Entertainment Weekly has a sponsored piece of content called “A Day in the Life of a TV Executive Producer and Writer,” featuring Sarah Watson who works on the NBC TV series “Parenthood”. You can read it here. What I’d like to zero in on is this:
Notice all those index cards? Watson explains them:
A story is a group effort before the writer goes off to work out the script. “We ‘break’ the story as a team. Break is a fancy word for outline. We talk it through scene by scene and beat by beat until we have a shape for an episode. On Parenthood we use cork boards and colored note cards to track the scenes.”
Index cards! With all the technology we have nowadays, perhaps these simple 3×5 inch cards are the one of the most important writing tools. And not just for TV. Back in June, I featured this interview with screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, whose movie credits include Milk and J. Edgar. He is a big fan of index cards:
I was really interested to see the table Lance works on because I interviewed him a few years ago and we discussed our mutual affection for using index cards:
DLB: 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.
SM: It’s funny that with all the technology available, I talk to so many writers who still like to work with those three-by-five inch index cards. Like we need that tactile experience of working with those cards and seeing the story come into shape.
DLB: You can see it all laying out in front of you. And you’d have to have a massive computer screen to see the entire story. Plus there’s no program I know of, not yet at least, that allows you to take a fine tip Sharpie and scribble something in the corner of a note card that’s already crammed with ideas. It’s collage and art. I don’t know of a program that’s loose enough to accommodate the craft, because it’s still a craft, crafting a screenplay.
Ever since I spoke with Lance, I kept trying to imagine what “certain size” table he has that translates into a two hour movie. Well, there it is in the video. In fact at the 3:40 mark in the video, Lance flat out says about scenes he’s had to cut, “There’s not room. I don’t have any more room on that table.”
Index cards. Tables. Cork board. White boards. Whatever you do and however you do it, break your story in prep. I’m not saying it’s the only way to write a screenplay, but most pro writers I know approach the story-crafting process that way. And every TV writer does. So if you don’t outline your stories, now’s the time to give it a try. Bust out those index cards and break your story!