Tell me I didn’t just waste the last five hours.
My intention was just to look–one more time–for a simple online way to do storyboarding and timelining. I’ve spent half the day tinkering with things that don’t quite work (this one doesn’t print or convert into PDFs easily, that one tilts each little post-it note at a rakish angle that makes it hard for me concentrate). The ones I recommend so far are Lino-It and, for group brainstorming and storyboarding, GroupZap. But I’m still looking.
Why all this time-wasting — I mean, purposeful researching? Because I’m convinced that visual schematics can help us better understand novel and other long-form narrative structures.
Cathy Day, who has an excellent blog about creative writing pedagogy, describes writers as “plotters” or “pantsers” (as in, seat-of-the-pantsers, or non-planners). For plotters, she recommends using index cards, whether real or virtual, to plan out long works.
Does it sound a little pedestrian (i.e., non-literary) needing to use cards, outlines, or other organizational tricks? I must admit, I’ve often thought so–and I’m still wary of the idea of planning any novel too carefully, since completely fixed plots seem antithetical to narrative discovery and the organic development of character.
But consider: many famous authors do use cards and outlines. One of them is Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Laks. In this great interview she credits learning about creative nonfiction structure from Lee Gutkind, and you can see a photo of her real (not virtual) note cards all lined out in rows.
I also know some writers who use Scrivener for keeping notes and outlining chapters. (And after spending a half-day trying out various “free” products, I’m starting to think that $40 for more powerful, bug-free software isn’t a bad investment.)
What interests me even more than planning books using note cards etc is reverse engineering published works in order to understand alternation of scenes and summary, pacing, chronology, character development, theme, and so on; the possibilities are endless. Students who took my Plot class last spring got a quick immersion in the idea of breaking down published or finished works, scene-by-scene, but it’s a sloppy process using handwritten cards or a spiral notebook. Surely, there must be a graphically beautiful way to create and share these projects.
Do you storyboard or timeline? Have you found a way to visually break down a published novel or memoir that you’re studying, chapter-by-chapter or scene-by-scene? (I’m still looking for some easy timeline-style graphic that would allow a reader to make a horizontal schematic with different lines for various subplots or craft elements).
Please, share what you know here!