Thursday, October 02, 2008

Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method

Lately I'm being asked to teach writing workshops. A lot. Although I've done a few 3 and 5 day workshops, and I've got a month-long online workshop coming up in February, a lot of them are basically me trying to teach screenwriting techniques to novelists in an hour.

I know, it’s crazy, right? – what can you possibly teach anyone about anything in an hour?

Well, I can’t teach screenwriting or anything else in an hour, but I’ve found I can teach people how to start to teach THEMSELVES screenwriting techniques in an hour. (And what I’m really teaching is story structure, and secretly I’m really teaching it to help novelists use screenwriting techniques to improve their own books, because as I’ve said about a million times, and explained here, if you’re not willing to commit to an actual career as a screen and/or TV writer, or have a source of independent financing for your movie, then it’s a waste of your time to write a script, except as a learning experience. Write a book instead.)

To teach yourself story structure, you start by making a list of 10 movies and books in the genre you’re writing in and/or that you feel are similar in structure to the story you want to write. From this list you are going to develop your own personalized story structure workbook.

Then – write out the PREMISE or LOGLINE for each story on your list – as I’ve already talked about here, and compare your own story premise to those of your master list. THE most important step of writing a book or a movie is to start with a solid, exciting, and I would say, commercial premise (because after all, we are making a living at this, aren’t we?)

Now we are going to step back and talk about basic filmic structure. Movies generally follow a three-act structure. That means that a 110-page script (and that’s 110 minutes of screen time – a script page is equal to one minute of film time) – is broken into an Act One of roughly 30 pages, an Act Two of roughly 60 pages, and an Act Three of roughly 20 pages, because as everyone knows, the climax of a story speeds up and condenses action. If you’re structuring a book, then you basically triple or quadruple the page count, depending on how long you tend to write.

Most everyone knows the Three Act structure. (But if you need a refresher, here's a brief history). But the real secret of writing a script is that most movies are a Three Act, eight-sequence structure. Yes, most movies can be broken up into 8 discrete 15-minute sequences, each of which has a beginning, middle and end. I swear.

Try this with your master list. Screen a film, watching the time clock on your DVD player. At about 15 minutes into the film, there will be some sort of climax – an action scene, a revelation, a twist, a big set piece. It won’t be as big as the climax that comes 30 minutes into the film, which would be the Act One climax, but it will be an identifiable climax that will spin the action into the next sequence.

Proceed through the movie, stopping to identify the beginning, middle and end of each sequence, approximately every 15 minutes Also make note of the bigger climaxes or turning points – Act One at 30 minutes, the Midpoint at 60 minutes (you could also say that a movie is really FOUR acts, breaking the long Act Two into two separate acts. Whichever works best for you.), Act Two at 90 minutes, and Act Three at whenever the movie ends.

(In a book the proportions are the same - in a 400 page book, Act One is about 100 pages, Act Two is about 200 pages, and Act Three is a bit less than 100 pages, because of course the action is speeding up.)

In many movies a sequence will take place all in the same location, then move to another location at the climax of the sequence. The protagonist will generally be following just one line of action in a sequence, and then when s/he gets that vital bit of information in the climax of a sequence, s/he’ll move on to a completely different line of action. A good exercise is to title each sequence as you watch and analyze a movie – that gives you a great overall picture of the progression of action.

Also be advised that in big, sprawling movies like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and THE WIZARD OF OZ, sequences may be longer or there may be a few extras. It’s a formula and it doesn’t always precisely fit, but as you work through your master list of films, unless you are a surrealist at heart, you will be shocked and amazed at how many movies precisely fit this 8-sequence format. When you’re working with as rigid a form as a two-hour movie, on the insane schedule that is film production, this kind of mathematical precision is kind of a lifesaver.

My advice is that you watch and analyze ALL TEN of your master list movies (and books) before you do anything else. Once you’ve watched a movie for basic overall structure, you should go back and watch it again and this time do a step outline, or scene outline – in which you write down the setting, action, conflict and revelation in each scene, as well as breaking the whole down into its three acts and eight sequences. After you’ve worked your way through at least three movies in this way to get this structure clearly in your head (although all ten is better) you’re probably ready to start working on your own story as well.

And the method I teach in my workshops is the tried and true index card method. (Pantsers will HATE this, but it warms the cockles of my plotter heart.)

You can also use Post-Its, and the truly OCD among us use colored Post-Its to identify various subplots by color, but I find having to make those kinds of decisions just fritzes my brain. I like cards because they’re more durable and I can spread them out on the floor for me to crawl around and for the cats to walk over; it somehow feels less like work that way. Everyone has their own method - experiment and find what works best for you.

Get yourself a corkboard or sheet of cardboard big enough to lay out your index cards in either four vertical columns of 10-15 cards, or eight vertical columns of 5-8 cards, depending on whether you want to see your movie laid out in four acts or eight sequences. You can draw lines on the corkboard to make a grid of spaces the size of index cards if you’re very neat (I’m not) – or just pin a few marker cards up to structure your space. Write Act One at the top of the first column, Act Two at the top of the second (or third if you’re doing eight columns), Act Two: 2 at the top of the third (or fifth), Act Three at the top of the fourth (or seventh).

Diane Chamberlain has great pictures of how it looks on her site.

Then write a card saying Act One Climax and pin it at the bottom of column one, Midpoint Climax at the bottom of column two, Act Two Climax at the bottom of column three, and Climax at the very end. If you already know what those scenes are, then write a short description of them on the appropriate cards. These are scenes that you know you MUST have in your story - whether or not you know what they are right now.

And now also label the beginning and end of where eight sequences will go. (In other words, you’re dividing your corkboard into eight sections – either 4 long columns with two sections each, or eight shorter columns).

Now you have your structure grid in front of you.

What you will start to do now is brainstorm scenes, and that you do with the index cards.

A movie has about 40 to 60 scenes (a drama more like 40, an action movie more like 60) so every scene goes on one card. This is the fun part, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. All you do at first is write down all the scenes you know about your movie, one scene per card. You don’t have to put them in order yet, but if you know where they go, or approximately where they go, you can just pin them on your corkboard in approximately the right place. You can always move them around. And just like with a puzzle, once you have some scenes in place, you will naturally start to build other scenes around them.

I love the cards because they are such an overview. You can stick a bunch of vaguely related scenes together in a clump, rearrange one or two, and suddenly see a perfect progression of an entire sequence. You can throw away cards that aren’t working, or make several cards with the same scene and try them in different parts of your story board.

You will find it is often shockingly fast and simple to structure a whole movie this way.

Now obviously, if you’re structuring a novel this way, you may be approximately tripling the scene count, but I think that in most cases you’ll find that the number of sequences is not out of proportion to this formula. I write novels of about 40 - 50 chapters each - an exact correlation to the number of scenes I would write in a movie, and I find my books break down into sequences of about 50 pages each: Act One is about 100 pages, Act Two is about 200 pages, and Act Three is a little less than 100 pages. I might have three sequences in Act One rather than two, but the proportions are still almost exactly the same.

Now, that’s about enough for this post, but in my next installment I’ll talk about how to plug various obligatory scenes into this formula to make the structuring go even more quickly – scenes that you’ll find in nearly all stories, like opening image, closing image, introduction of hero, inner and outer desire, stating the theme (as early in the story as possible), introduction of allies, love interest, mentor, opponent, hero’s and opponent’s plans, plants and reveals, setpieces, training sequence, dark night of the soul, sex at sixty, hero’s arc, moral decision, etc.

And for those of you who are reeling in horror at the idea of a formula… it’s just a way of analyzing dramatic structure. No matter how you create a story yourself, chances are it will organically follow this flow. Think of the human body – human beings (with very few exceptions) have the EXACT SAME skeleton underneath all the complicated flesh and muscles and nerves and coloring and neurons and emotions and essences that make up a human being. No two alike… and yet a skeleton is a skeleton – it’s the foundation of a human being.

And structure is the foundation of a story.

In the next couple of weeks I’ll break down the elements of each act of a story.

And as always, feel free to ask questions!

- Alex


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

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If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

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Laura Benedict said...

Wow! Speaking as a pantser, this scares the hell out of me--but in a good way! We're watching Iron Man this afternoon, so I'm going to take notes.

I just last night wrote the opening line of my new novel. I'm going to print this out and see how it works for me....Thanks!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Ooh, new novel! Can you give a hint?

Yeah, but Laura, you do all these things naturally. It's clear in your books that you've internalized the process.

Some of us need to externalize the process more. I myself have to externalize the process to the extent that I'm crawling around on the floor playing with index cards. Now that I think about it I might even do it half for the exercise.

The point is - figure out what works for YOU and do it.

Anonymous said...


If I may ask a question. What is the anatomy of a scene?
I have assemble my list of 10 movies and I am assessing the second one right now The Incredibles). I can clearly ID Acts and Sequences BUT segregating scenes is eluding me. Some are obvious because of a clear change in Location but others, I am not so sure.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi Mike!

You're right that the clearest indicator is a change of location, and that's generally how I separate out my index cards.

But sometimes a whole different scene starts when one character leaves a room and someone else comes in, or the remaining characters start a whole new scene when one character leaves the room.

And sometimes a scene takes place in two different locations, and we cut back and forth between two different tracks of actions.

I haven't seen THE INCREDIBLES but I suspect you might be having trouble identifying ends of scenes in that one because it's an ensemble movie, isn't it? So a new scene might be starting and take place in the same location, or taking place in two locations simultaneously.

So keep in mind that a scene has a beginning, middle and end: someone will be the main character of a scene and come into the scene with a specific desire, and there will be conflict in the middle, some kind of fight over something, and some kind of resolution, for better or worse. Look for a climax or a twist to indicate the end of the scene, just like you look for a climax or twist or location change to indicate the end of a sequence or act.

Can you give me an example of a sequence where you're having trouble identifying a scene change so I can get more specific?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your reply. I was parsing the sequences into too many scenes because the early scenes span multiple locations and I could not see the unifying elements of the scenes.

Your reply, "the main character of a scene . . . come[s] into the scene with a specific desire," helped a great deal.

The film was made for a mixed age audience so the subtext and motivations are not particularly arcane. The theme which I pull from the story is "midlife crises."

I will keep at it!

Robb said...

You wrote this a while ago---but I'm diggin' what you're throwing down and hope you have the time to take a look at my comment! The index cards are making my head hurt, even though I want to do it! I've got the cork board, all the headers and footers. Now I'm trying to individualize my scenes to the cards. For the opening of Act One I have someone trying to escape, getting caught, punished in front of an audience, implying that the punishment caused her death then revealing she is still alive. There are 3 different locations but I think of this as 1 sequence. Written out, it's a little over 7 pages long so about 8 mintues of screen time. Should this be spread out on 5 different index cards or collapsed onto 1? It seems to me if I put a sequence of events on one card, I lose the ability to move things around. If I put it on 5 different cards I'm going to have over a hundred of these suckers when I'm done and no room on my corker!
WWAD? (what would Alexandra do?)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Robb - I'd put the sequence on as many different cards as you want to so you keep the ability to move things around. That's why I generally use those wonderful half-index cards you can get now - in rainbow colors! or Post-its. My stories tend to overflow a corkboard, too, so I often end up sticking Post-its on a blank wall or, as I've said, using full-sized index cards on a big table or on the floor.

Whatever works for YOU to keep the story clear in your own head!

Eveline said...

Very interesting! I'm preparing for Nanowrimo and my Love suggested using cards to map out my novel, but I had trouble getting it together. Now this gives me some idea of what do actually do with them. ;)

You mention how many pages roughly each Act is in a regular novel, how many would you suggest for Nanowrimo, which aims for 50,000 words?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Eveline, even if you only (only!) write 50,000 words in that first Nanowrimo draft, you're still going to go on and finish it as a full-length novel, right? (which would be more like 70,000 words, minimum).

So the Act Climaxes are still at the same places. But my strong advice is NOT to worry about page count. At all. Just know WHAT your Acts and Act Climaxes are, do your writing, and start shaping it in the second draft.

chris said...

Alex, thanks so much for laying this all out for us! and I too, am going to do NanoWriMo this year, so I am working on my top ten list and dissecting the structure.... and in reading along on your examples, no problem, it makes perfect sense.

Then I popped In The Line Of Fire and subsequently, Absolute Power into the DVD player and yikes, even with the timer, I couldn't tell my head from a hole in the ground!

Tell me this gets easier?

I am going to switch to a couple other films tonight to see if I can follow it a little more clearly -- wish me luck!

StrictlyTopSecret said...

This is 20 flavors of awesome! How cool would it be to develop this into an ipad type app? Portable plotting juiciness. . .

Mel Teshco said...

As a true pantser this fascinates me even as I feel like breaking out in hives *g*
My biggest joy is starting the book, but yes, sometimes I find myself chasing my own tail. That's where those cards would come in very handy!

Keith said...

Hi there Alexandra!

I wanted to let you know that you inspired me so much!

I have to laugh because it is almost like waltzing!


Think I am over the writer's block!!!


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Chris, it gets easier.

Try watching a movie I've broken down and following along with that breakdown first.

I should do IN THE LINE OF FIRE, though - great movie!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

TopSecret, as long as you don't look at me to design an app! ;)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Mel - ALL writing makes me break out in hives.

Remember, you don't have to use anything except what makes sense to you.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Keith, never mind writing - give me a man who can waltz.

Kate said...

This is awesome. I'm familiar with the index-card process (I'm a colored post-it user myself), but the detailed film breakdown is new to me and I can't wait to start using it.

For the pantsers -
I've found this process is great to do after the first draft is done. It helps with pacing and also to see where things are missing.

Kara said...


I really love the the index card system and the structure you've given me as a writer.

Though, I've found that I don't have a lot of space (being a college kid and all), for the cardboard setup. Thus, I came up with a method to still plot my storyline in the Index Card fashion while saving space:

This may not work for all, but it's proven helpful.

I have the Sticky Notes program for my computer and used it to lay out an entire storyboard right on my desktop. I know some people may use a word program to layout their method, however with the Notes--I've discovered you can re-size them, drag them, and overlap them without hassle.

I just wanted to share as it's also great for a traveling storyboard.

Thanks Alexandra! You've been a terrific help for this young author. ;)

**If I could I would post a picture, but I will be putting an example on my blog:**