Reverse Storyboards

by Cathy Day


In order to get my students to think about moving from writing small, disparate, individual things toward big, unified, linked things, I’ve been having them use a technique I call “reverse storyboarding.” 


Basically, they take the book we’re studying and–in any way that makes sense to them–thumbnail the chapters or stories, then display and talk us through their reverse storyboard. I told them: It can be on paper (post its, index cards, posterboard, drawn on blackboard) or digital (via Scrivener, Corkboard.me, linoit.com, a website, Prezi, 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. 

These are my students, and these are the questions I wanted them to consider as they engaged this activity: 

Aubrie Cox used a mobile to create a three-dimensional grid
in order to talk about the structure of A Visit from the Goon Squad. 
What can I learn about how to write my own book from reading this book? What did I learn from the activity of storyboarding the book in reverse? (I’m going to let them answer that question in their own posts.) 

John Bahler used butcher paper to chart
the character subplots in Mrs. Bridge.
What is its formula? It’s map or blueprint or logic or “scaffolding” (a wonderful term used by Sean Lovelace). 

Tyler Petty created a website to create a chronological timeline for each character in A Visit from the Goon Squad. Find it at http://goonsquadtimelines.weebly.com/ 

How did the author sustain both long and short story arc? How did she move the project from short story collection toward novel?


Sarah Grubb tracked change in Dean Bakopoulos’s Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon, dividing her list into categories (concrete vs. abstract change, potential or desire for change vs. unrealized dreams, etc.) and displaying those categories as phases of the moon. 

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?

Heather Gemmen Wilson used corkboard.me to keep track of every time Mrs. Bridge
said she’d do something–but didn’t do it. Obviously, this happened a lot. 


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 seasonof 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?

Kat Greene used Prezi to re-shuffle the stories in Winesburg, Ohio.

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?


For Linda Taylor, the tornado scene in Mrs. Bridge
became a way to organize the different vignettes in the book–tornadic-ally!

Why this way and not another way? Or how would different narrative decisions, different orders, produce different effects?


Stacye Cline used CDs that looked like albums to talk about
the circular structure of A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Can I find out from author interviews how the book was written? Did the author write the stories/chapters 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 by a big project? 


(My apologies to Josh Flynn and Katie Iniech, who presented on Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon the night that my camera/phone was on the fritz. I’ll get their reverse storyboards up later!)


I found these presentations fascinating, and I think my students learned a lot about linking from this process of unlinking, relinking, reshuffling, rebuilding, straightening, unstraightening, charting, color coding, encapsulating–which forced them to notice things they might have missed otherwise. 


Now, they are getting ready to workshop their own linked stories, and they’re not reverse storyboarding anymore. They’re charting their own course now. 



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