Storyboard Class

Storyboard Class

There are Two Kinds of Novelists 

  • Outline people (aka “Plotters”)
  • No Outline People (aka “Pantsers,” because they write by the seat of their pants).

I am an Outline Person. I was born that way.

On Saturday, December 10 from 1-4 PM, I’ll be teaching a class called “Storyboard Your Novel” for the Writers’ Center of Indiana.

Here’s the description:

Aspiring and working novelists can get a jump-start on their New Year’s resolution to “write that novel.” Author Cathy Day will offer practical advice on how to create a blueprint or “storyboard” for the book you want to write or are in the process of writing. Participants are encouraged to bring a package or two of index cards and/or lots of paper, Post-it notes, markers, etc.

I also suggest bringing a laptop if that’s how you work best. The class will take place at Marian University, Clare Hall/#128. Here’s a campus map. Here’s the cost and how to sign up.

A few months ago, I taught a similar class at the Midwest Writers’ Workshop and the attendees were incredibly motivated about mapping out their novels.

My storyboarding intensive at the Midwest Writers Workshop, July 2011

Really, storyboarding is a pre-writing stage that many of us skip because it doesn’t feel like “real writing.” But it is. Some novelists storyboard from the beginning. Some wait until they have a first draft. But almost all novelists do it.

If you’re signed up for the class at WCI and you’re reading this (or even if you’re not), consider this doing this activity before Dec. 10: reverse storyboard a book you want to learn from. 

How to Reverse Storyboard

  1. Is there a book that’s similar to the book you want to write? Meaning: it takes place over the same amount of time, uses a single first person narrator (Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower), uses multiple first person narrators (Tom Perotta’s Election), uses multiple 3rd person narrators (Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs), switches back and forth between two different plot lines (Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain), uses an inner and outer frame (A.S. Byatt’s Possession), uses multiple 3rd person narrators in non-chronological order (Dan Chaon’s You Remind Me of Me), etc. Choose a book that does the one thing you’re most nervous about, the thing you feel the least sure of in your own writing.
  2. Don’t pick a book because just because it’s got a similar setting or the character is the same age as your main character. This is about understanding structure.
  3. Read the book once for pleasure.
  4. Read the book again using index cards or post-its (real ones or virtual ones) in order to thumbnail each scene in the book. Take note of WHO (pov character and who s/he is interacting with), WHAT (1-2 sentence scene summary), WHERE (setting), WHY & HOW (purpose the scene fulfills in the overall narrative). Make sure you number the cards in the corner, in case they get out of order.
  5. If using different colored cards/post-it’s helps you further visualize, great.
  6. Determine what the major plot points are in the book. Narrow it down to 3-6 “big moments” in the book. Mark them.
  7. Lay out the cards. Move them around. If there are 30 chapters in the book, lay out the cards in 30 descending stacks.
  8. Now, what’s Act 1, Act II, Act III? 
  9. Try rearranging the book in some other order—Dan Chaon’s You Remind Me of Me arranged chronologically, or Silence of the Lambs with a prologue.
  10. What can this book teach you about how to begin your novel, how to keep your reader interested in the middle, and how to work toward a satisfying end?

Storyboarding Really Works

In a recent interview, writer Rebecca Skloot says she knew “very early on that I wanted [The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks] to be a disjointed structure that told multiple stories at once and jumped around in time between different characters.” 

As soon as I realized I had to structure the book in a disjointed way, I went to a local bookseller, explained the story to her and said, Find me any novel you can find that takes place in multiple time periods, with multiple characters and voices, and jumps around a lot. So she did. Some of the most helpful books early on for me were Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg; Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich; As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner; Home at the End of the World and The Hours, by Michael Cunningham. I read a long list of similarly structured novels that all proved helpful in some way or another: The Grass Dancer, by Susan Power; How to Make an American Quilt, by Whitney Otto; Oral History, by Lee Smith. 

Skloot knew the book was going to be a braid of three narratives (the story of Skloot and Deborah; the story of Henrietta and the cells; and the story of Henrietta’s family), and so she “mapped it all out with index cards.”

There it is. A bestseller. Three timelines. Three colors.

For the last year, my students have been completing reverse storyboards of published novels and novels in stories. I have found that it works like nothing else to help them move from “just reading” books passively—in order to be entertained or to interpret meaning—to reading books actively—in order to figure out how they work, how they will read, how to set up the effect they want the book to have. By breaking a novel down into its component parts, you contrive a way “to see” the narrative in one fell swoop. It’s like taking an engine apart and putting it back together again.

Here are some other blog posts on this topic:

My grad students reverse storyboarding.

My undergrad students doing it.

I’m looking forward to a large class on December 10. Please come and learn how to write your big thing.

Teaching Writing


  1. Ian Wilson says:

    I’ve recommended this post to my NaNoWriMo class which just finished up. I think it’s a useful exercise for them to go through to figure out how their own novels are working.

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