Teaching myself to write: Outlines and Storyboards

2 Sep

I honestly have no idea how people can write a novel without an outline.  It’s like saying “I built a house just by stacking up some bricks and off you go.”  I know plenty of excellent writers who can do it.  I am not one of them.

The biggest reason for this is that I write fast.  Now, don’t hate me–I didn’t say I write good stuff fast.  I just spew out words quickly.  The downside is that, if I don’t know where I’m going, one of two things happens.  I either write a very unfocused piece that drifts off to nowhere*, or I myself drift off, daunted by determining where to go next.

So I use outlines and storyboards to figure out what I’m going to write before I write it.  I suspect that people who “pants” it (meaning they write by the seat of their pants) do a lot of this prework, too, but somehow synthesize it into their brains when they sit down to write.  (at least I hope so. If not, I don’t want to know about them.)

So here’s what I’ve used:

1.  Sketchbook

I love using my sketchbook to think things through and figure out ideas. Sometimes I use this on a macro level, creating storyboards or just big messes to determine big story arcs, and sometimes on a micro level, scribbling to brainstorm how a scene or element will work.

IMG_0751 IMG_0752Here are two pictures of my sketchbook.  The left one is a storyboard.  I like the feel of writing on paper when I’m thinking.  It’s something concrete to keep my thoughts from drifting away.  But then it’s hard to make changes.

On the right is me plotting out a short story.  I drew pictures (I’m not a great artist, but it works) and  just sort of worked out some of the details.  I’ve tried going to writing straight from this, but for a novel, I don’t think it’s enough.  I still don’t have everything fleshed out enough.  But this is very energizing for me.  I feel like I’m really creating something.

2.  MindMap

I like MindMaps for organizing my thoughts, which can be a little…disarrayed sometimes.  I actually started using them in my day job for web sites and presentations, but after a wonderful course at Midwest Writers Conference by the brilliant Cathy Day, I pulled out the MindMap for outlining.

I use a program called Xmind.  The free version works just fine.  I like that I have control over the layout, can add notes, and it’s easy to move things around.  I usually change the layout to an org chart with tree layout underneath each node.

So I tried it for my current project, a novel called (for now) Planet/Moon. I set up the map like this, with a chart for characters and some of the background info (I also have lots of other, detailed research and stuff in Scrivener, but this is the key stuff for now).  Then I set up the following nodes:

  • Setup
  • Inciting Incident
  • Rising Action
  • Turning Point
  • Falling Action
  • Climax
  • Denouement

It looks like this:


(click for a larger version)

And then I start sticking scene ideas under each node.  There’s only going to be one or two things under Inciding Incident, Turning Point, and Climax, usually, and lots of stuff under Rising Action and Falling Action.  Setup and Denouement should be pretty short.

This follows the standard screenplay three act structure that I’m most familiar with.  Other pieces might be structured differently, but this is what I like.

So I did this for Planet/Moon and this is what it looks like:


3.  Synopsis

This is something new I’m trying for Planet/Moon.  After I did the MindMap, I wrote a detailed synopsis of each scene.  I put it all in one document in Scrivener.  This was really helpful, because it forced me to dramatize the little boxes and think scenes through.  I could start to write what was happening without worrying about dialog or nice words or anything.   I’ve only just started writing a proper draft, and so far it seems to have helped greatly.  More news as it happens.

2. Scrivener Outline

Scrivener lets me create a separate file for each scene, and write a synopsis of each scene.  I find I can’t do this first. It’s too hard to see the big picture and group things the way I like.  But it’s a good last step before I start writing.  That way I have my work mapped out, and for each scene, I know what I need to do.

Here’s the outline view.

And then when you go to write the scene, you see the synopsis on the side:


So that’s cool.

I know some people use sticky notes, but I find they fall off too easily and I don’t like cluttering up my office.  And they’re hard to carry around.  I guess I’m a digital girl, or something.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been doing.  What do you do?  I’d love to learn new tricks.

*Yes, I know that can be a great creative tool.  And I do sometimes do freewriting and morning pages, and have found them to be very valuable for generating ideas.  But at this point, I’m thinking that I’m more in Construction Mode than Dreaming Mode.


One Response to “Teaching myself to write: Outlines and Storyboards”


  1. How I Fought Writers’ Block Yesterday « Mary Mascari - February 1, 2013

    […] Teaching myself to write: outlines and storyboards […]

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