Storyboxing: A visual, modular approach to story construction

I’ve realized that I’ve seen lots of media pieces in my career. And the biggest technical difference I’ve seen between long-time media folks and students/newer media folks isn’t the quality of sentences or the use of quotes. It’s how stories are structured and organized.

Structure of a story seems intuitive for people who’ve done it for awhile. Here’s this piece and it goes here, because it’s the most important or compelling. This next piece goes right there because it provides context. This other piece goes here…

But structure is difficult for newer writers, because it’s easy to get overwhelmed by some combination of facts, deadline and ego. The inverted pyramid or basic broadcast style script gives us a structure for some kind of stories, but other, more thoughtful stories aren’t always well-served by those forms. So how do we do it?

Over the course of the semester, I’ve come up with something I call “storyboxing,” and it’s seemed to help. It combines the strengths of the traditional broad-idea-to-narrow-support outline and the visual approach to thinking that storyboarding gives us. Storyboxing is a essentially a series of thesis statements/assertions/conceptual ideas and their supportive facts/images/sounds. In a box.

It’s based on two observations:

1. Students and low-time writers are often overwhelmed by the number of facts and assertions a story needs to make.

2. Thinking in concepts that can then be supported by facts is easier.

And it’s based on one structural rule: The concepts and supportive facts are modular and can be moved around in the story as a whole. But the facts that support each concept stay with the concept.

Start with a one-sentence statement about the story to give it focus. Come up with three to five big conceptual areas and make each of them a box. Attach the facts that support them to the box.

Example: The Iraqi translator

The reporting for the story was already done when it got to me and the students were having trouble getting out of the way of the story. They had already developed a one-sentence statement, though they didn’t know it. It’s really an elevator pitch, just a short summary of the story (and if you can’t sum up the story in one or two sentences, you don’t have a clear understanding of the story).

The one-sentence statement, the story statement, provides a broad look at the scope of the piece. Does it feel like the thesis statement of a high school paper? It should, because the thesis statement and the story statement serve the same role: to lay out what’s coming next and to serve as a roadmap for the writer. Don’t worry, writerly types. This is just undergarments. No one will see this part.

Just like a thesis statement in expository writing, the story statement is done AFTER the research has been done.

Story statement: This guy worked as a translator for the U.S. Army in Iraq, was threatened with death for doing so, came here on a visa, found that life isn’t really all that great and is trying to figure out what to do next.

The statement itself gives you three big conceptual areas to play with: his time in Iraq, life in the States isn’t all that great, trying to figure out what to do next. Simply writing that statement gives us the three boxes.

Box 1: His experience in Iraq

Box 2: His life in the U.S.

Box 3: Looking forward

Visually, it looks like this right now (note: these are usually scrawled on a whiteboard in my office; to spare you that, I’ve put them into Scapple). It’s kind of boring and there’s enough white space that it’s intimidating. . But we have the most important parts in place: The point of our story and the broad conceptual areas that will become our storyboxes.

 Iraq Storyboard 1


The reporting gathered lots of details that painted a picture of  life in Iraq and that our guy’s life was pretty bad before he joined up with the Army as a translator. There were mortars and shootings everyday in his neighborhood. The power went out a lot.  He felt like he needed to do something, so he signed up to work as a translator, which had its own problems.  All of this was in the reporting team’s notebooks/memory cards. It was just a matter of organization. This was an audio story, so the team went back to their transcripts and found the sound that best told the story of his experience in Iraq, both as a citizen and as a translator.


Iraq 2

The reporters continued fleshing out the storyboxes with a mix of soundbites and narrative reads. The big boxes gave structure to the information they found. Watching them work was a blast, since the ideas just kept spilling out. We were able to skim the best 10-20 percent of what they found. That’s another benefit of the boxes: It lays out all the supportive material in spot and you can cross things out that don’t fit or aren’t of high enough quality. Sticking in transcribed parts of interviews allows you to see if and how things work together.

Iraq 3

With the main part of the story done, the reporters took a step back and looked at it.  All the facts are in places where they directly support the big concepts. The big concepts directly support the story statement. You could, at this point, call the story locked and move to writing the script or the piece and you’d have a cogent, linear story. If you wanted to tell the story in a non-linear way (think of the stories told by This American Life), you could swap the order of the boxes. What’s important is that the facts that are tied to each concept stay with the concept.