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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Winesburg + Prezi

This week, we read and discussed Winesburg, Ohio in my Linked Stories workshop. Oh, how I love this book. I wrote about it here. 


In my class, we “reverse storyboard” the books we’re reading, to take them apart, mix them up, arrange, rearrange, and put them back together again. I don’t think there’s any better way to learn how to structure your own collection than to mess around with the order of a published book in order to learn what makes it tick, how different orders produce different effects and can provide an entirely different reading experience. 


Last week, we turned the poems of Spoon River Anthology into detached, movable pieces. This was easy. I just printed the poems on separate pieces of paper. The poems themselves are thumbnail sketches or screen shots. 


When you’re trying to reverse storyboard a work of fiction, you have to distill each chapter/story down into that thumbnail or screen shot. The thumbnail can be a physical artifact (using Post its, index cards, posterboard, the blackboard) or a digital one (using Scrivener, Corkboard.me, Power Point, or Prezi). No matter how you do it, the storyboard must be visual, and there must be some logic to how you arrange it so we can “see” the entire structure of the book somehow. 


One of my students, Kat Greene, used the presentation software Prezi to storyboard Winesburg. Here she is, walking us through the thumbnails, or in Prezi-speak, “frames.”



Basically, she typed up brief paragraph-long synopses of each story and decided on an arrangement that involves the degree to which each story is related to George Willard, the “through line” of Winesburg, Ohio. The big red circle is George, and the one story that’s all about him is the very last story in the book, “Departure.”

Winesburg, Ohio storyboard on Prezi



As you can see, most of the stories “revolve” around George Willard–literally. The four stories sitting off to the right side, that’s “Godliness,” a four-part story that never mentions George; it doesn’t totally “fit” into Winesburg, and you can actually see that in the Prezi. Other “loose” stories on the screen are those in which George Willard isn’t really mentioned, but as you can see, the stories in which he plays a role as a character far outnumber the number of stories in which he doesn’t–which is one of the main reasons the book reads more like a novel than a collection of disparate short stories. 


Next week, we’re reading Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, a book widely regarded as a novel, but what I find interesting about it formally is that it’s comprised of 117 individually titled vignettes. It will be interesting to compare it to Winesburg.