Go On Your Own Quest — Week 1: Plot

July 18th, 2013 by

The 2013 iteration of The Quest begins this week! Later this afternoon, I will introduce the second of 6 writers who will be working with me in this unique program. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by because you can Go On Your Own Quest by following the structure of The Quest to dig into screenwriting theory [Core – 8 weeks], figure out your story [Prep – 6 weeks], and write a first draft [Pages – 10 weeks]. It’s a 24-week immersion in the screenwriting process and you can do it here – for free!

Plus you can join The Black Board, the Official Online Writing Community of the Black List and Go Into The Story, another free resource to help keep you inspired and on target at you Go On Your Own Quest from FADE IN to FADE OUT on the first draft of your original screenplay.

This week, we are reflecting on the subject of Plot, mirroring the content the Questers are engaged with in Core I: Plot, working through six lectures I have written building off the 1st Essential Screenwriting Principle: Plot = Structure.

We had an interesting start to our discussion Monday – you can see those comments from GITS readers and myself here. We began with two questions: (1) How would you define plot? (2) How is plot different in a screenplay compared to a novel? Tuesday the discussion was about screenplay paradigms. You can read that conversation here. Yesterday we considered the question, “How do you go about working on your screenplay’s plot?” You can read that discussion here.

Today another question:

  • Index cards: Do you use them when plotting your story or not?

And before you answer, check this out.

That’s the writer’s room for “Arrested Development”. And check this out:

You can listen to Vince Gilligan talk about “Breaking Bad,” but don’t gloss over the first set of images you see in this video. It’s index cards. Yes, in this day and age of super hi-tech everything, 3×5 inch index cards are still a staple of most professional writers.

I use them. After I brainstorm every scene I can think of for the plotline and subplots, I write each of them down onto individual index cards. If I know I need a bridge scene, but don’t know what it is, I write “Put bridge scene here” on a card. Then I create four stacks: Act I, Act II [first half], Act II [second half], Act III. Next it’s time shuffle and reshuffle the cards, testing out various arrangements of scenes. I spread them on the floor. I tack them up on the wall. I even use color-coded cards to represent different subplots, so I can see if I’m light here or back-to-back scenes there.

Do you use index cards?

I’ll see you in comments for your thoughts on this question and [hopefully] a discussion that will enlighten everyone about the subject of Plot.

If you’d like to access the same Core content as the writers participating in The Quest, I will be teaching Core I: Plot starting Monday, August 26.

Why wait? You can have immediate access to the content of all eight Core classes by signing up for The Core Package. This enables you to go through all of the Core lectures (48 total, each written by me), tips, techniques and optional writing exercises on a self-paced basis as well as take any of the 1-week classes as I offer them. Plus The Core Package offers a nearly 50% savings compared to if you took each Core class separately. For more information on this unique offer, go to Screenwriting Master Class.

Meanwhile I encourage you to head to comments to discuss today’s questions about Plot. And for a related discussion on The Black Board, check out these topics:


Comment Archive

10 thoughts on “Go On Your Own Quest — Week 1: Plot

  1. lisakothari42 says:

    I have not used index cards yet, but I want to. As noted in a comment earlier, I write a vomit first draft very quickly. From there, I create an essence only outline using a simple Word document. It’s composed of 1-2 sentences of what is taking place in the scene. During the rewrite process, I am constantly updating the outline document in Word.

    One of the things that scares me about using index cards is when something gets redone or thrown away or updated, you’re sitting there having to recreate another index card and slot it in. I find it easier to simply delete on the doc and quickly type in the update.

    Still, most professional writers swear by the technique of writing the outline using the index card method. What appeals to me about the method includes the ideas of carrying them with me and as I have ideas – jotting them down and quickly slotting them in to place and shuffling them up to see different variations on the scene order. That is very intriguing to me. As I set out to write my next spec, I want to discipline myself to use index cards to see how the process works for me.

    Great topic, Scott!

  2. Zach Jansen says:

    I’ve never understood the shuffling of cards. Cause-and-effect is one of the keys to good storytelling: Scene A leads to Scene B which leads to Scene C and so on. Unless you’re looking for a non-linear approach, it’s always seemed to be counter-productive to play with the order of the story. I get moving around the subplot cards to see how to weave them in and out seamless, but otherwise, shifting the order… Maybe someone can explain their reasons?

    1. Debbie Moon says:

      Cause and effect is incredibly important, of course – but a cause could have many different effects, and an effect could have more than one cause. So the order may be certain even then…?

      I tend to use cards in the early stages of planning, when I have a few plot points and I’m not sure how they go together yet. And they’re good for things that can be potentially swapped around without causing cause-and-effect problems, like the details of action sequences…

      1. Zach Jansen says:

        Oh don’t get me wrong: I use cards all the time. It’s just the shuffling I don’t get. I mean, say you rearrange the cards and the climax is before the inciting incident (or whatever terms you prefer) — well, you probably can’t have that, so you fix that order. And in Act II you can’t have the hero save the hostages before any hostages have been taken. So that gets put back in order. So at the end of it all, you’ve shffled the cards, sure, but it’s back in the same order as before.

        Unless you have copious amounts of details on the cards — which in counter to the reasons behind using cards — and catch little bits that might not line up, I don’t see the point in shuffling the cards.

        I’ve learned one big purpose of cards is to track the major plot points and beats. And a well-plotted story isn’t going to have much give with cause and effect. This isn’t a great example, but Frodo can’t go to Mordor to destory the ring on your second card when the fellowship isn’t formed until the seventh and Bilbo hasn’t given him the ring until the tenth.

        I get looking at the movie from outside the box, trying to get a different perspective, but — and this is in all sincerity and honesty — why bother shuffling the cards when you go back to square one anyway?

  3. 14Shari says:

    Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the video, not available in my country.

    I’ve never used index cards. I am open to give it a try this time. Only have to search for a good play to lay them out. Maybe on the floor.

    As I understand it’s not necessary to now all the beats. You can use the cards to brainstorm too and fill in blank spaces?

  4. JoniB22 says:

    Following several days of brainstorming a new story idea in a composition book, yes, I’ll grab index cards and scribble brief scene notes to aid in figuring out sequencing and the overall order of things.

    Following Save the Cat’s “Chairman of the Board” methodology, I have a bulletin board divided — top 1/4 for Act I, middle 1/2 for two parts of Act II, and bottom 1/4 for Act III. Always seems my Act I is jammed with too many cards, and I quickly re-assess and keep moving things around until I find some semblance of balance, for one, but more importantly, a cohesive, flowing story. Cards help me determine “sequences”, the board is another tool to see where I’m lacking or where there’s over-abundance, etc. I don’t generally make notes on the cards, though, about “emotional change” or “conflict”, but I will say that if I don’t feel I can easily identify these things for a card’s scene, the card usually won’t make it to the board.

    Working index cards and the board is a perfect pre-cursor to my “visual outline”, which is something I’ll keep around as I work at my desk. Because I write best long hand first (and not nearly as “freely” at the computer), the cards and my composition book accompany me pretty much wherever I go. Doesn’t bother me in the slightest to grab a card — even out of sequence — and work on that scene, if the spirit so moves me.

  5. Femme_Mal says:

    Nope, no index cards here.

    I work on multiple devices — a laptop, netbook, and two tablets, carrying any one of these with me at any time. I don’t use pen/paper much because I can’t share them readily with collaborators or editors, I’ve lost papers in transfer when sharing, and sometimes they get damaged (ex: spilled beverages with boisterous editors). Have not had a loss with electronic device yet since I work on documents stored in Google Drive.

    Instead of index cards or Post-It notes, I use a spreadsheet or a table inside a document. It’s very easy to sort the content, search for content by key word, and I can add content easily from reference materials like those I gather in Evernote.

    What I do find extremely valuable in plot development is chronology. I add a column to keep track of the tick-tock, as journalists refer to the progression of reported events over time. My most common plot errors are events happening out of sequence. It’s taken me two weeks to clean up my most recent boo-boo; if I’d used index cards, I don’t think I would have caught the error as it turned up during a sort of a table containing two parallel storylines.

    I’ve used Post-It notes when working in groups on large investigative stories; they work well for a first pass at getting things structured during a collaborative meeting. But once the entire team agreed we had the notes in the right sequence, we took a photo, shared it with the team, then converted the notes to a shared spreadsheet or table. Team members working on the same story could then go into the shared document as they developed more content and make changes to the story.

  6. NEGenge says:

    I use index cards, both the physical ones and some digital versions, all the time.

    Recently, a fellow writer said he added “page count” to the info on his cards and, I must say, that makes perfectly good sense to me and I’ve been noodling that onto my current cards. It does help in a couple of ways. First, it encourages me to write to length and stop sprawling – one of my perennial faults. Second, it’s easy to see where I’m “light” or “heavy.” I can add up the pages I think I need for the scenes in I, II, and III, and decide if I need to reassess the number of scenes or the length of scenes.

    The thing I like about cards though is that it really forces me to think about scenes. What I want to accomplish in each one, where it is, who’s in it and why. I have little colour codes for lots of things and I like being able to track the arcs and locations especially that way. I can see it all the time.

    One thing I’ve been doing for a long time is punching a hole in the top-left corner of the cards and sliding them onto a carabiner or something similar. I can reorder the scenes easily, carry them around without fear of doing the “deck of cards” explosion, and clip them to a strap or whatever of my messenger bag/laptop case/backpack – makes them handy.

    On the digital side, I’m a fan of “Corkboard” for the iPad. Multitudes of things I can stick on an infinitely-sizable board with all the colour-codes my geeky brain could invent.

    1. robbie says:

      I’ve recently been using software on the iPad that utilizes cards and also has an upload to the cloud so as to not lose anything. But I also like a legal pad – it’s pages used the same way cards are used, but just…on a legal pad. Don’t know why. I guess I find it more comforting to have space to doodle around the edges of the page.

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