What is previz story-boarding? How will it help you write better scenes?

It was a dark and stormy night…

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies…

We are all used to launching a story where the “seeds of imagination” become planted in the mind of an audience and ground rules are introduced at the outset… this “start” in a narrative journey is a technique that must have been employed by storytellers for millions of years.

But perhaps we give less thought than we ought to in developing each scene in a yarn. There is some sense in this — it is unnecessary to remind the audience every-step-of-the-way how stormy the weather is, or that the events occur in outer space or Dorothy lives on the prairie — but it is useful if the author, the character (and the reader) know what is expected of them all the way along along their journey: (which is why stand-up comedians “refresh” the backdrop of their story as they go along: so these three guys stepped into the bar… and like I said, they were celebrating a big win...)

The “seeds of imagination” have to be replanted (or at least watered and re-fertilised, as the storyteller goes along the narrative journey) and rules must be restated and recalled. It is best if an author does this reiteration & reinforcement before the characters embark on a new scene, so everyone (author, reader, character) knows what is expected beforehand.

You will know that film directors use story-boarding techniques, either in the form of sketches or, more often these days, through the use of digital technology, to plan and conceptualise each scene in their film so that the finished product is accessible, intuitive and contextually transparent. They call this pre-visualisation, or PREVIZ for short.

The benefits of using PREVIZ (pre-visualisation) in movie-making is that a director can adjust lighting, camera position, character movement, stage direction, and even think about editing before “the shot” — thus saving money, time and effort and also concentrating resources. Perhaps the most useful aspect of the PREVIZ approach is the ability to target and engage with the “cause and effect” before going ahead with a scene. Why? Because once a director (and players) are certain of “cause and effect” everything else fits into a coherent sequence of events that will facilitate the shoot and make the scene easy to act & follow.

Like film directors, I suggest that you use the PREVIZ approach in creating your scenes, principally in the “setup” phase and more especially in complicated scenes, before you get to the “inciting incident” that is, the point of the scene. This will help you avoid purple prose and become less melodramatic and clichéd in your storytelling.

Here are some prompts that might help:

  • What will the background sounds be? (Include background dialogue here, that is, words the “crowd” or minor characters will speak.) Also, what natural sounds can be heard? Or perhaps there’s an absence of natural sounds: In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream.
  • How will the scene be visualised? Will you write this with a “wide angle” so you and your audience see the full extent of events on the widest canvas, or will you zoom in on the action so the reader can feel breath and smell the blood? Will the scene start with a panoramic view before you frame your principal players? Think about how the director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or the Star Wars movies, maximised a wide-screen focus before getting very close to the faces. First, this will help “set the scene” to activate the reader’s imagination, and it also serves another purpose: it shrinks and / or subdues even the greatest hero / opponent, so they fight against the world / universe / landscape. The terrain is another “adversary” or obstacle that they must overcome. The immensity of the challenging landscape might threaten to overwhelm them long before they set eyes on their opponent.
  • make a list of the sensory inputs you could use: textures, smells, tastes, foley sounds (boots crunching on gravel, coughing, clocks ticking). You can use some or all of these in your final writing.
  • Now think about the emotional state of your characters. How do they feel physically? How do they feel mentally? Remember previous experiences or encounters; for example, if you gave them a wounded arm in a previous scene, won’t this change events? Similarly, if a protagonist or antagonist becomes emotionally ill / damaged, won’t this have an impact?
  • What intellectual point do you, the author/director, want to convey in this scene? Will the lesson be: Don’t play with matches? Let sleeping dogs lie? A chain is only as strong as its weakest link? Try to pin down a proverb or proposition that summarises your moral object or lesson. It doesn’t automatically have to be a maxim or mindset, it could just be the artistic or visual “point” of the scene, i.e. corn ripens fastest as frosts are settling in, or: a woman’s anger melts between night and morn. Note: You won’t literally tell this maxim to the reader (you might hint it) but it will be helpful if you know the intellectual point before you write your scene. It will help you adjust the settings: i.e. lighting, mood, “camera” angle, etc. And it will also help your character development if you (and your character) are familiar with the intellectual points.
  • Narrative and context. We will place this scene between other scenes (unless it is the opening of the book), so think about how the scenes before and after will be influenced by this scene. This will help you build your transitions.

Your storyboard previz will be a set of bullet points or, if you’re a visual/spatial thinker, it might take the form of a cloud diagram or just some ideas sketched onto sticky notes and taped to your mood board.

I think a fishbone diagram is particularly useful for previz because the “head” of the fishbone is an arrow that faces the “problem” and all the bones along the spine are the “causes” so this helps you concentrate on cause & effect. Creately have a useful fishbone diagram tool here: https://creately.com/diagram/example/jrsug0ys/Fishbone+Diagram+Template)

Good luck with your previz storyboarding.

Let me know how it goes and if you have comments on Twitter @neilmach

Neil mach is author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.

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