How To Guide on Visually Outlining Your Story

outlineIIn my artistic process, procrastination has always reigned supreme. I am the writer that mulls over her ideas for many moons before bothering to put pen to paper. I often wander aimlessly about the Internet looking for creative ways to break myself of this habit, but as any indie filmmaker worth their mettle knows, magic bullets aren’t common in filmmaking.

But hark, I think I’m onto something, or at least something that works for me. Last year, I decided to lock myself away for my birthday and commit to a single idea that needed some serious plot work. First, I set a schedule. I would write in two-hour bursts and allow for “office hours” in between each session so that friends could come wish me happy birthday, feed me cake, and fluff my ego. Second, I identified a goal. In this instance, it was to end the day with an outline for my first feature, a zombie comedy based on a short film I’d already done well with.

Last and most important, I spent the days leading up to my lock-in preparing my writing environment, dividing blank wall space into three areas. As a visual person with a background in the arts, this is where this process started to gel for me.


Using magazine tear sheets, photos of family and friends, and all kinds of random ephemera, I made a sprawling collage with the purpose of reminding me who I am as a person and a storyteller. If it made me laugh or moved me in some way, especially in a way that was relevant to the story I was trying to tell, it went up on the wall. This might sound distracting, but it was a huge source of comfort and strength for me. The inspiration for it came from an old teacher of mine who claimed that Picasso used to spend every morning in a private room surrounded by his favorite things before heading to his studio.


Next, I made a separate collage with images that directly related to my idea. Lots of ridiculous zombie illustrations went here along with some choice clippings from The Onion and a very bizarre photo of me from when I was a baby. Easily the creepiest photo ever taken of me, it’s an overhead shot of baby Alexa lying face-down on some ugly 80s carpeting. I’m reminded of the birth scene in the Dawn of the Dead reboot whenever I look at it, so up on the wall it went.

The largest area of wall was reserved for working out my story (see image at top of this here post). I used a length of yarn as the timeline for the film. Plot marker stuff like “Inciting Incident” and “Midpoint” was written tags and pinned along the timeline in the spots that seemed most appropriate. Then I took stacks of colored paper and started barfing out all of the story components that had been rattling around my brain for the past two years. Each sheet would’ve constituted an index card or a line on a beat sheet, roughly one scene. Using tape, I started slapping the sheets wherever they made the most sense on the timeline. As sheets went up, some were edited, rewritten, or scrapped entirely. The “Inciting Incident” and “Midpoint” tags moved around a bunch. Every floater idea I had about plot or character or theme got its own sheet and went up on the wall floating somewhere above the timeline. As gaps were identified, I was able to whip up scenes to connect the dots. By the end of the day, I had a movie and a handful of super impressed friends.

It doesn’t end there of course. I’ve since worked on other projects and habitual procrastination aside, this feature is still a mighty beast that likely has a few years of fight in it before it yields itself entirely to the written page. I have returned to this process with a few other ideas though, and it’s quickly become my absolute favorite writing practice. Enslaving myself for one day to create what is basically a story in art installation form appears to be the closest thing I have to a magic bullet where my writing process is concerned. For that, I get a cookie.

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