Storyboards: Teeny, Tiny Index Cards

In a previous blog I talked about using story-boarding to revise. Story-boarding, however, is probably better known as a plotting tool.

Story-boarding is a literal translation: you create your story by writing each scene on a 3×5 index card and laying it out on a wall or board in the order that works for your story. If you’ve ever watched the special features or extras on a DVD, especially those for HBO shows, you might be treated to a visit to the writers room. That is that magical place where the writers sit in communion with the muse and wait for her to sprinkle them with pixie dust and voila, an amazing story is born, full-fledged, fleshed out and fabulous. Uh… no. Nope. That’s not how it works. Not at all. But you do get to see how they work their storyboards and you should.

So how do you use story boarding?  Much the same way as the show-runners do, expect you’re alone and you don’t have a writers room, but if you’re lucky an office on the main floor of your home, or if you’re not so lucky a desk in the basement, or if beggars can’t be choosers, the dining room table ’cause everyone eats dinner in front of the TV watching HBO anyway. Now in the case of the office, maybe you’ve got it set up so you have space to actually put up those little index cards. You can also use the floor, if you’ve got it free. Or if not, you can get creative using a blanket and safety pins, or one of those huge craft paper rolls. But if none of these work, you can try Scrivener and its virtual storyboard called the cork-board, or yWriter and its storyboard feature.

The premise to story-boarding, whether you use actual cards or virtual ones, is the same. You want to write down key information for each scene so that you can adequately see your story. And remember you’ve got a space that’s 3×5 inches or 8×13 cm. But no matter which measurement you use we can all agree that that’s a small space. And don’t go writing so small that you give yourself irreparable eye strain. That’s not going to work. You need to get enough on the card so that you can grasp, at a glance, how each scene moves the story forward. And that’s the key isn’t it. Because it isn’t enough just to write down what happens in a scene; you need to know how what happens is important to the story. And here’s where a few choice words can come in handy on such a small piece of cardboard.

And So Technique

When you start writing especially in fantasy and science fiction, the options are endless. But with that comes the danger of running off on tangents and stringing together random scatterings of events that, although might be cool, lack cohesion to the basic story-line. By writing and so on your index card you focus on the thread that’s pulling you, and hopefully your reader, through your story. And so or and therefore, illustrates cause and effect; how the moments flow naturally or better yet believably into each other. This method also offers some much appreciated distance from which to view your story; especially those epic tomes that these genres often generate.

A great post to read, is this one from Query Tracker.

Try Fail or the Yes, but / No, and Method

Stories are about conflict; without that there’s no story. One of the best ways to examine this, is to use your story-boarding to see how your conflict unfolds. Each scene should have a conflict crucial to the story. At each of those moments the question is; will the hero succeed or fail? Yes or no? The kicker is, to each of these answers there is a further complication or setback that propels the character and the reader into the next scene. Yes, they succeed, but their situation gets more complicated. No, they don’t succeed, and there are further setbacks. See how that works? Using this on an index card forces you, not only to examine the progression of your story but the pacing and tension. Remember the ‘yes, and’ only comes before ‘they lived happily ever after’.

Brandon Sanderson talks about this technique  – ‘nuff said’ – like I’m going to say it better than Brandon Sanderson – just check out the video.

You can also take fifteen minutes to check out Writing Excuses with more on the subject.

GMC

G = Goal. (What does the main character want?)

M = Motivation. (Why does she want it?)

C = Conflict. (What’s in the way?)

There are two types of GMC: internal and external. By focusing on these points on an index card you are not only working through plot but character and using both elements to drive the story. Now you might look at that and say – but isn’t the GMC going to be the same for the entire story – isn’t that, in fact, the story? Sure, but in each scene it’s going to manifest itself in different ways. yWriter has a tab that is a variation on this theme, using Goal, Conflict, Outcome / Reaction, Dilemma, Choice to analyze a scene. By exploring the GMC of your character in each of your scenes, you’ll have a much more engaging story.

Several writers discuss this technique on their blogs. Though I can’t remember how I glommed onto it, a name that keeps popping up is Debra Dixon’s book – Goal, Motivation & Conflict.  A great article that delves into the importance of your characters’ goals is this one from Writer Unboxed.

Story Grid – 5 Elements of a Scene

According to Shawn Coyne, the creator of the Story Grid, every scene should have the following: an inciting incident, a progressive complication, a crisis, a climax and a resolution. If that isn’t a checklist, I don’t know what is. So to break it down, and I’m quoting a little bit here from the story grid: an inciting incident is an event that knocks things off balance. A progressive complication is an event that makes things even worse. A crisis acts as a question: what’s the main character going to do now. The climax is the main character making the decision to act and try and solve the problem. The resolution is the outcome of that decision and the action taken. Answering these for each scene on an index card would be a great use of that small space and an effective way to storyboard.

At the StoryGrid Shawn Coyne goes in deep with this and uses examples for the podcast, A Deeper Dive into the Five Commandments of Storytelling.

So, whether on the computer or the wall, story-boarding can be used to see the big picture, check your tension and pacing, and make sure your character or scenes are engaging. Here’s a little bit of fun with the nursery rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb – hopefully you all know it.

Story Grid Plot GMC
inciting incident /

AND SO

Mary had a lamb that followed her everywhere GOAL – the lamb wants to be with Mary

MOTIVATION – because Mary loves it so

progressive complication It followed her to school and disrupted the classroom  
crisis What’s Mary going to do about it?  
Climax /

AND SO

Nothing  
resolution The teacher has to put the lamb outside CONFLICT – the teacher does not want the children distracted
Is the action successful?

Yes, but /

No, and

Does that stop the disruption? TRY/FAIL

Yes, but  –

The lamb is waiting  outside which excites the kids all over again

Okay – so that’s sort of a hot mess, but I can already see plot holes and where building up the motivation of the characters might enrich the story. So if this could work on a nursery rhyme, think what it could do for a story.

You’ll find plenty of assistance on using Scrivener; learning how to change the look of the cork-board and adjust the fonts and all that. Here are just a couple from the Write Practice and Simply Scrivener. And don’t forget to check out You Tube to see Scrivener in action. Ultimately, however, a tool is only as effective as your ability to use it.

When plotting, using those teeny, tiny index cards, you might try any of the methods I’ve mentioned. Approaching your story-boarding with an appreciation of the components of a scene and how scenes make a story, will get you closer to creating a strong framework for your first draft. And isn’t that the goal?

 

Springtime Poetry

Last post, I mentioned the April Poem A Day Challenge.

Here is something I’d like to share – a Haiku I wrote on day 7.

A Haiku is a 3 line poem comprised of lines that are made up of 5 syllables on line one, 7 syllables on line 2 and 5 syllables on line 3. Japanese in origin, the Haiku often has themes surrounding nature or the seasons and, rather than saying how the scene makes the writer feel, hopes to evoke an emotion through the imagery. I loved the challenge of the form.

To me, these types of shorter more compact poems feel like vignettes; still pictures rather than movies, moments in time, ethereal yet poignant.

Here’s my attempt.

Birds on bare branches

Voices in defiance raised

Implore summer skies

Hopefully all of us, birds included, won’t have to wait too long for the warmer weather.

Time Crunches and Opportunities

Did I tell you I live by two axioms. Well not just two … oh you know the rest.

There is never enough time in the day.

Things always take longer than you think.

But this blog post is not about making the time to take advantage of opportunity. No. This is about, when time is limited, seeing that limitation as an opportunity.

I am fortunate enough to have a somewhat predictable ebb and flow to my busy times. The word, somewhat, being of course open to a very loose interpretation. But I can look at my year and reasonably predict when my time will get taken over by atypical onerous duties I have no control over.  The rest of the time, however my schedule gets eaten by the usual predators; household, family and job. Still these demands are by and large, reasonable. I have made certain lifestyle choices that allow this, choices that I know, having had some intense conversations about it, others are not keen to make. To each his own. Everything costs: time, money, sanity, soul. Pick what is important and what you are prepared to pay and pay it. Did I say I love axioms? Or maybe I just have too much time on my hands. Not likely.

My previous blog was all about managing the time you’ve got. Key elements are:

  • Plan, but schedule wiggle room – allowing an easy pace to your activities will not only help quell the stress, but may allow you to accomplish more.

  • Discipline not to act, is just as important as the discipline to stay on track.

  • Flexibility depends on knowing the demands of your individual activities – seeing the micro and macro and being able to adjust what can be accomplished in the time allotted.

  • Forgiveness is not making excuses – it’s acknowledging the limitations inherent in our lives.

My biggest fear is having time crunches pull me off track completely. I know. I know. I’m the one all about forgiveness and being easy on yourself… yadayadayada… But I worry that it will be so much harder to get back on the path again. So I try not to stray. That might sound a little exhausting and maybe a little unrealistic. Remember I myself wondered how anyone can keep the pedal to the metal indefinitely, but just because I’m going doesn’t mean I’m going at the same speed, all the time. This busy season I was determined to not stress myself out, but also not let myself down regarding my art.

I explored two challenges this past month. One was a version of NaNoWriMo, called Camp NaNoWriMo that happens in April and July. As you may or may not be aware, National Novel Writing Month occurs in November during which, writers attempt to write a 50,000 word first draft. The cool thing about Camp NaNoWriMo is you create your own parameters for success. Want to write an outline for a new novel or revise a draft, or create a world bible for your new fantasy story? This is your chance. You can use word count or even hours worked as parameters and you decide what constitutes ‘winning’.

I chose hours and committed to 2 hours a day of working on a draft of my current WIP [work in progress]. I did not get nearly as far as I wanted. Ah, axiom number two. How disdainfully you rear your head. I did however succeed with my hours. So, good on me. And again, was I religious about the two hours per day? No. My weekends carried the majority of the load, however even those few minutes during the week helped to keep me chugging along and feeling positive about my progress, slow as it was.  I could have so easily let my manuscript hit the back burner for the month and really been totally justified, but come May, the ole jalopy was going to sputter and steam and give me all kinds of grief getting back on the road. This May not only did I not lose momentum, I was rearing to go.

The second thing I did was the Writer’s Digest Poem a Day Challenge. More writing, I hear you scream at the screen. More?!!! What are you nuts? Now hear me out. While I have been working on short stories, my primary focus has been novels. You know novels – huge gargantuan undertakings, a kin to pushing boulders up hills? Yes. Novels. Poems I thought would be much smaller boulders and might offer a sense of completion far quicker than novels. So, challenge accepted. And completed! Yes, I did a poem a day, every day [except for one day – but I made up for it the next] for the entire month of April. Oh, it isn’t good poetry but it is poetry – some of it, atrocious, some of it, meh, some of it, not half bad. I also used the time to get to some lyrics for songs I have been meaning to finish. [Have I mentioned I’m also a musician – I know, I know – I’m a sucker for punishment]

As an AWADJ time management is crucial. Sometimes though, a crunch is inevitable. Instead of getting squeezed maybe try these [sorry – totally did not mean to rhyme – darn you poetry challenge]:

  • Look for inspiration; activities to galvanize action, challenges that will gently but firmly kick you in the butt to keep you going

  • Focus your efforts: work smaller projects to enhance specific skill-sets

  • Set time limits: narrowing your parameters can give you a manageable quantifier, while committing to a month allows you to get in the flow, make up time, if things get extra crunchy, and create distance from larger projects

  • Embrace change: adopt a flexible mindset to make use of, or create opportunities.

Art doesn’t have to be spelled ‘ART’. It can be ‘art’. A little bit is better than none. Besides, you can make excuses, or you can make art. Which will it be?

Time Management

I live by two axioms. Well not just two but for the purposes of this article we’ll say two. One: there is never enough time in the day. Two: things always take longer than you think.  So how do we get to everything we want to, in the limited time we have. That is a question I think we all struggle with.

You might have noticed recently, I have not been posting as frequently as I have been in the past. That’s because I’ve been going through that holy-crap-is-that-really-the- time- where-the-hell- did-the-day-go time of my year.  We all have these. Some may believe it’s their every day.  If so, my hats off to anyone who can keep that pace up, without end in sight. I do wonder however how long anyone can realistically do that and if that is even good for you – but that’s a conversation for another day.

As an AWADJ, justifying an activity that may appear frivolous to the average person, that you also don’t get immediately paid to do, allows for a lot of doubt and self-recrimination to seep into the mindset of an ‘Artist with a Day Job’. So time management has even deeper meaning and regarding your efforts, significant consequences.  Regardless of whether you’re an AWADJ or just someone with a lot of demands on your time, I think we can all agree that life is busy. So how do we manage our time effectively?

Planning

You can’t know what you’re dealing with until you take stock. It isn’t hard to take a calendar and fill out every little slot. You might even feel a sense of relief. Look. There’s all the proof you need for that stretched like a worn rubber band feeling plaguing your every waking hour.  But what you’re really doing is trying to get a handle on your schedule, not fill it.

Have you ever scheduled appointments only to realize later that you didn’t account for the time it would take you to get there? Maybe that seems an obvious mistake. What about the time it may take to come up with a solution to a problem. This is an act of creation. Creation can’t be rushed. It’s one thing not to take into consideration google maps or your gps, but how can you account for your ‘thinking’ time. That’s why leaving ‘down-time’ in your schedule is very important. Yes you’ll need to recharge and relax but you also need time to reflect.  Time to reflect without your schedule pushing you to act may allow you to catch errors before they become obstacles to getting things done.

Plan but schedule wiggle room. Allowing an easy pace to your activities will not only help quell the stress, but may allow you to accomplish more.

Discipline

I write this word and I know what you’re thinking. Yes. I must have the discipline to get done all I say I will, to stick to the plan, to stay on schedule. Sure but you know what’s even harder than that? The discipline to be able to set aside interruptions not on the schedule. To prioritize is all well and good but if you succumb the first time some unforeseen issue shows up to rob your time, your plans will quickly fall apart.

That’s not to say that things won’t come up. And if you’ve built in wiggle room you may have the resources of energy to react. That’s not the only issue however. You might be tempted to sacrifice recreation time activities or down-time crucial to that recharging we need. The wisdom you have to learn is when to adjust and when not to. It might be a hard lesson and one that can only be done through trial and error, but to start with, you need the discipline not to get swayed the minute an ‘emergency’ pops up.

Discipline not to act is just as important as the discipline to stay on track.

Flexibility

Look at the schedule from a distance, the big picture. Day to day time management is important; all those steps be they big or small count on the journey. But if an hour a day of writing is what you are shooting for it doesn’t have to be each day. Think weekly if that works better into your schedule. The goal is to get to what you need to do, but in making long–term progress, allow for variation in both the allotment of time and how it is distributed.

Dissect your activities. There may be some that demand a good two hour stretch, while others can be negotiated into smaller chunks. Understanding what those are goes a long way to utilizing your time. And again, don’t discount the need for relaxing, recharging and reflecting. It may not feel like you are doing anything, but you may be surprized at how those three ‘r’s can help you get things done.

Flexibility depends on knowing the demands of your individual activities – seeing the micro and macro and being able to adjust what can be accomplished in the time allotted.

Forgiveness

You are going to stumble. Plan and be disciplined all you can but bank on being human. Life happens. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Control what you can, manage what can be managed and then take the rest of it as it comes. Yes you can look back and say would have, could have, should have, but regret really isn’t very helpful, unless you can use it to learn something useful going forward.

Forgiveness is not making excuses – it’s acknowledging the limitations inherent in our lives.

Artistic endeavours rest completely on the shoulders of the artist. So time management is a skill as necessary as the most rudimentary skills your art demands. After all, if you don’t make the time to get to your art, it isn’t going to get done. It’s as simple as that.