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TLDR: Tips and Tricks for storyboarding a novel? For someone who can't draw well enough to do the "Draw and describe method"


Hello, having read the "Storyboard a Novel?" as well as some sources online and numerous failed attempts to write a cohesive novel (I have a great idea too long for a short story). I have decided to ask for help!

A lot of the methods I have read about require basic drawing skills - skills which I lack, I can hardly draw a stick man let alone two in the same space. Are there tools or apps or "old-school" approaches that would work for someone like myself. I know where I want my story to go, I just don't know how to get it on paper?

Also, this is my first question on this page. Please feel free to let me know a) if this is off topic or b) you require more information or details to help me out.

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What you're looking for is a non-traditional outline.

Now a regular outline is very linear and has headings and subheadings and may either:

  1. Bring on terrifying flashbacks of high school English.
  2. Just be too linear for what you need in this particular moment.

But an outline doesn't have to be so formal. A storyboard is a type of outline. So what may work for you is the storyboard format but with text, not pictures.

My spouse writes actual comic books (he's not an artist by any stretch of the imagination) so he's laying things out into panels so the artist knows what to draw where. But he also has to keep track of multiple storylines.

He's a huge fan of index cards. This way he can take the elements of each story thread and move them around as needed.

Index cards don't work for me (I tried). But I do have a wall covered with character information (keeping track of my characters is much harder than my plot, not because it's harder in general but because I have so many characters).

If you're trying to map out plot, index cards or full/half sheets of paper might be worthwhile. There are plenty of computer versions of this but sometimes you have to manipulate things physically to get it all to work. So I'd recommend using paper to start, then transferring it on to a computer if you prefer.

Don't draw a thing (if you feel an urge to, then do it anyway). Just use character names, locations, and the main plot beats.

Do this on the dining room table, floor, wall, or wherever works for you. A roll of painter's tape is a must-buy here, especially for the wall, but even elsewhere.

  • Write or print out the big stuff. ("Marta and Lester have first kiss" or "Earthquake!" or "Sally starts kindergarten," etc.)
  • Lay it out in a line or grid or even some other configuration if things are happening simultaneously.
  • Move things around to get the order right.
  • Add blank pieces of paper where there are gaps.
  • Fill in gaps with handwritten cards, or printed as things get established.
  • Go through the events and add characters. Who is where when?
  • Go through character actions and add locations and events. Where are they and what is also happening?

Once you have at least a good first draft layout, photograph it (do not neglect this part! Even if you live alone with no pets and never open the windows). Repeat periodically.

You don't have to have it perfect to start writing. If you have the first third of the story mapped out to your satisfaction, put out some chapters. You may find the plot shifts as you begin to write anyway. And that's okay.

If there's a particular chapter calling to you, write it. The first chapter I wrote for my novel is about 3/5th of the way into the book. Because it wouldn't leave me alone! I've written two more out of order.

Your outline is your tool, not your master. Make it easy to change but also easy to follow.

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Yes, there's an app for that. Several, in fact. Use your favorite search engine with terms like "screenplay storyboard software" or "screenplay storyboard app". A search will also bring up online tools and comparison list-articles.

To appeal to non-artists such as yourself many of the programs offer royalty-free stock content, and sometimes simplistic character makers similar to a videogame's avatar generator – pick hair and simple clothing, or choose from a selection of poses. There is also 3D "Poser" software like Daz Studio which is free to download but buying content to flesh out your story (human models, clothing, props and sets) can become a money pit.

The reason I am not direct linking to anything is because I think this may actually be a poor creative approach for storywriting, that doesn't get you any closer to writing your story. Stock content will never satisfy all needs and genres, and learning 3D software is going to pull you in a different direction (a different creative "job").

If you are interested in learning to create art, or illustrate a comic, great – it will take a few years to get to a level where the artwork is capable of "communicating ideas" to others. In the meantime there is a learning curve, and dissatisfaction with results as a newbie, and many many hours experimenting with rendering and figure systems. It's definitely not a shortcut to simply writing ideas on paper.

I'd advise you to decide where you want to devote more of your time, learning to write with text, or learning to expressing yourself through a visual medium. Both are skills that can be developed in time, but both do take time to become good. All things being equal – if you are very good at writing and equally good at drawing – it takes MUCH more time to draw a story than to tell it with words.

If you can be satisfied with badly drawn stick-figures, grab some index cards and use any combination of drawing and words to organize your ideas. Whatever works for you is fine. I would at least attempt a D.I.Y. approach before paying for software, just to see if it's something that will work for you.

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    +1 for the abstraction power of (badly drawn) stick figures – NofP Jul 22 at 19:01
  • Also bear in mind that your storyboard is most probably a personal project for honing your craft, not anything being marketed, so you are by no means limited to open source stock photos. Just don't try to sell what you create with those images. – wordsworth Jul 23 at 0:58
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If what you really want is a visual reference:

Use a web-based image-gathering tool like Pinterest to collect images of all the things you want to include in a scene. Interior stock photos and landscapes will probably be great for getting settings down, and you can collect images of props, period costumes, hairstyles, food, or whatever else you want to include. Just going this far is good advice for anyone trying to make a scene more vivid, even if you don't storyboard it-- make yourself a shorthand list of elements to be included in a given scene, and just refer back to those images to prompt descriptions. (Don't limit yourself to objects you've found in the top Google search results, however!)

If you want to make storyboard panels, treat your scenes like paper dolls. Instead of drawing them, you can make Photoshop/free software mockups of your panels just by cutting and pasting details. It may be crude, but you won't have to draw a single thing.

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First thing I just have to address "I have a great idea too long for a short story" you do realise there are lengths that fall between a typical short story and a full blown novel right? I'm a fan of the novella myself.

Do a written storyboard, storyboards are, in my experience, for getting ideas in the right order and keeping them there. Rather than try to draw your ideas, it sounds like you'd have no better luck with that that I do, write down the key scenes on different sheets of paper/card put down the main aspects of those scenes, the who, where, what and how of each scene. Then you can stack them up, see at a glance where you need to do more work and what writes itself and play with the order until you're satisfied then bind them into that order ready to work from.

  • Yes, I am aware of Novella's and I am not against writing it as a novella and narrowing it down using a storyboard will help me determine which classification this story would fall into. Just one quick question about the written storyboard - from your experience have you found detailing out the major events sufficient or would going a little more detailed be beneficial? – J Crosby Jul 22 at 17:45
  • @JCrosby I often end up attaching bits and pieces of writing that are already done for the piece, some dialogue or a particular piece of descriptive text, to the boards. I usually only do a storyboard when I have the broad strokes but the story refuses to hang together properly so I have to go through and get everything in the right order before carrying on. – Ash Jul 22 at 17:51

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