This guest post was contributed by Nathan Suess, a member of World Forge Writers, to help writers plot their novels and comic stories.
In screenwriting, storyboards are commonly employed to help organize story elements and ensure that everything is contributing to moving the story forward. In conventional filmmaking, creators have roughly two hours to tell a story, so it’s necessary to be extremely economical about what makes it into the story.
While other media don’t have the same constraints, the practice of storyboarding can still provide immense value, whether by helping writers play around with the pacing of their story, visually trace various plot lines, or ensure that each beat of a story is advancing some aspect of plot or character development.
Anatomy of a Story
If you’ve ever looked through a book on screenwriting, you’ll know that there is no one way to map the plot points in your story. Everyone has their own thoughts on how best to identify major story elements. Basically, most conventional stories have a Beginning, which revolves around the protagonist’s normal world (whatever normal means in the context of your story) being upset by some event or action that requires them to venture into uncharted territory.
As you might have guessed, the Beginning transitions into the Middle, where the protagonist makes progress towards a goal, whether that goal is finding love, avenging a murdered lover or parent, destroying a magic ring, getting into college, winning a drum corp competition, recovering one’s memory, or making it home for christmas. Whatever the goal is, the Middle involves the protagonist moving towards the goal, but ends with them running into an apparently insurmountable obstacle that stands between them and that goal: the death of a mentor or guide, the revelation that their lover’s killer is their long-lost twin, failing a class because of drama at home, recovering their memory only to learn that they were a notorious international assassin in their previous life, or finding out that every plane is grounded due to a blizzard.
Whatever the obstacle that shatters the audience’s false assurances about where this story is headed, this transition from the Middle to the End of the story leads the protagonist into what is often referred to as the Dark Night of the Soul, the moment where the hero must come face to face with whatever insecurity, flaw, or other barrier is preventing them from achieving their final goal. This is the crucible in which the protagonist is transformed into the character they need to be in order to accomplish the story’s finale, whether comedic, epic, or tragic.
In The Princess Bride, this would be when Inigo and Fezzik manage to revive Westley and hatch a plan to steal Buttercup from her marriage to Prince Humperdinck. In The Lion King, it’s when Simba confers with the great Mufasa in the sky and decides to go back to Pride Rock to face Scar. In Macbeth, this would be when King Macbeth’s growing paranoia compels him to order the execution of MacDuff’s entire family, in turn causing the latter to muster an army for the final confrontation that leads to Macbeth’s demise.
Whatever the final outcome, the Dark Night of the Soul at the beginning of the story’s third act is what sets the story on a collision course with that outcome. And, naturally, the story ends with the climax and final resolution where the protagonist faces down their obstacle or enemy, balance is restored (though the protagonist’s “normal” life is often forever altered or lost), and the world is now a little bit better (or worse) for the story that has just been told.
The Power of Plotting: Why storyboards are useful
As a writer, I love crafting the beginnings and endings of stories. I have dozens of premises for worlds, characters, plots, and final showdowns whirling around in my head at any given time. It’s the middle bit that tends to slow me down, and I imagine this is the case for many other storytellers. Finding a path from Point A to Point B that is meaningful and engaging can be tricky, and that’s where storyboarding is an incredibly useful tool. It can help you look at the macro view of your story, how it flows and interweaves multiple plots into a cohesive tapestry, how characters develop and grow (or distort) along the way, and how it balances action, dialogue, and exposition.
Once you’ve identified the section you want to work on, a storyboard can let you analyze your work from a micro perspective, breaking down every sequence into its own individual story arc, identifying the actions that drive your story and characters forward, and identifying problem areas where the story drags or where info dumps abound. With a storyboard, I have been able to occasionally rearrange entire events within my story to see how that changes the pace of the story and shakes things up for my characters.
Storyboards provide the perspective and flexibility to organize your thoughts and offer a framework around which your imagination can build a cohesive, well-structured story. Naturally, as you grow comfortable with your own style and the structure that storyboarding provides, you can feel free to diverge from the conventional methods and experiment with totally new styles.
To make it easier for you to get started, I've created a Google spreadsheet Storyboard template to help you start plotting your story now.
Go crazy! And always remember to have fun and do whatever makes the most sense for you. Now, get creating!