Radical Approaches to Writing, Pt. 5

When last I posted on the Radical Approaches to Writing series, I was prepping for my Ikkyu (brown belt) exam in aikido. To pass, I had to master over 140 hand-to-hand combat techniques. Essentially, it’s like a really long kinesthetic multiple choice test.

How would you respond if someone attacks you by…

  • grabbing your arm,
  • grabbing both your arms,
  • whacking you on the head,
  • stabbing you with something sharp?

According to the ikkyu rubric, there are at least 20 different responses for each scenario. Following the attack-me portion of the test, there was a lengthy weapons component where I demonstrated all kinds of taisos and katas with a bokkend (wooden sword, katana-training stick) and jo (wooden staff).

And after about two solid hours of demonstration, I passed!

Me, demonstrating Kihon Hassei with bokkend (wooden sword). My partner is John Partenope, who recently passed his shodan (black belt) exam. Photo courtesy of Zach Hively.

If you were to plot my year on a storyboard, completing this test would definitely be my midpoint, that huge climax right at the middle of the story where nothing could possibly be any better. But the year is not over yet. Who knows what great things await me in the 2014-still-to-come? Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m certainly getting ahead of myself in this discussion of revise-before-you-write techniques.


Storyboards comprise the last step in the revise-before-you-write methodology—that radical approach to writing which invites the two halves of your brain (the wild creator and analytical editor) to be at peace and work as one.

The storyboard is where you track the entire trajectory of the novel. Every character. Every action. Every emotion. Every scene.

Like Beethoven, the writer is an orchestral composer and the storyboard is the sheet music for the literary symphony, tracking every note for every instrument. Every crescendo and every coda. It will take creativity and analytical pondering to figure out if your beginning is allegro or sonata, if your middle transitions from scherzo to adagio or the other way around, and if your ending returns to sonata or closes out with a rondo!

To make a storyboard, you can use a cork board or simply use masking tape to quadrant off a section of a wall in your house. Either way, you need a place to tack up all those scene cards.

Because stories are told in many different ways, the board gives you the freedom to stick your scene cards up in a variety of ways. You could have a 3×5 free-for-all.  Or think of the board as the night sky and you are the deity responsible for installing the stars. You could stick each card on at random, or you can arrange them into constellations, configurations with explicit and implied meanings. To render meaning from your arrangements, you’ll need an organizational schema.

The schema I’m using is the screenwriter’s three-act structure.


It’s called a three-act, but you can see that this storyboard is broken into four sections: act 1, 2A, 2B, and 3. Similarly, author Tom Birdseye suggests what is called a quartile board which also splits the story into four distinct quarters.


Interestingly, symphonies are also divided into four movements. Y’see? You are a composer. (Cravats and frizzy hair optional.)

If four is not your magic number, then why not try a seven-act paradigm, or the twelve-step formula, or the twenty-two-point framework. Writing professors, professional screenwriters and theorists like Syd Field, Robert McKee, John Truby and others have come up with an endless range of organizational schemas all derived from classical drama, mythology, and even psychology.

(Note: for a truly mesmerizing exploration into all the myriad structures available to storytellers, definitely check out Ingrid Sundberg’s “Organic Architecture” series!)

Screenwriters use three acts because it helps them demarcate the beginning, the middle, and the end of a story. Researchers also use a three-part frame. They divide their papers into sections of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, or common ground, disruption, and resolution (Booth et al, The Craft of Research, 249).

Regardless of what each section is called, it’s helpful to know that each section has a function. Each one serves the story in a particular way.

Act One

Act One, Quartile One, the Common Ground, the Beginning, (whatever you call it) opens the story. It introduces the reader to the main characters and the world. Blake Snyder refers to it as a “before shot.” How things were “before” the adventure. Wilbur’s beginning is in a cozy box near the stove in the Arables’ house. Harry Potter’s beginning is the Dursley’s home on Privet Drive.

Act One also hints at problems with the world or the characters. This is very similar to the introduction of a research paper where the writer presents the “common ground” or the context of the topic along with a problem or a series of problems surrounding that topic (Booth et al 162). Wilbur is not a pet and can’t live indoors forever. Harry has powers he cannot always control and does not know where they come from.

Act Two

Act Two, Quartiles Two+Three, or the Middle, takes the reader, and more importantly, the protagonist away from the familiar or away from how things are. If we see it as antithesis or anti-thesis, then it is an upside-down world. Compare Wilbur’s box by the stove to the Zuckerman’s barn. Compare Harry’s life at Hogwarts to Privet Drive.

In research, this section is where the researcher tries to establish and defend what he believes is the kernel of truth at the crux of the research. As you might recall, the theme is your story’s kernel of truth. While you state it in Act One, you will fully establish it and test it in Act Two (Snyder, Save the Cat, 79). Either the unfolding events will successfully defend the theme or they will destroy it.

For example, Act Two of The Wizard of Oz grapples with “Is there really no place like home?” If Dorothy Gale can face every obstacle and survive every danger in Oz, then you betcha! Because there’s no place like home, Dorothy is willing to face flying monkeys, a wicked witch, and an all-powerful wizard just to get back to it.

Act Three

And Act Three, Quartile Four, the Conclusion or The End, is where problems are resolved. Some writers are satisfied with defeating all the villains and getting to the happy ending. Similarly, some research papers use the conclusion to restate supporting evidence and annihilate the antithesis. But both examples miss an important opportunity to achieve synthesis. Synthesis is sort of like aiki, where two opposing forces are blended. From it, truth emerges out of our better understanding.

To synthesize the story, the protagonist takes lessons learned from Act Two and applies them back to the problems and conflicts of Act One. We see this clearly in Charlotte’s Web. Remember the logline we came up with for this book?

In order to avoid the autumn slaughter, an ordinary pig must become extraordinary to all humans and to himself.

Throughout Act 2, Wilbur has been doing all he can to prevent his own untimely death. But the book’s theme centers on the miracle of life. Specifically, the theme is: All life is extraordinary.

When Wilbur stops fixating on death (first his own, and later, Charlotte’s), he starts thinking about life. And that’s when he finds a solution: he will take her eggs back to the farm and care for them until they hatch. He will see to it that they live. In other words, Wilbur comes to understand the theme and by doing so, E.B. White implicates the “so what?” of the whole story.

An ordinary pig become extraordinary and saves a spider’s egg sack. So what?

So what? Every life is exceptional and extraordinary. A pig’s. A spider’s. Mine. Yours. That’s what!

Researchers think of the “so what” in terms of the significance of all that has been studied and presented in writing (Booth et al 252).

Equipped with your logline, beat sheet, scene cards, and storyboards, you too can map out your entire manuscript, including the elusive X that marks the deep, philosophical treasure at the heart of all you’re trying to say with, “Once upon a time….”

Here’s a basic example of a storyboard with scene cards arranged to fit a traditional, linear hero’s journey/arc plot:


And, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, just like all the other revise-before-writing methods, you can revise the board over and over again before you sit down to write the first draft. It’s one more tool to help your creator-brain and your editor-brain team up. Playing with the storyboard is a lot like playing with Legos. You can create, stack, and layer to inconceivable heights, but if you don’t logistically analyze the structure of those stacks and layers, your creation will surely crumble.

And just like Legos, a storyboard is more fun to play with than your laptop! So play, play, play. “Keep playing with it,” Tom Birdseye instructed me in an email, “[keep] arranging, rearranging, until, ideally, it is so good, and feels so right that it gives you the writer’s electric buzz of triumph. Or at least a feeling of ‘this may actually work.’”

And once you’re buzzing, you’re ready to write. So go write. I have given you all the steps you need to revise before you write. Please know that despite the clean, linear order of all the steps, you will often work on different stages simultaneously. You don’t even need to draft your scenes in order. You can and should skip around. In fact, your brain will appreciate it if you start with the awesome scenes, the ones that made you want to tell this story or get to know these characters in the first place (Snyder 103). I call these the cookie-scenes and ample neurological research proves that cookies can help you complete long and difficult tasks!

Cookies for Writers

Scientists gave put a bunch of college students in a room with a bowl of radishes and a bowl of freshly baked cookies (Duhigg, The Power of Habit, 135-36). Half the students were told: DO NOT eat the cookies, but the other half was told they could eat cookies.

After noshing, the students had to try to solve a difficult puzzle. On average, students who did not eat cookies were grumpy and easily frustrated. They spent less than six minutes on that stupid puzzle. Why?

Because willpower is what enables the brain to exert discipline and self-control.  Willpower is why you get dedicated to a project, a diet, or a workout routine. It’s like a muscle. You can exercise it and train it, but then it gets tuckered out (Duhigg 139). And when you’re out of willpower, you’re saddled with decision fatigue. That’s why the cookie-eaters could work on that puzzle forever. It took no willpower to sit in a room and eat warm delicious food. Two hundred other studies have modeled this one, and they all found the same results: Cookie-eaters work harder and longer (136).

The moral of this story is: eat your cookies, which is to say enjoy your sweet-scenes whenever you want!

Photo courtesy of Kimberly Vardeman, Wikimedia Commons. Image CC.

Storycrafting is demanding and complex. Be prepared to follow its crooked path. And never let any process or plan box you in. Be as plastic and ever-changing as your brain. Writing, after all, is a life-long pursuit. As you change over the span of your life, permit your writing process change with you. Allow your process to grow, shift, and adapt over time.

In closing, I hope I’ve encouraged you to see the storycrafting process in a new way (especially with NaNoWriMo coming up)! When we see revision first rather than last, we can tackle it more successfully. When we see the two sides of the brain in harmonious cooperation rather than in battle, we can accomplish more on the page.

“Thinking, we believe, tends to be for procrastinators. Writing is the real work. But that is a fable,” says author Tim Wynne-Jones. And he is right. Throughout the Radical Approaches to Writing series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4), you have seen just how much work can happen before writing. You have seen that revising does not come after writing. And you have seen that you can tell a story without putting your brain in conflict. You do not have to banish your editor-brain to the dungeon only to resurrect it months later, when it is a dust-covered, half-rotten thing. And you do not have to handcuff your creativity while revising each word and sentence as you go, which is like supergluing each grain of sand in a sandcastle—pretty soon you’re working with a lump of granite.

In light of all this evidence, isn’t it time we reconsider the old writing process? Rather than put writing at the front and center of your novel’s cosmos or making it orbit revision throughout, start with some revision. Instead of imagining the battle between the two brains and crafting in the middle of their battlefield, imagine the harmonious path of your story paved with scene cards and lit by a logline. Imagine yourself not merely attempting a novel, but completing it.

Take this moment, close your eyes, and imagine yourself anew. Imagine yourself as competent and confident. Imagine yourself as a storyteller. Imagine it now and alter the tendrils of your living brain.

“Child of the Universe,” by Josephine Wall.


By jenmichellemason

Jenny is a story hunter. She has explored foreign countries, canyon mazes, and burial crypts to gather the facts that make good stories. Once, she sniffed a 200-year-old skull...for research purposes. Jenny received an M.Phil from Trinity College Dublin and holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from VCFA. She has authored nearly 20 STEM books for young readers. Her inquisitive and funny nonfiction articles have appeared in Mountain Flyer, Cobblestone, and Muse magazines. Jenny also works as a freelance copy writer for nonprofits and small businesses.

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