Story Structure and Writing for Storyboard Artists

August 23, 2023  

Writing scripts for film and television is hard.

And it doesn't happen without some kind of structure holding it up, even when you think it does.

At some point, you should grab yourself a book on story structure. It doesn't matter if you have aspirations of writing scripts for film and television or if you just want to storyboard someone else's. Either way, it will serve you well.

Which book you pick probably doesn't matter– they all offer more or less the same information.

Our fearless leader Sergio swears by Blake Snyder's Save the Cat.

Our good friend Nick Sung has recommended John Yorke's Into the Woods.

Robert McKee's Story has been around forever, probably for a reason.

And there are others– many, many others.

Just pick the book that looks or sounds good to you and study it. It will help when you're boarding someone else's scripts and have to solve whatever challenges they might present.

Meanwhile, this guide is meant to offer you some sound advice as you work on putting together your first stories.

Rookie writers should start small

When starting out, consider cutting your teeth with something less daunting.

Less daunting doesn't mean less ambitious– we should always be bringing to the table the best ideas we have available to us that day.

But your very first written work doesn't have to be your opus.

You're going to discover that, big or small, story structure is infinitely reducible. The traditional storytelling arc is to create three acts with rising tension in the first act resulting in conflict. The second act is about making the tension even stronger until it reaches a breaking point. The third act is where the conflict is resolved and tensions resolve into the new normal.

Look closer and you'll see a story also has these arcs within each of its acts. Look closer still and you'll see an act has these within each of its scenes as well.

To practice your craft as you start out, just work at this micro-level. What if the scene is the thing– a very, very short story?

Early on in your writing journey, you're going to get things wrong. Things are going to fall flat. It happens. But if you're working in miniature, you can write it, board it, and share it, and you won't have spent months toiling over it.

This is how you'll learn to tell stories, fast. And when the time comes to tackle something with a wee bit more heft, you'll do it with a mighty full toolbox.

Beginnings, middles, and endings

If you find yourself struggling to build your ideas into full, fleshed-out stories, know that you don't have to do so in a linear way. Just because every good story needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end (they do), doesn't mean you have to come up with those things in that order (you don't).

The correct way to write is the way that gets the words out of your head and onto the page.

With that in mind, consider these creation methods:

Work from big to small

That one cool beat that would make a great capper to the scene that probably won't pop up until the second half's third quarter shouldn't be the priority at this early stage. Even if such stray half-thoughts and incomplete visuals are what first got you thinking, "This could have legs."

First, cover the broad strokes. Figure out what your story is about, identify your desired and/or necessary characters and what they want. Then break it all down into your acts, your scenes, and your beats.

Work in reverse

Figure out your ending first! Don’t worry about your beginning– or anything else. If you know where it is you're going, you can create any number of paths to get there. If you don't, you might never get anywhere at all.

Even if the previously mentioned stray half-thought or incomplete visual that launched you into writing this thing is the very first scene, playtest it by coming up with your ending and then seeing if you can connect A to B.

Ways to up your writing game

If you're going to write, read relevant examples. For what we've been talking about, that would be scripts.

If there's a film you particularly adore, track down the screenplay and dissect it, and figure out why it works for you.

If there's a film you've always just sort of loathed, find that screenplay to see if you understand why it fell short.

Watching these films is useful too. Sit down with a longtime favorite or an old dud and look at it with a critical eye. Seek out the big beats and consider why they work or why they flop.

Be sure to share your stories

If you're writing things you want people to see in a finished form, sooner or later you're going to have to test your work on real, live people.

That’s a scary thing to do, but it's very useful.

By doing so, you'll learn what works and what doesn't– what you can build on and what would maybe be better off abandoned.

It doesn't matter so much who you share your work with. If you have other creative types to bounce your work off, that’s great. But you can grab a family member, a friend, or really anyone who's willing.

Do try to find folks who'll be honest and specific with you– nobody gets better by just hearing "Oh, cool!" repeatedly. Sometimes people have trouble finding words to explain what works or doesn’t. This is where you can ask targeted questions to get more specific feedback which will be much more helpful.

Once you find your people, get comfortable with showing your work.

And get comfortable with pushing through to the next steps, too, because that's where your work will start to come to life. Once the workshopping is done and you feel you've got something pretty solid going on, get it boarded.

Changes to the writing will still happen at this stage– you'll spot weak bits that don't read as well visually as they do in text, and you'll come up with new bits you like better than what's already there.

Either way, it's nothing a fresh round of "What If?" won't fix right up. Because hey, the writing process never truly ends.

I just want to draw... why am I practicing writing?

It could be you never have and never will have any desire whatsoever to see your own stories on the big or small screen.

There are many storyboard artists who feel the same way, and they'll spend their careers contributing every day to making a little bit of magic happen. Writing scripts for films and television is not necessary to becoming a storyboard artist. There will always be screenwriters who need strong visual storytellers like you to help them bring their words to life.

Taking the time to learn story structure will make you better at doing that.

It could also be the difference-maker when you're looking to get your foot into the door.

Understanding story structure can help you build a better portfolio

Applying for a storyboarding job can be daunting. It's difficult to know how much or how little to include in your portfolio, or just what the person with the hiring power is going to want to see.

If you can tailor your portfolio to the production you're applying to, great. If not, then your best bet is to send a well-rounded package that shows you at your best.

Whatever gaps remain after you've gathered up all your stuff, you can definitely use your new-found understanding of story structure to write your way out of.

All you really need for a serviceable portfolio is three sequences.

These sequences should be short enough that they can be flipped through quickly but tell enough of a story that the person doing the flipping can see your ability to creatively solve problems.

These sequences should also show your range as a visual storyteller. Consider including a short action sequence, a short comedy sequence, and a short dramatic sequence.

If you've been doing online challenges and/or practice assignments, then you've probably got some things already that'll fit into some of those spots. But, if you're missing a sequence, now you know how to write one. It doesn't have to be a masterpiece– it just has to have a proper story structure so you can draw it up and show the person looking at it your ability to board from A to B.

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