When in Doubt, Draw It Out

If you’re in the habit of watching the behind-the-scenes features of animated movies, TV shows, or special effects-laden movies like The Hobbit (I’m obsessed with those features), then you’ve probably seen the preproduction team discussing how they storyboarded the film/TV show or a visual effects sequence. The storyboards helped them plan each shot of the movie or show. Taking the time to storyboard also helped the team to gauge where problems might arise.


Storyboarding is not just for animators. Many novelists and picture book writers use storyboarding or some variation of it as well. During my grad program, some of the faculty encouraged us students to use this technique to plan scenes in our novels or picture books.

Sometimes, when I’m stuck in the middle of a scene or having trouble transferring what I see in my mind to the page, I grab a pack of Post-it notes and a pencil. Starting with the first image that comes to mind, even if it’s vague, I work through the scene as if I’m planning a mini-movie.

Below is one of my attempts at storyboarding an action scene in a forest. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. These sketches make no sense. Maybe to you they seem like squiggly lines and cryptic phrases, rather than a tense action sequence. Yet when I started slapping notes on the board—even sketchy ones—the sequence order became clear. I already knew the inciting incident in the scene. I just needed to know what would happen next, and then after that, and after that, and so on. The good thing is, I don’t have to pretend to be Picasso as I storyboard.

       007 008

My storyboard and a closeup of one of the Post-its—not a pretty sight

How do you plan your scenes? If you have Scrivener, perhaps you use the corkboard to storyboard or outline. Or, maybe you get out the sketch pad and draw until the words come, or you use Pinterest to pin photos that inspire you. (Or Instagram, like Lyn Miller-Lachmann does with her graphic novel.) Perhaps there’s another way inspiration hits. Maybe a music playlist helps you set the scene. Or, a brisk walk or a run might be your way of working out issues. Nature is your canvas. You rearrange scenes based on what you see outside or how your body feels. Life is your storyboard.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m stressed about a scene, drawing brings me back to a restful state. It also takes me back to childhood, when drawing was a form of problem solving or escaping from problems. Sadly, like many other things, I stopped doing it regularly as I grew older. I regret that now.

 Unicorn Imagination

But like a good friend, I can return to it when I need to work things out.

Sometimes a picture truly is worth a thousand words. If you need a storyboard template check this out:


Tips for storyboarding a picture book (Uri Shulevitz): http://www.mightyartdemos.com/mightyartdemos-shulevitz.html
Tips for storyboard a video (GoAnimate): http://goanimate.com/video-maker-tips/what-is-a-storyboard-and-why-do-you-need-one/
Tips for storyboarding a novel (eHow): http://www.ehow.com/how_2179092_storyboard-tween-book.html

Storyboard template from raydillonrandom.blogspot.com. Futurama storyboard mage from laboiteverte.fr. Sketches by L. Marie.

33 thoughts on “When in Doubt, Draw It Out

  1. I have a vague recollection of watching a programme about ‘someone’ using storyboards for making a movie.
    I suspect it could have been George Lucas with Star Wars.

  2. Since I can barely draw a stick person, I stick to working through scenes while on the treadmill. I have been interested in starting a story board by cutting out pictures from magazines…no drawing.
    Do you use, Scrivener, Linda? I’ve heard so many great things about it, but I’ve been hesitant due to the learning curve.

  3. Wait, Lyn has a graphic novel? How the heck did I miss that? That’s the most exciting news since the moon was invaded! (Wait, what . . .?) I did my grad lecture on making dummies and scripting graphic novels, but I doubt it makes much sense on tape, unfortunately. I think this is a great technique.

    • The answer is yes, Pam! I keep thinking of your lecture as I work on my novel (actually, a collection of interrelated short stories), particularly what you said about each image needing to advance the story. Some of the best photographers on Instagram don’t quite get this, so I’m meeting with some of them and trading tips on storytelling for tips on photography.

  4. I really ought to get a whiteboard like we have at work and hang it in the house…

    This is a fantastic idea, btw. My wife does this when she works on her short films. I recently drew out a map of the clan village in “Wolf’s Tail” and it helped me visualize quite a bit.

  5. Thank you for the shout-out, Linda! I’ve only put one graphic short story on my blog so far, but there are two others waiting in the wings. One’s a satire of the Chris Christie bridge scandal and the other is a three-part series searching for a lost minifigure.

    • I highly recommend it, Alison. But I realize it’s not for everyone. Since I’m often spatially challenged, I have to draw a layout just to orient myself on the page.

  6. I started using Pinterest last year after seeing a fellow blogger’s board for her novel. I find it incredibly helpful–and it’s nice now that Pinterest lets you set boards to “private.” I like to “cast” my novels with actors and actresses that I would pick to play them. It helps when I have a clear visual of the character and can imagine their speaking voice!

  7. I love how different everyone’s process is! I’ve found storyboarding to be a great tool for teaching writing. When I want students to write personal essays or short stories and write developed scenes with dialogue, description, thoughts, and feelings, I have them make a story board with four to eight key moments. Then when they’re actually writing, they can use all the summary they want to link their key scenes, but they know when they get to a key moment they really have to dig in and show instead of tell what’s happening. I haven’t had much success with trying to storyboard my own writing (I tend to go to the gym or for a walk when I get stuck, or switch from writing on the computer to writing in a notebook), but I bet one of these days, with the right kind of story, I’ll find myself drawing it out, too!

    • How cool that you encourge your students to storyboard, Laurie! And I have to say I wish I would turn to the gym sometimes when I’m stuck. 🙂 But a notebook and pen have been a huge help when I’m stuck. Before VCFA, I used to think free writing was a waste of time. (I’m not sure why I thought that.) I find it very helpful now.

  8. I would never have thought to do that, very interesting! I definitely use lots of sticky notes to try and sort my way through things but I’ve not thought of storyboarding it. I do find that taking a break from writing and working on a painting can be immensely helpful for finding my way through the words.

    PS- I am absolutely obsessed with watching special features! ESPECIALLY all of the LOTR ones!

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