Reverse Storyboarding

Heather Wilson's Reverse Storyboard for Mrs. Bridge

Directions for Reverse Storyboards

By the end of class, you must decide which of the five books we’re reading is most like the polyptych you want to draft this term, the one you feel you have the most to learn from. By “most like,” I don’t mean anything having to do with subject matter, but rather with craft choices.

Clock How much time will my project cover? (It’s okay if this changes while you’re writing.) Which of the four books covers a similar amount of time so I can study how to pace my own project?

POV What point of view will work best in my project? Will I use both third and first? Will I stay with one character of switch? (Again, it’s okay if this changes while you’re writing. This applies to all of these craft choices.) Which of the books uses a similar point of view strategy?

StructurE How will I structure my project in terms of basetime and flashback/backstory? In terms of chapters and sections? Will it be linear like Please Don’t Come Back, Mrs. Bridge, and Glass Castle or non-linear, like Winesburg and Goon Squad? How many plot lines will be used? Which of the books is most similar to the structure I’d like to use?

The Reverse Storyboard can be on paper (post its, index cards, posterboard, drawn on blackboard) or digital (via Scrivener,, etc.), but it must be visual and there must be some logic to how you arrange it so that we can “see” the entire structure of the book. If you need help or ideas, Google “novel storyboard post its” or “novel storyboard index cards” or “novel storyboard.” Click on the images and follow them back to the blogs they’ve come from. It’s kind of fascinating to see how different people do this.

 Storyboarders, read actively. I call this process “thumbnailing.” Imagine that the book is a film comprised of scenes. Each scene is the equivalent to a chapter or story in the book. Describe the story in enough detail so that as soon as we see that description, we can immediately visualize the sequence of events. I do this when I’m preparing to teach a book in order to firmly fix the story in my mind. Sometimes I do it in the book, sometimes I do it on paper or index cards. Back in the 19th century, novel chapters began, “Chapter XX, in which Constance attends a ball and has a rude awakening.” If you had to write an “in which” subtitle for every chapter, what would it say? Think of ways to visually show the linkages between stories.

Structural Analysis Prompts

  • What can I learn about how to write my own book from reading this book?
  • What is its formula? It’s map or blueprint or logic or “scaffolding” (a wonderful term used by Sean Lovelace). How did the author sustain both long and short story arc? How did she move the story past “short story” to novel?
  • What principle determines the book’s structure or chaptering? What is a chapter? What is a story? What makes a chapter feel like a chapter and not a scene?
  • How does the book juggle the different subplots within the structure it’s chosen? How do you make sure that each subplot has its own arc—beginning, middle, end? Imagining that a novel is like a season of a TV series, does the book develop all the subplots each episode (like Friday Night Lights or Mad Men or Glee, for example) or does the book tend to focus on one subplot or character each episode (like LOST, for example). In this book, how does the arc of each story compare to the arc of the whole book?
  • How does the book keep the reader turning pages? What major dramatic questions are in my mind as I read? What keeps me in suspense, and how did the author create that suspense?
  • Why this way and not another way? Or how would different narrative decisions produce different effects?
  • Can I find out from author interviews how the book was written? Did the author write the scenes in the order in which they appear in the book, or did she write them as they came to her and assemble them later? Which method will work for me so that I can avoid getting stuck, confused, overwhelmed? What can I learn from this book about how to enter into a process or frame of mind in which writing gets done regularly?