by James Preston
Writers deal in words, but often those words need to paint a picture in the mind of our reader; they need to see what’s happening. Let’s talk about why that’s important and then about a different way for you to accomplish that visualization in your novel, through Storyboarding.
I remember driving to Mammoth Mountain for a ski trip with my friend Steve, who had brought a book on tape (ok, actually a CD). It was a Tom Clancy novel, one that I’d read before so I knew what was happening and it should have been just fine.
Instead. I nearly drove off the road. Highway 395 vanished and I could see the interior of that atomic submarine, the periscope, the dials and switches and the result was I learned that I can’t drive and listen to a story.
In my newest story I almost got to the end, writing a big action scene on the roof of a building, and the nasty thing got out of hand. Where were my characters standing? What could each one see? This is a first-person story, so what could my hero see and how did that change when he moved?
It seems like there are two issues here. Seeing in your mind what’s happening, and translating that vision into words. Issue Number Two — translating your vision into words — is the subject of other excellent essays here on Writers in the Storm. Issue Number One is what we want to talk about today.
If anybody had asked if I knew what was going on up on that roof, I would have said, “Why, sure. I’ve had it in mind for weeks.” Then I had to really figure it out and I discovered I wasn’t as clear as I needed to be. One answer is storyboarding.
What is storyboarding?
The term comes from Hollywood. Storyboards are sketches that allow directors to see the scene and to communicate what they want to the cinematographer. I would suggest that some form of it, simplified of course, can be of value to novelists.
Some of us can draw, some can’t, and then there’s me. With a lot of practice I have hopes of working my way up to “pitiful.” Technology to the rescue! There are at least five drawing apps for the iPad that are free. I checked out one called Autodesk while I was working on this essay, and it’s excellent, with way more features than I’ll ever use.
Side note: if you decide to try it, do go through the tutorial! There are things to learn.
Technology to the rescue part 2: the camera on your cell phone. Remember film? I do. In my first photo class on Day 1 the instructor said to think before you shot “because film and developing were expensive.”
Those days are gone! Want to write about a crowd scene at a farmers’ market with booths selling everything from avocados to zucchini? Find one, snap as many pictures as you want. The new rule is: when in doubt take the shot.
Back at your desk delete the ones that you don’t want and use the others to visualize your scene. Trapped inside because of the lockdown? Not close to the kind of scene you have in mind? Just Google it. More scenery than you can ever use. Of course, you’ll have to imagine the young woman showing her seven-foot, tattooed, alien warrior boyfriend around, but, hey, that’s your job.
Steps to Storyboarding
1. Create blank boxes. Think of a comic strip before any of the frames are filled in. For free ways to get started check out sampletemplates.com.
2. Beneath each box add a brief description of what’s happening, specifically what you want the reader to see. If you are working in first-person your job is a bit easier because the reader is behind the hero’s eyes.
3. Sketch. Who’s standing where? What’s in — and not in — their field of vision?
That’s it. Three steps. Keep it simple so it doesn’t eat your time like the dreaded social media.
Maps and Building Plans
Closely related to storyboarding is drawing a building plan. I created several for my most recent story because a lot of it is set in a hospital that’s attached to a much older structure and it was easy to lose track of where various rooms were and how everything connected. I did top-down and side views, sketching on graph paper, and, while none of the results are worth framing, they helped me.
F. Paul Wilson has a series of supernatural thrillers called the Repairman Jack novels. I’ll never forget reading one that’s set in part on Maui. Now that island is one of my favorite places; there’s nothing not to like about it. Over the years we’ve been there many times, so I know what it’s like, right? Wrong! Wilson saw the landscape better than I did, and his descriptions made me see it the way he did. His description of the red dirt of Maui made me see it forming hills and cultivated fields.
As writers, we need to see, then we need to put what we see into words. Storyboarding can help. Pencil and paper or tablet application, the act of drawing what your characters see will help you see it. Trust me on this: it doesn’t have to be art you want to hang on your wall; mine is suitable for lining a cat box but it’s the act of creating it that’s important.
How many scenes out of the eighty or hundred that make up a novel should you storyboard? IMHO as few as possible. Yeah, I know, here I am writing about how cool storyboarding is and now I’m saying do it as little as possible. The problem is the obvious one: while you’re creating that sketch you’re not typing dialogue. I suggest using it to get a scene straight in your head, like I did with my characters on the roof. What I learned when I did that exercise was that things were getting crowded and my hero would not be able to see everything.
You knew this would come up, didn’t you? I don’t know if these exceptions prove the rule or not, but it’s important to understand that they’re out there. Some stories do not lend themselves to sketches of who’s standing where. Two that come to mind are epistolary novels and dialog-driven stories.
Epistolary novels bring a special set of problems. Look at Stoker’s Dracula. Sure, you can have descriptions but not only are they through the eyes of the protagonist— they’re also how Jonathan Harker would write them down In his diary or in a letter to Mina. Does storyboarding apply? Maybe, but remember the scene description is at arm’s length.
Dialogue-driven stories. The best example I can think of is the Fletch books by Gregory Macdonald. Skip 90% of what anything looks like just and get on with the story. Man, I wish I could do that because it cranks up the pacing to escape velocity. No storyboards necessary.
And in the End
In a very funny western called Cat Ballou the Lee Marvin character shows up drunk and his friend says, “Your eyes! They’re all bloodshot!” Marvin responds, “You should see ‘em from this side.” That’s the point of this essay — you need to see through your character’s eyes and then get it down on paper.
We deal in words. We’re the gunslingers of the keyboard. And when you finally get it, when you lock in and that scene reveals itself to you and you can’t get the words out fast enough, well, there’s nothing else like it. Nothing on earth.
Now it’s your turn. Take a scene from your current WIP and sketch it out. Paper & pencil, software, it doesn’t matter. Just give it a shot and see what you think. Did it help?
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James Preston writes the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. His most recent work, however, is not part of that series. It’s a novella called Buzzkill, a historical thriller that Kirkus Review said is “enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” His work is collected by the UC Berkeley University library as part of their special collection, “California Detective Fiction.” Remains To Be Seen, James' newest Surf City Mystery, will be launched in the fall.
For more about the stories, check out his web page, www.jamesrpreston.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.