Screenwriting Tip: Index Cards

June 6th, 2013 by

See this?

This is an index card. In a digital world, it is a decidedly analog thing. But for most screenwriters and TV writers, it is one of the most indispensable tools of the trade.

See this?

This is what a wall in a TV writers room may look like at any given time, cluttered with index cards.

How can you use index cards?

* Brainstorm: Any time you have an idea for a scene, beat, character, line of dialogue, theme, whatever, you jot it down on an index card, and tack it up on your wall. That way you have it somewhere so you won’t forget the idea.

* Connections: More important, seeing all that story ‘stuff’ laid out in front of you can lead to interesting creative associations, kinda like what Carrie did in the TV series “Homeland”:

Saul looking at Carrie’s wall going all WFT?!?!

* Plotting: This is where index cards can be really handy. Let’s say you write down every beat and every scene you can think of, one for each index card. If you’re writing a movie script, divide the cards into four piles: Act 1, Act 2A, Act 2B, Act 3. Sort the cards into what pile you feel like they might go in. Then work through each pile, scene by scene, trying to construct a linear flow. Some scenes will feel out of place, so you move them to another pile. Some scenes will feel useless, so you set them aside. There will be gaps from this scene to that, so you simply pick up an index card and write on it, “Need a bridge scene here,” put it into its place, and move on, eventually brainstorming the requisite scene. Then you put all the four piles together into one stack. Now go through that stack over and over and over again, telling the story so it flows one scene to the next. Then tack your story up onto the wall like this:

Or on a table like this:

I interviewed Academy Award winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) and he said this:

Then what I do is find the scenes that speak to that, and I put them on note cards. I have this table in my kitchen that’s of a certain size that I think is about two hours. And I start laying out these note cards and if they start to spill over the table, I know I’ve got to cut stuff. I keep doing and doing and doing it, going through it and through it and through it, combining things, telescoping time, combining characters if I have to until these cards fit on this table, then I think, will this collection of cards communicate the reason for this film? And hopefully do so in a dramatic and entertaining way.

* Outline: Once you have your story sorted out, you can create an outline. Then you are ready to type FADE IN.

BTW you will notice many writers use different color cards. Typically that’s about tracking various subplots: White for the Plotline, blue for this subplot, yellow for that subplot, and so on. This is helpful because you can visually tell how you are cross-cutting between storylines which can help in terms of pace, transitions, etc.

I know some of you will chime in and suggest a variety of software programs that replicate index cards. And if that works for you, fine. But at the risk of sounding like an old farting Luddite, allow me to praise the simple 3×5″ index card.

It is tactile.

You can feel it in your hands.

You can cram tons of information on each card – dialogue, scene description, theme, questions, reminders, all in ink, your words, another tactile experience. You know, actual writing.

When you have your stack of cards, holding it in your lap, there’s actual heft to it, substance.

This is your story… and these cards represent it actually having come into being.

Then when you lay it out on a table or tack it up on a wall, you can step back in actual physical space and stare at it, let your eyes roam back and forth.

It’s not squished onto 14″ computer monitor, little electronic bits of data.

Hell, no. It takes up a whole goddammed wall of paper, ink and tacks!

Again a tactile experience: It’s a story and it’s real!

So here’s to the humble index card, pawns in our creative chess game. But if we keep working them and working them until the story emerges into life, we can crown those pawns and turn them into queens.

And our story will rise to glory.

[Cue heroic soundtrack, writer weeps, audience cheers… and black].

How about you? Do you use index cards? How do you use them? If not, why not?

8 thoughts on “Screenwriting Tip: Index Cards

  1. Zach Jansen says:

    I tend to jump around with pre-writing/outlining. Sometimes I use cards — I’ve carrying a script in my pocket for a few weeks now — sometimes I do a beat outline, sometimes I just write.

    For me, it really depends on the story. Comedy and action depends so much on structure that I use cards. With thrillers, it’s all about the beats and gotcha moments, so an outline works better. And dramas I just jot down characters and a general plot then see what happens. It’s all in the rewriting anyhow, so that first draft is mostly about getting it done.

  2. WriterCarmen says:

    Re: electronic “index cards” …

    Here’s an April article from Salon:
    “Do e-readers inhibit reading comprehension?”

    Here’s a quote from the article (emphasis mine):
    “Based on observations during the study, Mangen thinks that students reading pdf files had a more difficult time finding particular information when referencing the texts. Volunteers on computers could only scroll or click through the pdfs one section at a time, whereas students reading on paper could hold the text in its entirety in their hands and quickly switch between different pages. Because of their easy navigability, paper books and documents may be better suited to absorption in a text. “The ease with which you can find out the beginning, end and everything in between and the constant connection to your path, your progress in the text, might be some way of making it less taxing cognitively, so you have more free capacity for comprehension,” Mangen says.”

    If you read the article and its brief explanations of some of the neurological underpinnings of the way we interpret and interact with text in different forms, many writers’ preference for paper index cards and/or corkboards will make perfect sense.

    I would feel hobbled if I couldn’t spread out my story in tangible pieces and reorder them at will. Doing that on a computer screen doesn’t feel the same, and now that I have science confirming that it really ISN’T the same, I absolutely do not and will not ever feel like a Luddite over this quirk of the process.

  3. Debbie Moon says:

    Yeah, you can’t beat physical index cards! I used to plan on cards, then scribble a rough outline from them before starting a script: now I’m cutting that stage and writing straight from cards. Seems to be working so far…
    I like the ease with which you can jump between scenes on different cards, and the fact you can look at as many or as few at once as you need to…

  4. CydM says:

    I’ve always used rolls of butcher paper I tack along as many walls as possible and colored markers to track people and events. It was fun because there was color and movement and I could SEE the story…and my mom used to give me those rolls as a kid to draw on :-) Now I can’t find the paper so I’ve just switched to the cards and love it. A wall of them. When things start coming together, I’ve started putting them on those giant Post-It pages and sticking those to the wall with smaller Post-Its attached. I love the physicality of it and the smells and feel.

    But I also use Evernote and the voice recording option. When out and about, if there’s a person who dresses a certain way that fits a character or an idea hits, I can make a voice note with tags and send it to my account. But then those notes go on cards, as well as any photos I might take.

    But sometimes I just sit down and write. And keep going until I splat up against a wall. That’s when it’s time to outline and finding order in chaos.

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