Ever watch ‘House‘ on TV with Hugh Laurie playing the part of a brilliant diagnostician?  We do.  My husband watches the clock during the show.  Approximately 48 minutes into the show, he’ll announce that it’s epiphany time so House will shortly diagnose this week’s mysterious disease.  It happens just as he predicts.  Every time.  Because House is plotted on a storyboard.

What’s a storyboard?  Picture a calendar without numbers. That’s a storyboard.  (What follows is what you’d do if you were using an actual, physical storyboard.  We’re not using the board here so don’t actually do anything, just read so you’ll know how a storyboard works.  It’s kind of neat.  Then I’ll show you how to storyboard without the board and you might want to try that.)

Change the calander… the storyboard…  to fit the length of the story you are writing.  A short story should have only one line on it so block out the rest.  A really long novel, over 50,000 words, requires that you add extra lines to the bottom so it’ll look like a month with six or eight weeks in it.  And a calendar of six-day weeks works best.  When finished, you’ll have a storyboard that’s perfect for the story you will tell.

In the first box, write ‘beginning’ and in the last box write ‘conclusion.’  In the boxes at the ends of each line, (the ones that would be Saturday on a calendar) write ‘significant event’.  Then scribble in what happens in those scenes, the significant events being whatever changes the direction of the story.  A couple of boxes before the ‘conclusion’ box, write ‘climax.’ and scribble  in what happens in those scenes.  Then fill in the rest of the empty boxes, the ones leading up to the boxes that would be Saturday on a calendar.   And that’s how storyboards work.  They schedule the actions of a story and that schedule avoids long, boring stretches and puts the climax where it belongs,near the end. 

This works wonderfully for TV programs with allotted times and for books with required word counts.  But not every story is best told in precisely measured increments.  With e-publishing, word counts are irrelevant.  A story can have however many words are needed to tell the story. But you don’t want it to become boring, so the concept of storyboarding is still valid. So the question is, how do you use the good parts of storyboarding without having to also deal with those parts that aren’t useful to your story?

  The answer is to use a computer, that neat writing instrument that allows you to insert stuff wherever you choose.  So… open your computer, start a new file and write ‘beginning’ on the first line (beneath the title of the story).  On the line beneath that, write ‘climax’ and below that another line labeled ‘conclusion.’ 

Between the beginning and the climax, insert as many significant events as needed and label each one ‘significant event’, making  sure they build towards the conclusion.  It’s a good idea to use a different color ink when you do this, or italics or some type that’s easily noticeable.  Because the next thing you’re going to do is insert more scenes and you don’t want your significant events to get lost.

So now it’s time to insert whatever scenes lead up to each significant event, keeping in mind that the last significant event must lead immediately to the climax and that will lead immediately to the conclusion so don’t put any scenes between the last significant event and the conclusion.

Done?  Good.  Now look over your outline.  Are there more than five scenes leading up to any significant event?  If so, eliminate some or shift them to another part of the story because that’ll be too many scenes and will bore your reader and is what storyboarding, with their limited number of boxes, is designed to avoid.

If you do these things, you will have storyboarded a story that will not bore your readers and that will build to a satisfying climax and conclusion, and you’ll have done it without using a board and without the restrictions of time or word count requirements

Working Writer Tip: Endings

Once, because I was getting a student straight from the jungles of Laos, I was given a crash course in southeast Asian culture.  I learned that in that part of the world the worst insult a person can bestow on another is to touch the top of their head. Similar to giving someone the finger in the USA. 

The father of my future student told me that he was learning our culture by reading anything and everything he could get his hands on.   When he said that, an alarm went off in my head because a few days earlier I’d attended a writers’ workshop in which a student had read a story he’d written.

It was about a boy who was staying with his grandparents.  He and his gruff grandfather didn’t get along except when they went fishing and joined forces to catch the huge trout that had eluded the grandfather for years.  On the last day of the visit the boy hooked the trout and there followed a classic battle that ended with the trout getting away.  In the face of this disappointment, the boy and his grandfather silently gathered their equipment and headed for the house.  Halfway there, the grandfather, without speaking, removed the boy’s cap and ruffled his hair.  And that was the end of the story.

Most Americans reading that ending would know that the grandfather ruffling the boy’s hair was a sign of love and would see familial love as the theme of the story.  But I wonder what that Laotian father with his different cultural background would have got from that particular ending.

Endings matter.  If you want your reader to take something away from your story, don’t hide it too deeply or they might miss it completely.   So how do you create an ending that’ll let the reader take away from your story what you want them to take?  You think about the reader and what you want him or her to take away from your story.

If you want your reader to come away with a specific, very detailed life lesson, then give them an ending with that specific, very detailed lesson embedded in it.  If you want your story to become a springboard for the imagination,  then make sure there are blanks that your readers can fill in themselves.

About the story of the boy and his grandfather?  I’ve often wondered if that writer would  have written a different ending if he’d known his story would be read by someone from southeast Asia.  If I ever run into him again, I’m going to ask.

Working Writer Tip: About Beginnings

I made baskets yesterday, demonstrating the coiled basket technique as my part of advertising a farmers’ market we belong to.  When I do this I’m always surprised at the interest people show in simple grass baskets.  And they all want to know what it will look like when it’s finished. 

 I tell them they can imagine what the finished basket will look like by examining the beginning, that tiny circle of tightly-wrapped grass in the center of the bottom of the basket that is the beginning of the coils that circle around and around that small middle before gently curving upwards to form sides until enough height is achieved and a basket is made.  Whenever I tell them this, they carefully examine the center of the basket bottom and nod their heads.  Yes, they say, they can see the finished product in that small beginning.

 Same with fiction. 

 When you write a story, you make a contract with your reader.  The beginning of the story contains the terms of the contract.. The first sentence.  The first paragraph.  At least the first page.  The end of the story should be an emotional sense of the fulfillment of that contract.

 When you write a story, make a promise to your reader.  An  honest contract.  Whatever method you use to lay out your story, make sure you connect the end to the beginning.  It doesn’t have to be obvious to the reader (and shouldn’t be for some stories) but it should be as easy for you, the writer, to see the connection as it is for any casual visitor to the farmers’ market to follow the end of the coil back to that first tightly wound knot that was the beginning of a basket.

 If it isn’t, then try harder.  Redo your beginning.  Change it completely.  Do something.  Your story will be better for it, and your readers will hopefully read your next story because they will know they can trust you to make a contract with them in the beginning that will be  fulfilled in the end.

Guess What, I’m A Confession Writer

 No working writer tip today.  Instead, I’m answering a question  related to last week’s tip on how to easily get into a main character’s head and write that deep, deep POV story.

How, I was asked, did I learn that writing in first person is the easy way to a character’s heart, especially since first person POV is frowned upon in many kinds of stories and by many print publishers?  What conference did I attend that gave me this helpful tip?  Or was it an article I read?  Or, perhaps, did another writer whisper for me to try it as we passed in the hallway at a writers’ retreat?   Well…. um…. actually….none of those ways.

I learned by doing because I wanted to make a living as a writer and I believed the best place to start was with short fiction.  So, when I was given a dog-eared, out-of-date copy of the writers’ bible, the Writer’s Guide, I studied it more thoroughly than I’d ever studied for any final and any class I can remember. 

I learned that, while the payment for confession fiction didn’t equal that of major magazines, confession magazines don’t print the author’s name.  That little fact means that they don’t care how famous or infamous the author is.  And they don’t care how many times an author’s work is printed in their magazines.  So any writer, even a newbie like me, could sell and sell and sell stories to confession magazines.  As many other confession writers, I’ve had as many as three stories published in the same magazine. 

As an aside, you’d be surprised how many major romance novelist names you’d recognize if writer’s names were printed beneath the story title in any confession magazine.  It’s a great way to pick up a couple hundred bucks between novels while experiencing a slightly different kind of writing.

This pertains to first person, deep POV how, you ask?  Simple.  The one requirement of confession writing is that it be in first person.  Period.  Can be male or female, old or young, main or minor character.  Anything goes as long as it’s in first person.  So I learned to write in first person. 

In doing so, I gradually came to realize that by going deep into my character’s mind and emotions, I was naturally writing in that deep, deep POV that is a goal for many kinds of fiction.  Naturally.  Easily.  Without charts or diagrams with lines going from one character to another and back in order to correctly guage one character’s reaction to whatever or writing pages of background describing each character so I’d know how to portray them.  Nothing of the kind.  I just put myself into the mindset of my main character and let him/her tell the story in any way he/she chose.

 I still do it.  It works every time.