

In my novel Down Solo (to be released this November by The Story Plant), Charlie Miner is a heroin-addicted private investigator who finds himself dead on a gurney at the morgue. He discovers that he can animate his body, despite the bullet in his head. He manages to get home, intending to find out who killed him, but his memory is sketchy. I needed to make Charlie recover memories as he moved through the story, and I decided to use a series of flashbacks. So now I’m writing two narratives in separate timelines, but I need to integrate them, make them make sense internally as well as in relationship to each other. Index cards helped tremendously. I could create scenes in a linear fashion and then rearrange them so that Charlie’s recent past would be revealed to him in stages—stages that determine his decisions and actions in the present moment.

Then came another problem. I started writing, following the scene sequence as arranged in the storyboard, and found myself having completed the intended narrative arc at page 40! As in our exercise above, I was at the “ran out of ideas” stage. I fretted, I froze, I brainstormed, I put it aside. One day, out of the blue, I had a “what if?” moment and jotted it down. I saw that what I had so far wasn’t a complete story at all, but it was a perfectly workable foundation. From that foundation, plus the outcome of the “what if” idea, a whole new sequence of ideas presented themselves. I mapped them out on cards and got to the “writing” part of writing.

This is where intuition plus craft work together—one hopes—to tell a story that engages the reader. Down Solo is basically an old-school noir mystery with a hint of the supernatural. Well, maybe a touch more than a hint, but it owes more to Raymond Chandler than to Stephen King. Charlie Miner, the protagonist, has files that he keeps on the cases he works on. Was he killed because of an investigation? If so, which one? Had he found out too much about something? Once he sifts through his files, he starts remembering things—“Memory is a funny thing. You can be standing in a hall with a row of locked doors, then you get a key and walk into a fully furnished room that until then might as well not have existed.” The key can be any trigger, from a detail in a file to the sound of a voice on the phone. Again, storyboarding helped me to organize the flow of real-time narrative (Charlie’s experience of the present), memory triggers, the memories themselves (Charlie’s experiences in the past), and a return to Charlie in the Now.

Another great thing about storyboarding becomes apparent when your editor suggests changes. When my editor, Lou Aronica, sent me his thoughts on what needed fixing, my first reaction was “Oh no, this will take major surgery!” I was afraid it would be like pulling on a thread in a favorite sweater—once it comes out the whole thing gets out of whack. What I did instead was take out my trusty index cards and marked the ones corresponding to the suggested changes. Then I digested Lou’s (clear, insightful, hugely helpful) comments for a week, brainstormed, jotted down some ideas, and transferred them to the storyboard. Then I went to the relevant pages in the manuscript, backed up a few pages and read them in order to fall back into the narrative voice, wrote in the needed changes, and BAM! I got it to work to Lou’s satisfaction (whew!) on the first pass.

Storyboarding has been around for a long time. It was conceived as a tool for narrative structure in the early 1930s at Disney Studios; the first time it was used was for the 1933 short Three Little Pigs. Six years later, Gone With the Wind—the first motion picture to use storyboarding during its creation—was released. Since then, storyboarding has been used in film, theatre, animation, and comic book scripting. Its adoption as a novel-writing tool is more recent but is a perfect fit for the writer’s craft.

About the Author…

Dan Fante, author ofPoint Doom, calls Earl Javorsky “the real deal,” and it’s easy to tell why as soon as you open an Earl Javorsky book. The voice is crisp, the characters are distinctive, and the story draws you in instantly. We think Earl is one of the most distinctive new suspense writers to come around in some time.

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