Friday, October 16, 2009

The Index Card Method and the Three Act, Eight Sequence Structure

Okay, I am going to throw a LOT at you today, so take a breath.


So hopefully, with the last few posts, we now have somewhat of a grasp on the three acts.

But the real secret of film writing and filmmaking, that we are going to steal for our novel writing, is that most movies are a Three-Act, Eight-Sequence structure. Yes, most movies can be broken up into 8 discrete 12-15-minute sequences, each of which has a beginning, middle and end.

I swear.

The eight-sequence structure evolved from the early days of film when movies were divided into reels (physical film reels), each holding about ten minutes of film (movies were also shorter, proportionately!). The projectionist had to manually change each reel as it finished. Early screenwriters incorporated this rhythm into their writing, developing sequences that lasted exactly the length of a reel, and modern films still follow that same storytelling rhythm.

And the eight-sequence structure actually translates beautifully to novel structuring, although you might end up with a few more sequences in the end. So I want to get you familiar with the eight-sequence structure in film first, and we’ll go on to talk about the application to novels.

If you’re new to story breakdowns and analysis, then you’ll probably want to go straight to the Story Breakdowns section of this workbook (Part Two) and watch several, or all, of those movies, following along with my notes, before you try to analyze a movie on your own. But if you want to jump right in with your own breakdowns and analyses, this is how it works:

ASSIGNMENT: Take a film from your master list, preferably the one that is most similar in structure to your own WIP, and screen it, 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 (see the section on Set Piece Scenes, in Chapter 15). 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, Act Two at 90 minutes, and Act Three at whenever the movie ends.

NOTE: You can also say that a movie is really four acts, breaking the long Act Two into two separate acts. Whichever works best for you!

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, based on the new information. 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 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 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 eight-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). But one at a time.

And every time you see a movie now, for the rest of your life, look for the sequences and act climaxes.

Then - once you’ve watched a movie for basic overall structure, you should go back and watch it again and this time fill in the structure grid that I’m going to talk about now:


This is the number one structuring tool of most screenwriters I know.

Get yourself a pack of index cards. 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.

Now, get a corkboard or a 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: Part 1 at the top of the second (or third if you’re doing eight columns), Act Two: Part 2 at the top of the third (or fifth), Act Three at the top of the fourth (or seventh).

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, in those places - 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 four 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 story this way.

And this eight-sequence structure translates easily to novels. Now, if you’re structuring a novel this way, you may be doubling or tripling the scene count, but for me, the chapter count remains exactly the same: forty to sixty chapters to a book. And you might have an extra sequence or two per act, but I think that in most cases you’ll find that the number of sequences is not out of proportion to this formula. With a book you can have anything from 250 pages to 1000 (well, you can go that long only if you’re a mega-bestseller!), so the length of a sequence and the number of sequences is more variable. But an average book these days is between 300 and 400 pages, and since the recession, publishers are actually asking their authors to keep their books on the short side, to save production costs, so why not shoot for that to begin with?

I write books of about 300 - 350 pages (print pages), and I find my sequences are about 50 pages, getting shorter as I near the end. But I might also have three sequences of around 30 pages in an act that is 100 pages long. You have more leeway in a novel, but the structure remains pretty much the same.

In the next few posts we’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), call to adventure/inciting incident, 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.


Make two blank structure grids, one for the movie you have chosen from your master list to analyze, and one for your WIP. You can just do a structure grid on a piece of paper for the movie you’ve chosen to analyze, but also do a large corkboard or cardboard structure grid for your WIP. You can fill out one structure grid while you watch the movie you’ve chosen.

Get a pack of index cards and write down all the scenes you know about your story, and where possible, pin them onto your WIP structure grid in approximately the place they will occur.

If you are already well into your first draft, then by all means, keep writing forward, too – I don’t want you to stop your momentum. Use whatever is useful about what I’m talking about here, but also keep moving.

And if you have a completed draft and are starting a revision, a structure grid is a perfect tool to help you identify weak spots and build on what you have for a rewrite. Put your story on cards and watch how quickly you start to rearrange things that aren’t working!

Now, let me be clear. When you’re brainstorming with your index cards and you suddenly have a full-blown idea for a scene, or your characters start talking to you, then of course you should drop everything and write out the scene, see where it goes. Always write when you have a hot flash. I mean – you know what I mean. Write when you’re hot.

Ideally I will always be wokring on four piles of material, or tracks, at once:

1. The index cards you’re brainstorming and arranging on your structure grid.

2. A notebook of random scenes, dialogue, character descriptions that are coming to you as you’re outlining, and that you can start to put in chronological order as this notebook gets bigger.

3. An expanded on-paper (or in Word) story outline that you’re compiling as you order your index cards on the structure grid.

4. A collage book of visual images that you’re pulling from magazines that give you the characters, the locations, the colors and moods of your story (see Chapter 15, Visual Storytelling, for more about this. In fact, I strongly suggest you read the chapter on Visual Storytelling sooner rather than later.)

In the beginning of a project you will probably be going back and forth between all of those tracks as you build your story. Really this is my favorite part of the writing process – building the world – which is probably part of why I stay so long on it myself. But by the time I start my first draft I have so much of the story already that it’s not anywhere near the intimidating experience it would be if I hadn’t done all that prep work.

At some point (and a deadline has a lot to do with exactly when this point comes!) I feel I know the shape of the story well enough to start that first draft. Because I come from theater, I think of my first draft as a blocking draft. When you direct a play, the first rehearsals are for blocking – which means simply getting the actors up on their feet and moving them through the play on the stage so everyone can see and feel and understand the whole shape of it. That’s what a first draft is to me, and when I start to write a first draft I just bash through it from beginning to end. It’s the most grueling part of writing, and takes the longest, but writing the whole thing out, even in the most sketchy way, from start to finish, is the best way I know to actually guarantee that you will finish a book or a script.

Everything after that initial draft is frosting – it’s seven million times easier to rewrite than to get something onto a blank page.

Then I do layer after layer after layer – different drafts for suspense, for character, sensory drafts, emotional drafts – each concentrating on a different aspect that I want to hone in the story – until the clock runs out and I have to turn the whole thing in.

But that’s my process. You have to find your own. If outlining is cramping your style, then you’re probably a “panster” – not my favorite word, but common book jargon for a person who writes best by the seat of her pants. And if you’re a pantser, the methods I’ve been talking about have probably already made you so uncomfortable that I can’t believe you’re still here!

Still, I don’t think it hurts to read about these things. I maintain that pantsers have an intuitive knowledge of story structure – we all do, really, from having read so many books and having seen so many movies. I feel more comfortable with this rather left-brained and concrete process because I write intricate plots with twists and subplots I have to work out in advance, and also because I simply wouldn’t ever work as a screenwriter if I wasn’t able to walk into a conference room and tell the executives and producers and director the entire story, beginning to end. It’s part of the job.

But I can’t say this enough: WHATEVER WORKS. Literally. Whatever. If it’s getting the job done, you’re golden.

I am at Bouchercon and having more fun than is probably legal - but I will check back in later if people have questions.


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.

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Wendy Wagner; said...

I am leaving the house to get index cards *right now*. Hope Bouchercon goes marvelously!

plastic.santa said...

At bit off topic (but I am carrying my index cards around with me at Bouchercon - white, yellow, purple - so I can work on things as I listen to speakers), but if you have not been to an event and gotten to meet Alex in person, make sure to do it if you have a chance. She's been all over Bcon the past couple of days and was so friendly when I stopped her to say hi that I just had to say something. Thanks, Alex.

plastic santa

laughingwolf said...

all good points, alex...

i like the idea of moving crdas around, too

what do you think of david trottier's 'the screenwriter's bible'?

Karel said...

Hahaha!! You beat me to it, Alex!

This morning I decided I was going to focus on the 8 Sequence structure. And there you are... ;)

I totally agree. If there's anything like a Golden Formula, it is the 3/8 Structure.

And I'd go further: The 3/8 Hero's Journey.

I really love your posts. They're fun, insightful, and practical.

Do you/anyone know of a good iPhone app to play with index cards?

>laughingwolf: I love Trottier for his comprehensive approach to formatting. That chapter alone is worth getting the Bible.

laughingwolf said...

thx karel, i found his ideas very constructive...

Greg James said...

As a pantster, I find this post very useful as it outlines a lot of the activity that goes on in my head. The comparison to a jigsaw puzzle sums up exactly how I feel when I'm going about putting the first draft together.

Also, as someone who's still fairly new to writing it helps to see the structures that eventually emerge from my own work corroborated by an experienced writer who works more systematically than I do. Helps me feel like I'm on the right track and not wandering down blind alleys.

Elle Lothlorien said...
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Elle Lothlorien said...
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Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Bouchercon is transcendent as usual! And crazy, of course, no time to do anything but bet be there,

Santa, it was great to meet you!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

LW - I'm not familiar with Trotter and the table. Will have to check it out when I'm back home.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Nice that that synched up for you, Greg! That's when you know you're on the right track, I think.

I don't want to take away from the spontenaaity of your pantsing, either. You know - use what's useful.

Marie Andreas said...

Ok Alex, I have toyed with it for over a year (saw you at the San Diego Conf in 2008 and RT in 2009) but I am going to do the cards for my NaNo project! You don't know me, so you don't know what a HUGE step this is, I am a complete seat of the pants, just run with it gal. This is new and terrifying ground for me.

But- I trust I'm buying my cards.

Thanks for this post and I'll see ya on the other side of NaNo!

laughingwolf said...

thx alex... the information trottier has in his 'bible' is useful to anyone in all kinds of writing

ScreenwriterChic said...

If you travel a lot and don't have a corkboard you can also get a sketch book that opens three ways...then use post it notes. Sometimes I use this.
Great advice! Thank you for having this blog!

kongjie said...

Just to echo what Sylvia said, it looks like your post has a mistake. You first are calling columns one, two and three Act One, Act Two and Midpoint, respectively, but then when you talk about inserting climaxes you are swapping the locations of Act Two and Midpoint, placing the midpoint climax before Act Two. A little confusing.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Kongjie, I can see where you're confused, but the Midpoint Climax comes halfway through the story, and the Act Two climax comes 3/4s of the way through the story. Act Two is TWO columns long. The Midpoint is the climax of the first half of Act Two, the Act Two Climax is the climax of the second half of Act Two. So when you're pinning the cards up, it really does go like this:

" 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."

Does that make sense, now?

Anonymous said...

I hate to ask but . . . what is a sequence? A scene??

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Debbie, it's a slippery thing, but GENERALLY a scene is a unified bit of action between characters that takes place in a single setting and has a beginning, a middle and an end - in other words, a character has a GOAL in the scene and takes action to achieve that goal, but experiences OPPOSITION to that goal from one or more of the other characters (or the environment, or the dog, or the weather) and then finally there is a RESOLUTION to that action in which the character either gets what s/he wants - or doesn't.

Obviously it doesn't HAVE to take place all in one location, but if the action moves over several locations, that action is unified because the GOAL is still the same.

And I've made a stab at defining SEQUENCE here:

Hope that helps!