USING STORY BOARDS AND FRIENDS TO HELP YOU PLOTBy Debra Holland
I wrote my first historical romance because a scene came to me as I was trying to take a nap--a couple riding along a river. Then I had to figure out what the story was. I wrote about ninety pages before I discovered RWA and my wonderful writing teacher, Lou Nelson and REALLY learned to write fiction. (Active verbs, who knew?)
Thanks to Lou, that book, Wild Montana Sky, didn’t end up under my bed, but instead won a Golden Heart.
After I finished WMS, writer friends told to have a second book ready, so if an editor asked me for another book, I’d have one to offer. I started writing, Starry Montana Sky, this time with more of an idea of the story.
Then I became sidetracked into writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. I tend to reread my favorite fantasy series about every other year. Five years ago, I’d just finished about my 10th round of Mercedes Lackey’s Companions/Valdemar books.
I was driving to work thinking about her work, and I said out loud, “I could never write like that!” Being a psychotherapist, I had to challenge myself on my negative attitude. I responded by saying “How do you know? You’ve never tried. Don’t say you can’t until you’ve given it a good try.”
So I took up my own challenge and started to think about a fantasy world. By the time I arrived at my office, I had the bare bones of Twinborne Trilogy, Lywin’s Quest. I scribbled down my notes and mentioned the ideas at my next critique group. Everyone liked the story and encouraged me to explore it more. Two months later I described the story to my writer friend, Elda Minger. She also encouraged me to write the book.
For each book I write, I buy a small notebook with pockets. I carry the notebook with me and scribble down anything that pertains to the story. The need for pockets came from the times I didn’t have the notebook with me, and I’d jot notes on a napkin or the back of a business card. These got tucked into the pocket of the notebook.
For Twinborne Trilogy, I bought a notebook with three sections because I had wanted room for each book of the trilogy.
During the time I constructed Lywin’s Quest, in my critique group, Lou embarked on lessons about plot structure. In every session, she lectured about a different part of the Three Act Structure.
As Lou lectured, I’d dutifully take notes, then a scene for LQ would hit me. I’d pull out my notebook, open it next to the paper I was using to take structure notes, and scribble the scene down.
Soon, I had a vague outline in my notebook, but it was incomplete. Because I was building such a complicated book, I wanted a more visual way of seeing my story, and I knew I’d need some help.
I consulted Elda, who had plenty of practice with plotting in groups. Using her suggestions, I invited three of my writer friends, including Elda, to a plotting retreat at my cabin in Big Bear Lake, California. We drove up for the weekend, and each of us planned to take half a day to share the plot of our story and get help from the others in fleshing it out.
We brought the following supplies to help us plot:
· One large cardboard backdrop. (If you think of a three-sided backdrop to a science project, you get the idea.)
· A stack of sticky notes/Post Its in various colors.
· White poster paper
· A roll of tape
· Various baked goods, candy, and other snacks
On Friday night, we each took three sheets of large poster paper, one for each act. Then we filled out a sticky for every scene (that we knew of) in our books. On the sticky, we briefly wrote in big letters what took place in the scene.
We used different colors for the hero, heroine, and villain. We also used a second sticky, on which we’d mark various plot points (like DM for darkest moment) and place it next to the sticky that described what happened. We’d post blank stickies (in still another color) on any scenes where we didn’t know what was to happen.
Once we filled out all the stickies, we lined up the scenes on the paper, until all the scenes in the act could be seen, a colorful, giant chart. So although we didn’t have pictures of our scenes like are used in making movies, we had our own form of storyboards.
The next day, one of us taped her three charts to the cardboard backdrop and propped it on the end of the dining table. Then she explained each sticky in the story. Everyone could see her weak areas and empty spaces, and we’d brainstorm ideas to strengthen or add to the story.
As the writer changed or added to her plot, she moved stickies around and added new ones. We didn’t stop until we finished each writer’s whole book, but we managed to keep to our half a day per person deadline. It helped that the other writers had simpler stories that they intended to submit to one of the Harlequin/Silhouette lines.
At the end of the weekend, we had four tightly plotted books. Tired, but satisfied with our work, we rolled up our papers and took them home.
Over the next months and years (I veered back to writing the historical and another fantasy series,) when I wanted to work on LQ, I’d take out my charts to make sure I stayed true to what I’d plotted. I added a LOT more scenes to the book than I’d originally plotted, keeping track of my ever-expanding outline in my notebook. But the threads of the plot stayed fairly true to my chart.
I finally finished LQ. (At 125,000 words, it’s a BIG book.) Afterwards, I unrolled my tattered charts, spreading them across my bed. I stared at them for a long while, remembering. The storyboard process had given a structure to my dream of a story and made it real. And because of that realness, I could write and finish the book. What a wonderful feeling! (I’m not sure I’d have finished it if I hadn’t spent that weekend in Big Bear.)
Lywin’s Quest was the last fiction book I wrote. I’ve since turned my attention to nonfiction, although I’ve done some revising my other books. But I have new story ideas clamoring for my attention, and one of these days I’m going to head up to Big Bear with a group of writer friends. Want to come along?