Guest Post

Guest Post: Storyboarding Basics by Mary Rowen

Storyboarding is a graphic plotting technique. There are many ways to do it, but here’s the one I know. Also, lots of people use storyboarding to plot out their entire book before they write the first word. In my case, however, I’d already written three or four drafts of the novel, and it still wasn’t right.

Here’s a quick-and-dirty plot summary. Living by Ear is about a woman named Chris, who’s divorcing her husband of sixteen years and attempting to revive the music career she gave up when she got married. Her husband and teenage kids believe the marriage can be saved, and none of them wants Chris performing in public again (for various reasons). But Chris is determined. She feels certain that she no longer loves her husband, and at age forty-six, wants a second chance at romance, success, and happiness.

So what was wrong? Well for starters, the narrative dragged in many places. Secondly, almost every friend I’d asked to beta read it told me they were enjoying it, but hadn’t finished because they were too busy. And that didn’t make sense. I knew my friends well enough to know that if they really liked a book, they’d stay up half the night reading it.

Luckily, my wonderful friend—author Sheryl Kaleo (Donor: Shreya’s Chronicles, Book 1)—knows a lot about storyboarding and offered to come over and help me one day. I admit I was reluctant to try this technique, because I knew it would involve pulling the story apart and doing some restructuring, and damn it, I was anxious to publish the thing. But in the end, I was incredibly glad I tried it, and so grateful to Sheryl for taking the time to work with me. Yes, I had to do a good deal of work, but it made a huge difference in the way the book flowed, and storyboarding is a technique I’ll continue to use with future books.

OK, so how does it work? First off, you need to get a board and a bunch of sticky notes in various colors. (You’ll need at least eight different colors of notes, and maybe forty or so of each color.) For the board, we used a folding presentation board from Staples that stands about three feet tall and four feet wide. You can use any type of board though; just make sure you don’t use your kitchen table, because you’re going to cover it with sticky notes, and will want to leave them in place until you’ve finished writing!

Next, use a pen or marker to divide the board into a series of rectangles. Each rectangle will represent a chapter of your book, so it’s best to guesstimate the number of chapters your finished book will include, plus a few more. (You never know when you’ll need to add a chapter here or there.) You should write the chapter number at the top of each rectangle, but make sure to use a pencil or something erasable, in case you end up changing the order of some chapters.

Now determine which color sticky note you want to use to designate these seven elements of your story: 1.) Chapter goal, 2.) Motivation(s), 3.) Conflict, 4.) Emotions, 5.) Personality traits, 6.) Back story 7.) Chapter resolution 8.) Relevance to overall plot.

Ready for some fun? OK, now you’re going to go through your story—chapter by chapter—to make sure each one contains the right amount of each of these elements. Depending on how long your book is and how well developed it already is, this process can take hours or even days. Trust me though: it’s worth it. I’ll use the first chapter of Living by Ear as an example of how it worked for me. Again, feel free to use whatever color sticky notes you like, but do use stickies so you can move them around.

  1. Chapter goal. The chapter goal is basically the main point of each chapter. In Living by Ear, the first chapter has two goals: to let the reader know that Chris is entering into an unpleasant divorce, and that she’s a former musician who would like to get back into music. We used green stickies to designate chapter goal, so we wrote the two goals on a green sticky note and stuck it in the middle of the first rectangle.
  1. Motivation. In most of your chapters, you’ll probably have various characters with various motivations. We used orange stickies to designate motivation, and wrote each one on a separate orange sticky note. In Living by Ear, not only does Chris want to get to the courthouse for her initial divorce hearing, but she also wants coffee because she’s hungover after drinking too much wine the previous night. You’ve probably heard it said that readers have a hard time relating to characters who don’t want anything, and that’s true. A happy, contented character will not hook most readers.
  1. Conflict. This is super important. Every single chapter must include some sort of conflict or it won’t grip your reader. The courthouse in the first chapter of Living by Ear is pretty far from where Chris has parked her car, and she’s wearing uncomfortable, high-heeled shoes. She also can’t find a coffee shop, and her hangover is getting worse. We used dark blue stickies to designate conflict, and wrote all those things on dark blue notes. (As an aside on chapter conflict, it’s best if the conflict(s) relate(s) in some way to the overall plot and/or theme. For example, Chris is wearing high heels to her divorce hearing, but before she got married, she wore comfy shoes and often went barefoot. So the high heels complement the unhappiness she feels about her marriage.)
  1. Emotions. Letting your reader experience your protagonist’s emotions will usually draw them into the story and make them more sympathetic. Throughout Chapter 1, Chris feels various emotions, such as frustration, sadness, regret, and hope. We used rose-colored stickies for emotion, and wrote all those words on rose notes. The danger in including too many emotions in any one chapter is leaving your reader feeling exhausted. So after you finish storyboarding all your chapters, make sure there isn’t a prevalence of rose-colored notes. As Sheryl explained to me, the plot is like the meal of your story, and adding emotional responses is like mixing in some spice. And everyone knows how too much spice can overpower a meal!
  1. Personality traits. I wanted to show that Chris is resilient and determined right from the beginning, so we used light blue stickies for personality traits, and stuck those words in the rectangle for Chapter 1. Again, though, be careful. Adding too many personality traits at once can weigh your story down. So think about your character(s) personality traits and pace yourself as you reveal them to the reader. You don’t have to tell them everything about the character right at the beginning.
  1. Backstory. You know what that is: your character’s past. Backstory is another spice. Do your very best to use only a little in each chapter, as again, too much back story will slow down your reader. Yes, it can be very important, but sprinkle it in carefully. We used light pink stickies for backstory. In the first chapter of Living by Ear, Chris thinks a bit about her past as a musician. Later in the chapter, she runs into a man who recognizes her and asks if she’s still playing music. If you find you need to include a lot of backstory at some point, you might want to consider one or more flashback chapters. With LBE, I discovered that there was so much relevant backstory that I decided to have the chapters alternate between current day and the past.
  1. Chapter resolution. I won’t tell you how Chris resolves (or doesn’t resolve) her various conflicts in the first chapter, but we wrote that stuff down on a yellow sticky note. Of course, not all conflicts will get resolved at the end of a chapter—especially if the chapter ends on a cliffhanger—but it’s important for you as the writer to know what’s been resolved and what hasn’t.
  1. Relevance to overall plot. Phew, we’re almost done, but this last point is probably the most important. When I storyboarded Living by Ear, I found that many of my problems lay here, and that’s why I had to do so much restructuring. We used tan sticky notes to designate relevance to overall plot, and in many of my chapters, I didn’t have that! For example, I wanted readers to know that Chris likes funky, vintage clothing. So I had a chapter in which she and a friend go shopping at a vintage clothing store. It was sort of a fun chapter, but it didn’t advance the plot at all; it was just about shopping and character development. So Sheryl convinced me to cut the entire thing. It made a lot more sense to let the reader know about Chris’s fashion sense in the chapter where she meets her future husband, who dresses conservatively. Thus, there’s already a conflict between the two of them. And this is a story about divorce!

I’d love to go on and give more examples, but this post is already pretty long. To sum it up, storyboarding is one way of making sure that your book is properly paced, that the story unfolds bit by bit (rather than dumping big chunks of information on the reader), and that all of your chapters relate to and advance the overall plot.

Thank you so much for reading! If you have any questions about storyboarding, please feel free to ask them in the comments section, and I’ll do my best to help.

About Mary Rowen


I’m a Boston area writer. My women’s novels, called Leaving the Beach  and Living by Ear (Booktrope Editions) are now available on Amazon, and in select bookstores. If your bookstore doesn’t have a copy of the book you’d like, you can ask them to order it and they will! Booktrope, my publisher, also recently released a discounted, Kindle-only collection of both novels called Double Album. 

I grew up in the Massachusetts Merrimack Valley, graduated from Providence College with a degree in English, and have worked as a teacher, a marketing writer, and a political canvasser.

You can learn more about me on my Facebook page (Mary Rowen Author) and my Twitter handle is @maryjrowen. Thanks! I look forward to getting acquainted with you!