Tips for Writers – What Use is a Storyboard?


We’ve all heard about storyboards. If you use novel writing software, it probably has a storyboard in it. But how many writers actually use them and how useful are they?

Some writers find them tedious, some find them confusing, and some just want to let the story flow without planning. I admire pantsers. It takes a tremendous amount of talent to make up a story as one goes along, adding twists and deep characterization in the process.

I’m the type of person who always needs to know where she’s going. In the car, I’m an annoying back seat driver, and on a train I’m constantly looking out to see where we are. During last summer’s trip to China, I constantly watched the animated map of our flight to see where in the Pacific our airplane was located at any particular time.

When it comes to my writing, I’m the same way. So a few years ago I began using colored index cards and a storyboard made out of a science fair presentation board. It helps me get the first draft written. After that, any changes can happen, but along the way to the first draft, I want to know where the story is headed. The storyboard I use is portable, I can easily move things around and change things, and it’s simple to add notes.

A different color card for each main character

I begin the first planning of the plot problems and subplots on cards, as I wrote in this article on plotting.  Then I move on to scene notes. For the story I’m working on now, scenes with the heroine’s POV have yellow cards, the hero’s scenes have pink cards, and a subplot is covered with green cards. This can also be done on white cards. Just use a marker or highlighter to draw a line that indicates who or what the card belongs to.

I write out a very short summary of each scene in the planning stage. Once I have most of my story planned, I lay out the cards in order on my presentation board.

Using a three-act structure with the storyboard

I always plan with a three-act structure, so the first ¼ of the board is Act 1, the middle half of the board is Act 2, and the last ¼ of the board is Act 3. I don’t attach or tape the cards, I just lay them on the board. Now, at a glance, I can see where my turning points are and where I may have plot holes.

Storyboard made with colored index cards.

It's messy, but it gives you the general idea of my storyboard.

After examining the cards in light of my three-act structure, I fill in gaps, holes, deepen characterization, and play with the plot. For each card, I ask, “What if?” and try to come up with original reactions.

It’s easy to move things around, discard ideas that don’t work, and insert new plot points. Once I’ve settled on how the story should go, I tape the cards onto the board. If I think of questions or twists during writing, I just jot my notes on the cards.

Another option I’ve heard of is using a large whiteboard. Writers can draw the scenes on the board using different colors of dry erase markers. The notes are easy to erase and change.

Storyboarding the novel takes time

Some might feel that I’m wasting my time playing with cards. In actuality, I’m playing and replaying the different possible scenarios for my novel, and working out problems before I’ve written too many words. Once I’ve finished my storyboard, I’m ready to write. I stand the storyboard up next to my computer and get busy typing. At that point, things flow, and if I have time off work, such as in the summer or winter breaks, I can write a very rough draft of a first novel in two to three weeks. However, I’ve spent days or weeks ahead of time working it all out on the storyboard.

Once I have the first draft written, the cards come off the board, I file them away, and the storyboard goes back into the closet until I need it for the next novel.

This is a method that works for me. To me, it’s much easier than writing several thousand words and later having to toss them in the bin because of painting the character into an inescapable plot corner. Plus, I love being able to tote my storyboard from room to room with me, depending on where I want to write.

How do you plan a story? Do you have any tricks or tips to share? I’d love to read your comments.

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11 responses to “Tips for Writers – What Use is a Storyboard?

  1. This makes me want to try storyboarding. My outlines are more along the lines of typing out a rough summary of what I want to happen, but this looks fun! I also like the white board suggestion!!

  2. I tend to outline with GMCD for each scene. Sometimes I have a spreadsheet with names, ages, interests, etc… It just helps keep everything straight. :) I have dones some storyboarding before.

  3. Hi Ciara, Hi Ashley,
    I’ve tried so many different ways to keep my stories straight in my head. Something about having this huge visual prompt works for me. At the risk of sounding silly, what’s GMCD?

  4. Oooooh, pretty new site! I need to know where I’m going, too, Suzanne. And I love the idea of this storyboard with different colored cards. But I’m also the kind of person who could go WAY overboard storyboarding…and never quite get to… well, the story writing. ;-)

    I use a columned outline. One column’s for characters involved, the next is for the setting, next is for the action, and finally, I have a column for “What I want to say in this scene.” It’s similar to your storyboard, except without all the pretty colors. I think I’m going to use colored pens, just to make it more exciting. But here’s something funny: my story never quite ends up like my outline says it should. (I guess I’m not very good at following orders. Even in they’re my own.;-)

  5. My stories never turn out quite the way the outline says it should either. My characters start getting all uppity about half-way through and changing what I planned for them. I suppose that’s a good thing. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. I’m pretty good at keeping structure in my head, so I usually just take lots of notes (which I don’t refer back to). And I don’t write chronologically, so I don’t just wing it.

    However, there often comes a moment when things get complicated, maybe when I’ve got about two-thirds of the story nailed down, that I find the old card trick method is worth it. (I don’t call it a “story board” because I’ve done real storyboarding, and that’s not the same thing.)

    When it’s most useful for me is if there is a point when there is lots of simultaneous action from various points of view, and I want to see how best to connect them up.

    However, I’m working on an old manuscript, and I’m just entering a place where old and new material will mix. I think I might pull out the old 3×5 cards and beat it out that way tonight….

  7. That’s what I like about the cards, too, Camille. They let you examine the action and see the best way to make the connections. With a flick of the wrist, you can change it up and see if another way works better.

    Good luck tonight on the manuscript work. I hope it turns out well for you.

  8. What a great introduction to storyboarding! I finally tried my hand at it last year for NaNoWriMo, using Scrivener’s corkboard function, and it really helped me plot things out better. Now I have to go back to my other WIPs and give them the same treatment. As much as I love flying along by the seat of my pants, I have to say that I love having some structure in place. Makes it easier (and faster) for me to write in the long-run.

  9. Thanks for stopping by, Lena. I began writing as a pantser, but I quickly realized I need some structure to make it all work. How do you like Scrivener’s corkboard?

  10. I LOVE THIS!!! Science board??? I’ve never thought of it and didn’t have a corkboard big enough. Brilliant, brilliant. Adding that to my Wal-Mart list right now.

    Thanks for sharing! Especially with pictures. :)

  11. I’m glad it’s and idea you can use, Bridgette. Plus, you can fold it up and put it away so the whole world doesn’t need to see your work-in-planning. :-)

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