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As Simple as One, Two, Three

Tips for WritersWith both front paws, Bobo hits the metal door of room 206 at the Howard Johnson Motel; 60 pounds of snarling female dog. It’s been left cracked open for the barking canines inside, and for a moment, dog silence follows.

The door swings shut behind her.

Cars on the distant Idaho freeway drone; a truck door slams behind the neighboring warehouse; the room’s air conditioner mounted below the drape-drawn window hums and throws heat at my knees.

Looking down at the empty leash and collar in my hand, I think the lack of dog smack-talk means that the ones inside room 206 must be as surprised as me. I look at the other leash and collar still attached to Grendel, my second dog, who stands in a perfect heal. Bobo’s heal resulted in the perfect angle from which to withdraw her head.

Silence shatters.

No low growls; no positioning; no warning. It’s an all out dog fight and my dog is in a room with two strangers. And evidently no humans. Waiting mere seconds to hear shouts from inside, I start yelling from the outside. Speaking in tongues of fear, “Knock it off! Back off! Bobo, come here!” I push open the door, greeted by a dog not my own.

A white snout, perked ears and bared teeth stare back at me. “Bobo!” My shout pushes the other dog back, but inside my dog is at the foot of the bed, snarling at the bigger dog gnashing teeth at her from the wrinkles of a bronze coverlet. “Bobo!” The other two dogs stop barking. I yell “Come here!” over and over.

She does, slinking past the white dog still standing in the open doorway which I slam shut. My legs wobble, Bobo barks at the door again, triggering response from inside. We retreat to room 210 where I key the lock and shove  her 60 pounds of tough-dog inside.

Grendel is still in a perfect heel as I collapse to my knees, safe behind a closed door at the Boise HoJo.


While the dog incident put me on edge, it gave me a ready example to use for the purpose of this post: constructing a Three Act Arc. Each act forms the legs of the W in a storyboard. It’s the foundation of a story, as simple as one, two, three. It’s the most basic story arc that exists, and arguably, the oldest. Before you finesse your details, make sure your scenes are built on a solid foundation.

Act I: The Beginning

The beginning isn’t always the beginning. There are many launching points I can use to make a story about the dogs. I can give you back story–why I’m in Boise, how another guest let his dogs roam for three days, what my dog did to get her head free. I can start at the end. I can use a different perspective–the motel maid hearing the ruckus, or a different point of view–maybe Bobo as a “stolen head” (because a dog can’t really be the narrator).

In the Three Act Arc, the beginning does indeed start the story. But when building that beginning scene by scene you want conflict. In fact, according to Mary Carroll Moore’s workshop on developing a book, the first two legs of the the W storyboard are scenes that show conflict.

Act II: The Middle

Conflict leads to crisis. It’s easy to get lost in the second act, so keep it simple–the middle connects the beginning to the end. What happens in this short leg is the result of the earlier conflict. If you are writing a hero’s journey, this is what occurs between a character entering the cave and transforming.

The motel room I had to enter in order to retrieve my escaped, intruding dog was my cave. Finding enough voice to retrieve my dog was transformative. The crisis ended with the retrieval although it wasn’t necessarily the end.

Act III: The End

The end is the last act and the final leg of the W. It’s the resolution. My ending to the dog story is simple–safe back in my own room. A longer story might show at greater length the change in your character. If the second act is a transformation, then what is the result of that transformation. Conflict can still occur, but it becomes a device to show how the character changed.

In the hero’s journey, the ending shows the character returning to his or her ordinary world with the gift of that transformation.


Keep it as simple as one, two, three. Think of the Three Acts as the bare bones of the storyboard. Place the details of your scenes to flesh out the storyboard, following conflict, building to crisis and leading to resolution.

The storyboard and the Three Act Arc also gives you an opportunity to go deeper, beyond scenes. Not only can you map the action–the outer story, but you can also map the character development–the inner story. How detailed you want to get with the inner story is up to you.

As you can see in the board below, an early draft of my novel listed the outer story/inner story to help me map the direction of my project. In my revision this key anchor scene is more developed. But that’s the beauty of the storyboard–shaping possibility with existing material and then revising in a way that follows an established arc. I don’t have to guess. I have a clear picture.

12-First Leg of the W Copy

Next week we return to the writing process and how to use NaNoWriMo as a tool, just as the storyboard is a tool.


Writing a Novel Scene by Scene

Tips for WritersWhat I’m going to say will either sound like writing blaspheme, or will set you free.

Also, I’m going to give you a disclaimer: the process I’m sharing works for me. I don’t expect it to work for everyone. Some of you may be kindred spirits; some of you exact opposites. Wherever you stand, take a stand for your own writing. Try a different way or analyze it; you can improvise, accept or discard.

Stop outlining.

Okay, I said it.  Stop outlining your novel before you write it. And yes, I know that there are outliners and pantsers, but I have always been an outliner. What I’ve found is that you need both skills, but at different times in the process. When I was 13, I outlined my first novel. I’m not going to tell you how many novel journals I’ve outlined since, including two independent projects in college.

However, it was also in college that a professor taught me to write in scenes. I’ve never looked at movies the same way because movies are constructed that way. It’s easier to see the construction in a movie than in a novel, so I’ve studied movie scenes ever since. It’s also how I began to recognize the hero’s journey.

But I didn’t know how to bring it together–outlining, scenes and journey–until  I took Mary Carroll Moore’s workshop on book development. That is where I learned to map the hero’s journey to a storyboard. It also provided me with a big “a-ha” moment regarding scenes.

When I took Moore’s class, I was proud of the fact that I had 99 pages including my outline. She was unimpressed. She explained that in order to work the storyboard, you needed material to break down into scenes. So, she had me break down all my pages into scenes.

You see, we tend to write linear and put all the back-story in the front of the book, as if needing to explain what is happening. Outlining is also linear and these processes tend to shut down the creative possibilities.

My professor who taught me to write in scenes also told me to let my characters talk. Whenever I let a character have dialog, I feel like I’m channeling somebody else. I’m not crazy, it’s just that dialog allows me to tap into that creativity stifled by my years of rigid outlining.

And the characters always take the story in a different direction than I intended.

I was beginning to understand what it means when writers advise other writers to “just write.” So stop outlining and write. You might be surprised at what happens. I actually finished two novels in less than one year. Granted, one novel took me four years to get to 99 pages. The next novel, I cranked out 400 pages in less than 30 days with no outline.

I’m going to give you three scenarios for writing a novel scene by scene using the storyboard. The first is based on my introduction to the storyboard. The second reflects how I tossed outlining to the wind. The third is a compromise if not outlining unsettles you. You can improvise, use your own colors and change up the process.

Scenario #1: Incomplete Manuscript with Outline

  1. Buy a stack of yellow sticky notes, a black pen and a red pen.
  2. Break down your manuscript into scenes. A chapter is made up of many scenes, so make sure you are breaking down into small chunks.
  3. Use a pen to line across the page to indicate a scene-break.
  4. Summarize each scene concisely (such as, “Mindy robs the candy store,” or “Detective Bard books Mindy downtown”).
  5. Write each scene that you have written in black on a yellow sticky note.
  6. Refer to your outline and write down each scene that you don’t have in red (next week, we’ll talk more about finding gaps).
  7. Pick out your most crucial five scenes. These are your anchors that express the hero’s journey. In “Miracle of Ducks” I opened with my character’s husband leaving for Iraq which sets her up–reluctantly–for the hero’s journey.
  8. Map out your novel according to the “W” and write the “red” scenes that you don’t have yet.

11-New System for Tagging Scenes

Scenario #2: Use NaNoWriMo to Write Your Novel

  1. Sign up for National Novel Writing Month at
  2. Commit to 1,667 words a day for 30 days in November.
  3. Write. Just write. You will be so surprised! I wrote an entire novel, scene by scene by just writing each day in November and I had no idea what I was going to write beyond my opening scene.
  4. If that makes you freeze, but you want to break the “outline the whole book first” habit, just start with a single scene the first day. Place the scene on your “W” and think of a couple more possibilities without outlining every chapter. Give yourself the creative freedom to jump around.
  5. Write scenes as if they were islands. During revision (in a few Mondays from now) we’ll explore using the storyboard to revise. Set yourself free from your inner critic and write. Don’t worry about gaps. That comes later.

15-Writing Scenes for NaNoWriMo

Scenario #3: Use the Storyboard to Map the Five Anchors of a Hero’s Journey

  1. If you can’t breath unless you have some sort of outline, try outlining just the five anchors of the hero’s journey: the call, the test, the cave, the transformation, the return.
  2. Write a scene for each of those.
  3. Next, write the scenes that connect each anchor to the other.

12-First Leg of the W

Be a writer and write. Give yourself material before you start committing to structure. Structure is the first step of editing, and editing is not writing. Allow yourself to make big mistakes; to not know if your scene is plausible or accurate. That’s research and research is also a part of editing, not writing. Allow yourself to make little mistakes. If you are constantly scanning and going back and correcting punctuation or spelling, you are editing, not writing.

The importance of thinking in scenes is that you are creating a movie of sorts in the reader’s head. You will later link scenes to tell the story in such a way that is engaging. Don’t tell everything. Decide what to withhold, how to pace, when to reveal your character’s motives–but that all comes with revision. Write like the wind; revise slow and bright like a long summer day.

Use your board to track or map your progress as you write scene by scene, and next week we’ll discuss how to use it to find gaps.

How would you use the “W” storyboard to write a novel?