Sunday, June 5, 2011

Storyboarding—it’s not just for moviemakers

I have amazing movies in my head. The scenes grow from subtle details like lighting and body language, to breathtaking action powered by strong emotion. Of course there’s snappy dialog, too, delivered with tone of voice and driven by deep internal motivation. I’m talking epic stuff, here. Big, good, funny.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a movie projector in my skull—I can’t point my head at a screen and charge theater prices for popcorn. I can’t even stick a USB cable in my ear and brain-dump my mental productions into MS Word. There is no app for Kurt’s psyche (consider yourself lucky). So... I write. I convert my omniscient writer/director dreams into two-dimensional, black and white text.

To help me translate detailed action sequences into text, I sometimes act out the scene, while narrating it aloud. With luck, I can describe the action in everyday words, and even remember them long enough to type them into my computer. But acting doesn’t work when I need to freeze a moment and see it from the outside. That’s when I borrow a trick from movie making, called storyboarding, and run it backwards.

When a movie director translates the written word of a screenplay into the lights and sound of a movie, he or she will often start by drawing pictures. These cartoon-like images, called a storyboard, show freeze-frame moments of action from the audience’s perspective. By studying the pictures, a film crew can figure out lights, cameras, marks, eye lines, and so on. Words become pictures, which become movies. All I do is reverse the process, going from pictures to words, except that...

I don’t draw well. My brother is the cartoonist in the family (shameless plug—you can see his work at I’m the unseen brother in strip number 109, and no, you can’t have my Prada sneakers). Anyway, I don’t draw, so I use a camera. Most recently, I made a storyboard for a rewrite of a car chase. The scene is too dangerous to video, so I used still photos instead. In this scene—which is the modern equivalent of the stagecoach robbery in an old western—the absurdly macho Hammerfist hangs out the car door, brandishing his club.

Picture 1: Hero-wannabe Hammerfist prepares to hurl his club (I think he’s compensating) at an SUV full of ninjas.

Picture 2: The car drifts into a rut, tilting the car and dropping Hammerfist perilously close to the ground.

Picture 3: The car slides into an opposing rut, swinging the door closed. Crunch!

Not only do I have these images to study and translate into words, but I have also demonstrated that the actions are humanly possible—an important detail, because my top-notch critique group asked.

Storyboarding works for me, maybe it can work for you. Or maybe you have another trick of the trade. Let me know, and post a link if you’ve got an example on your website.


Katie McGarry said...

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant, Kurt!

Also, I love the idea of a Kurt app.

Kristen Simmons said...

I am cracking up. Great post, thank you! I have upcoming scenes I need to work on, and plan on trying this method (while taking proper safety precautions of course!)

Tracy Bilen said...

Great idea! I will have to try acting out some scenes to see if they're really possible!

Colette Ballard said...

Seriously, Kurt, how can this be topped??? The only way i could possibly imagine improvement is if you were wearing a bandana around your head like Rambo or a ninja-like unitard: )

I certainly hope your neighbors appreciated your skillful demonstration: )

Kurt Hampe said...

Katie, Cristen, Tracy, and Colette,

Thanks for the compliments. I have to credit my photographer and long suffering spouse, Tina. Interestingly, we had to take several shots, because her natural inclination was to align the camera with the car. That created the optical illusion that the car was level, no matter how the car was tilted. By the last shot, we'd figured it out, and she tilted the camera in the opposite direction of the car's tilt.

Colette, I might have topped this if I'd videoed myself acting out the cell phone/knife fight scene. I worked that scene over many times in the living room before I changed the scene into something easier to describe with words. Happily the story changed too, and now the cell phones are now critical to the story.

Kristin Lenz said...

I don't draw well either - would like to take a class and sketch in my journal in addition to writing. I resumed rock climbing after several years away in order to write some of the scenes in my novel, but it never crossed my mind to take pictures! Thanks for sharing a great technique.

Jack Wallen said...

Very fun stuff!

You should invest in a bunch of Lego sets so you can do these safely, without injury to you, Tina. or your car. ;-)

When's Beverageday this week?


Alison Lyne said...

Hi Kurt
This is SO cool that you are mixing up disciplines: writing and illustration. But then when you are the author/scriptwriter you've gotta "look at both sides". When I do my "storyboard" for PBs, I have a series of 32 small boxes on a page, and I first fill them in with bitty "comps" then with my first try of words. (Comps are messy MESSY sketches that just remind me what I envision for a scene.) I also do photo shoots when I can (Frank is my super "on site" photographer) plus I use DAZ (a computer generated image program) for envisioning unusual "action" scenes. Your photos are way cool. If you need a tilted scene....go ahead and photograph it normal then you can "tilt" it in photoshop!(grin)


Kurt Hampe said...

Jack--every adult should own Legos. I just have to be careful not to step on them, cause wow do they hurt. I might not be any safer in Lego land.

Alison--thanks for generously giving me illustrator credits--you might lose your artistic license for being that kind. I did hand-draw and color a book for a friend--once. I made rough sketches in pencil until I had the right ideas and text, then made new final pencil drawings colored with watercolor. The final result never captured the life in the rough sketches.

I've read about processes like yours in Scott McCloud's books on drawing and understanding comics. I'm fascinated by the fact that artists can now seamlessly blend pen-and-ink hand drawings with drawings made on the computer screen or rendered from a model. You can even add natural looking computer-generated text balloons. Cool stuff.

Lisa Tapp said...

I've never tried storyboarding, but like the idea. And I really like your pix. You're going to great lengths to get accuracy in your writing!

Natalie Aguirre said...

I never thought of that. That could be a great idea for the right scene. I wouldn't want to do it for all of them. That's awesome that you can visualize your scenes so well.

Ben Woodard said...

Hey Kurt. I've storyboarded my PBs before, and I dictate much of my writing, but pictures? Great idea!

Kurt Hampe said...

Lisa and Natalie,

Thanks for commenting and for the kind words. Between taking pix, acting out scenes, and just walking and talking, I've convinced all the neighbors that I'm nuts. But I'm writing a boy story, and teen boys are nuts anyway, right?

Ben, thanks for commenting and sharing your techniques. I haven't tried dictating, but I have seriously considered getting a voice recorder. I spend a lot of time away from the computer, walking and talking, telling myself the story. Once I'm back in front of the PC, the words don't always flow as well as they did when I was three blocks from the computer. And by the way, I like your title, "A Problem with Donuts." Homer Simpson would be proud.

bethany griffin said...

Great post, Kurt. I did try out one scene from my previously published book, just to make sure I had it right...but I didn't take pictures!

Kurt Hampe said...

Bethany, you may not have taken photos, but you get extra credit anyway, because one of your scenes really happened.

And sort of related, because she's got some pictures... I got an email from fellow blogger Kristen Simmons today. She launched her new website at

Jus Accardo said...

This is awesome, Kurt! I LOVE the picture idea. I tried once to act out a complicated fight scene with my husband for accuracy. Sadly, I accidentally broke the poor guy's nose. Pictures probably would have been safer :D

Kurt Hampe said...


Look at it this way, you have a great story and you know how to break a nose--two important skills in the world of publishing.

Besides, the accident was probably caused by the Writing Muse--she was trying to tell you to pump up the scene with more cartilage snapping. Or she was in a mood, you can never tell with a muse.

Thanks for sharing.