NaNoWriMo storyboarding for plotters and pantsers

Walt Disney running through a storyboard with colleagues Image source: Kashinterest

Walt Disney running through a storyboard with Deems Taylor and Leopold Stokowski, music directors, in 1940, Burbank, California
Image source: Bettman/CORBIS

“A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.” – Sidney Sheldon

If you’re eagerly gearing up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) [], like me, you’re probably counting down the days! Deciding who your main character will be. Picking a location. And getting ready for this weekend, when you and thousands of others worldwide will start writing furiously.

So, is writer’s block easier to get past for plotters or pantsers? And how can we get past writer’s block during NaNoWriMo, whether we’re a plotter or a pantser? Will storyboarding really help me or is it a waste of precious time?

If you’re saying, “Woah, woah, woah. What are ‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers’?”, let me tell you. (You can skip ahead if you know this bit.)

Someone who plans the plot and even the dialogue for every scene before they begin writing any words of their novel is called a plotter.

“The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.” —Joyce Carol Oates, WD

Someone who just starts writing and “goes with the flow” is a pantser, someone who flies by the seat of their pants. They don’t plan. They just put pen to paper and see what comes out.

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but that’s okay; you can make the whole trip that way.” – E. L. Doctorow

Many of my authors are pantsers, sending me a chapter at a time as they complete them. Stephen King reportedly writes without an outline. He said he only creates the characters, then lets the monster loose upon them. On the other hand, fantasy writers Robert Jordan and J.R. Tolkien had so much of the plan for their later novels worked out that when they passed away, others were able to almost completely finish their half-written novels for them.

It’s not just writers, either. Artists are also familiar with the concept. There are painters who just “go with the flow” – frequently abstract or impressionist artists – and there are painters who have done five pencil sketches and a miniature “practise painting” before they begin on the larger, “real” version of their composition.

I myself am the definitive plotter, to the level where my outline already includes pretty much every line of dialogue for each scene before I sit down to write the scene.

In my opinion, being a plotter makes it much easier for me to write, because I always write knowing what is coming next. The stories that I have tried to “pants” have never been finished, because I found myself bogged, written into a corner with no way out. On the other hand, I found it difficult to edit, because I was so attached to “the plan” that I found it hard to let go of any one plot point. In contrast, pantsers may find the editing stage easier, because there never was a fully-formed “plan”.

I made it through NaNoWriMo last year only because, despite being a fanatical plotter and having a super-detailed plan before I began, I “pantsed” all the gaps to get my novel done within the competition time limit (November 30). So take heart, fellow plotters – pantsing is not impossible!

Plotters can write faster because they know where they’re headed, where pantsers have to stop to think about where to go next. But pantsers have the freedom to follow any plot thread they feel like, so they might have more fun, surprise themselves!

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”  ― Robert Frost

“First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!” – Ray Bradbury

But pantsers will get bogged more often than plotters. So it’s a trade-off.

For everyone – what to do when you get stuck? Storyboard!

The answer to our struggles with writer’s block is simple. It’s our most powerful story planning tool, beloved by writers and filmmakers alike: storyboarding.

“If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.” – Somerset Maugham

Storyboarding usually means having visual blocks set up showing the basic plot points and character development points in the story. Some people like Post-It notes. You can even colour code it, to see the different elements of the story working together.

Storyboard from

Storyboard from

I like the scriptwriting method – I write a list of scenes and put down “what will happen in each scene” into a notebook. I put some dialogue in there – but only the bits that woke me up at 3am because they were so dang vital to the story and portraying the characters. When writing, I refer back to the notebook constantly in case my characters get out of hand and forget why they’re arguing.

Visually minded people use the type of storyboards that cinematographers do – picture storyboards – planning what the reader or viewer will “see” in each scene.

Walt Disney running through a storyboard with colleagues Image source: Kashinterest

Walt Disney running through a storyboard with Deems Taylor and Leopold Stokowski, music directors, in 1940, Burbank, California
Image source: Bettman/CORBIS

The idea of planning and pitching an entire film using storyboards was spearheaded by animator Webb Smith at the Walt Disney Studio in the 1930s (Christopher Finch, The Art of Walt Disney, Abrams, 1973). You can hear the whole story on YouTube, along with the stories of other live-action directors who then took on the practice of storyboarding.

(Awesome tangent: To see an example of a movie compared as it plays with its storyboard, watch this collection of scenes from one of my favourite movies, Monsters Inc.)

Another way to storyboard is to follow a map, plot arc or character arc. Plot goes up, plot goes down, crisis here. Character becomes more assertive here, gets taken down a peg, and makes their turning point here. You can take a look at this “W arc” storyboard model by Mary Carroll Moore. She shows how you can plot the 5 key events in your book before you start writing, so that you know where you’re going.

W Storyboard Structure by Mary Carroll Moore from YouTube

W Storyboard Structure by Mary Carroll Moore from YouTube

At the end of the day, many writers agree it doesn’t make much difference. Whether you plot it or pants it, writing is hard work.

We both of us, plotters and pantsers alike, must take a leaf out of each other’s books sometimes if we are to survive.

For example:

Plotters, know when the storyboard is done and it’s time to get on with the writing bit. If the storyboard is never finished to our satisfaction, never perfect, then we still at some point need to start writing the details, the real story, getting it out there. Epic fantasy writers, I’m looking at you. Do you really need to write the dictionary for your world’s Elven language before you write the story? You don’t have time! Only write one book at a time, even if you’re thinking of a 10-book series. By contrast, a pantser’s outline might be five lines long, so they get into the meat of writing more quickly.

Pantsers need to learn to focus on plot development, so the reader’s not blindly following a character through a haphazard series of events and monologues. Plotters need to learn to focus on character development, so that the epic storyline actually has a real person going through it, not just a 2D cardboard cutout.

Pantsers, learn to storyboard with the plotters. Plotters, make your storyboard but don’t make up everything before you start writing; leave some room for chance.

“People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.” – Harlan Ellison

This NaNoWriMo, I’ll be attempting to “pants” an entire novel – oooh, scary! How about you? Do you find that being a plotter or a pantser makes it easier for you to create?

For more information about the pros and cons between plotters and pantsers, visit this year’s Writers Victoria ‘Plotters vs Pantsers’ debate.


This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2014. Reblogging is highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.

9 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo storyboarding for plotters and pantsers

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