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Break Your Story-- Index Card Style!

27 May 2015


 May 27, 2015
Category: Uncategorized


Outlining a book or movie can be its own special hell. So many possible plot lines. So many characters. Where to begin? This is why I’m super grateful to Alicia for asking, “What’s your favorite approach to laying out your index cards for outlining? That is, if you even use index cards. I know there are multiple approaches.”


Let me tell you about my experience with index cards, Alicia. Imagine a neat stack. They each contain a scene, and are color coded to indicate A, B and C story lines– this way I can track the flow of the whole story together and look at the flow of each individual story “line” as well.


They look beautiful. I lay them out. I feel amazing. My story is totally under control.


But then I see that one scene doesn’t really move the story forward and I cross out what’s on there and write an idea for a new scene. Yes. It’s still beautiful, but a tiny bit messy. And wait, this other card doesn’t track now that I’ve inserted this new scene card. I cross out the text on that one, no, crumple it up, and make another fresh one.


Yes, now it’s perfect.


But wait…. Damn it. Now I’ve lost one of the “pink” cards in my B “love” story line and it’s missing a beat. I hurriedly write another card and shove it in there. There’s no cause and effect with the card that comes after it, and so I move it.


Long story short, by the end of the afternoon, I’ve got a bunch of cards on the floor that are crossed out, and moved, and now my story makes ZERO sense. I start to panic breathe and drink too much coffee. Before you know it, I’m watching Dateline NBC to escape.


Ha! For some reason, index cards make me feel crazy and out of control. I literally think it’s just because they aren’t attached to each other and can float around in space that freaks me out. I much prefer to write in outline form (beats) that I can erase, cut and paste, and keep together in one document. But this just illustrates how the optimal process varies for each writer.


Tons of successful writers LOVE Index Cards (including the animators at Disney I’ve worked with) and here’s why. Not only can you track the number of scenes in each act or chapter in a larger visual way (which gives you a sense of whether you have balance,) but as stated above, you can color code multiple story lines, move things around, and the cards allow you to examine each scene to see if it’s truly moving the story forward.


Here’s one way to use Index Cards to create your outline….


1) Write, on separate cards, the scenes you know are going to be in your story. Just a short description of what happens in the scene (the action)


2) Lay them out in order on the floor, bulletin board, or table.


3) Flesh out these core scenes with connective scene cards. Make sure there’s cause and effect between all the cards and we track the A story of your hero trying to get what he or she wants, hitting obstacles and either succeeding or failing. Do the cards reveal some kind of character arc or transformation through action?


4) Once you’ve nailed down your main story line, make the cards for your B or C stories. Is there a love story that runs alongside the main plot? Use a distinctive color card for this plot line. There should be at least three beats (a set up, a development, and a pay off.) Now, is there a C story? Do the same (with a different colored card). If your A story and C or B story intersect in the same scene, awesome! Just keep the scene as a white card and use a pen or sticker the color that you’ve assigned that subplot to mark it. Check to make sure that ALL your story lines converge near the climax.


5) Do a scene check. Make sure each scene has all the necessary elements to make a good scene. Does it have conflict? Does the character have an emotional shift? Is there a beginning, middle, and end? And most importantly, does it move the story forward? If any of these elements are missing, can you add them? OR can you take whatever’s in this scene that you need and combine it with another scene that fulfills all the scene requirements?


6) Read through the cards, in order, a thousand times (slight exaggeration). Note where you get bored or stuck. Make fixes.


7) Put the cards in order, in a stack, and start writing your pages!


Many authors and screenwriters who process things visually use the index card method because it helps them to see the entire plot fanned out. It’s easy to see whether your acts and chapters are balanced, and to track story lines.  Also, using index cards to figure out any structural changes when you are revising works really well!


Take Action! Could index cards be part of your outlining process? Try writing out the scenes you know will be in your story on white cards. Set them out and fill in the connective scenes. Track your A story, and tuck in your B and C plots. Do we see your hero change? Is each scene deserving of its place on that card? Do all your plot lines get set up, developed and paid off?


Below is a terrific piece about creativity where Oscar winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (MILK) explains how he uses index cards to create his outline and first “vomit” draft. Check it out…


Happy Writing!


xo Pat

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