Monday, March 01, 2010

The Index Card Method and Structure Grid

All right, now you should have had enough time to watch at least one movie and note the sequences. Do you start to see how that works?

By all means, keep watching movies to identify the sequence breakdown (and I will TRY to get to THE MATRIX this week) but at the same time, let's move on to


This is the number one structuring tool of most screenwriters I know. I have no idea how I would write without it.

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 - or even butcher paper - 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 story 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: 1 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).

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).

Here is a photo of the grid on a white board - with sticky Post Its as index cards:

And my friend, the wonderful author Diane Chamberlain, has some great illustrative pictures of the grid on her blog. (Far neater than any grid I've ever done for myself!)

So 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 (Work In Progress). 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 or Post Its 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 working on four piles of material, or tracks, at once:

1. The index cards I'm brainstorming and arranging on my structure grid.

2. A notebook of random scenes, dialogue, character descriptions that are coming to me as I'm outlining, and that I can start to put in chronological order as this notebook gets bigger.

3. An expanded on-paper (or in Word) story outline that I'm compiling as I order my index cards on the structure grid.

4. A collage book of visual images that I'm pulling from magazines that give me the characters, the locations, the colors and moods of my story (we will talk about Visual Storytelling soon.)

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.

- Alex


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in the workbooks.:

                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.


STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 


Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)


Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here:


Wolf Lahti said...

"It’s seven million times easier to rewrite than to get something onto a blank page."

Heh - our work processes couldn't be more different! The initial draft, as hard work as it may be, is immeasurably easier for me than rewriting, which is pure hell.

Neither can I plot out the story arc or even delineate characters before the writing starts. I write for the same reason I read: to see what happens next. If I know what is going to happen, writing turns into mere, tedious typing.

This structured approach, which would be death to my writing method, is, however, useful in analyzing a draft, tightening it up and improving it.

Josie Thames said...

OK, so you're going to think I'm crazy, OCD, whatever, and it's OK because I think those same things about myself...but when you talk about 300-350 print pages, does that mean in Manuscript form (Courier New, size 12, double-spaced) or are you talking about single-spacing, size 12, Times New Roman? Because there is a HUGE difference between the two.

David Tanner said...

Alex, I love seeing how you use the three act/eight sequence structure for novels; it's incredibly informative and entertaining. I was wondering, however, what sort of approach you use when writing short stories.



Constance Burris said...

"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."

GASP!!! Are you telling me that I don't have to edit all of those things at once. OMG! I think you have just released me from my fear of editing my w.i.p. --I am shedding tears of joy--

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Wolf, I hear so many writers say that, that they need to be surprised by what happens in the story.

Me, I completely forget what happens as I'm writing, so it surprises me anyway. But I'm counting on something in there knowing what the hell I'm doing.

Yes, this method is perhaps even better as a rewriting tool.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Steve, I'm not the best person to ask - haven't written a lot of short stories. "Edge of Seventeen" was my first. I didn't plot it out on index cards, it came to me on a long drive (the fact that I had been commissioned was incentive...) and I would stop at rest stops and scribble madly and then drive and then stop and scribble more.

But I had written dozens of screenplays and two books by the time I wrote it, so it's clear to me that I was using the 3 Act, 8 sequence structure. More like 8 scenes, in that case.

But the Three Act structure is clear in the vast majority of short stories. To learn the form, same process applies - make a list of stories that are similar in structure to the story you want to write, or that you particularly admire, and analyze them for acts and sequences.

When in doubt, make a list.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

You are released, Constance!

Doesn't it make more sense to concentrate on one aspect at a time? Much more doable, to me (even though you will of course see other areas to polish as you go along.)

John said...

Thank you for sharing a picture of the grid. For whatever reason I was having a hard time picturing the grid with the sequences incorporated into it. Makes perfect sense now.

I LOVE this method. A link to your index card method is actually how I found your site several months ago. Prior to that I had no way of controlling story structure and my process was just a series of run-on notes in a notebook.

My thought process tends to be very fragmented. I have a fulltime job and family so at times my wip may go neglected for days. Sad I know. :(

When I do come back to it, the cards are a great way for me to get a quick overview of where I left off and also get back into the spirit of the story again. Then I can pick through my notes for story elements and develop new scenes from there.

I also love how the index cards keep me entertained by my own story. The empty spaces make me think, "Ooh, I wonder what's gonna happen over there." Haha

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

John, glad the pix helped. Diane is SO much better than I am about taking photos - I'm the worst.

To be clear - the index card method is not MY method! It's floated around Hollywood forever, and I doubt anyone knows who did it first, really.

I do love exactly what you're saying. When you see the holes in your structure on the grid, your mind will leap to fill those in, it's like magic.

G.R. Yeates said...

Hi Alex,

I guess I must be a semi-pantster then as I do use the colour coded post-its when I'm researching to mark useful sections/excerpts of the books I'm going through. I always find it useful when I'm stuck mid-draft and my ideas well is dry. Checking some of my post-its fills the well, lights the fire, sets the mad coyotes loose again. Something like that.

As an aside, I just finished reading The Price this evening. Wow!
Absolutely loved it. Tore through it in two days. Great story, great characters and my kind of ending too ;-)


Anne said...

I had tried the cards a couple of times before and in different ways (in linear form on corkboard; in small folder to flip through the story scene by scene) but I hadn't really felt comfortable with them. However, I thought the idea of one column per sequence interesting and gave it a go and hurray! To have all the story in front of me in such a visual way makes it much easier not only to see how balanced the different acts are but also to polish the pace and rhythm of the different sequences. It has been a great help to tighten up my outline so ...
Thank you!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Greg, thanks, I'm thrilled you responded to The Price. I'm always secretly afraid people will hate me for that book, but so far so good.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Anne, I so agree about the sequence layout helping with rhythm and pace. We are such visual creatures by nature, it makes sense that SEEING a story helps with the feel of it.

Glad it worked for you!

Von said...

Hi Alex,
I found your blog last week and I've been reading it non-stop ever since. I ended up buying your book on Amazon so that I could stop stalking your blog. :) The book is excellent and has propelled me deeper into the middle school book I'm writing. Just wanted to say "thank you." You took a concept that I was very unfamiliar with--how to plot a novel--and broke it into manageable and understandable pieces. Thanks again. ---Von

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Von, thanks for letting me know. It's always very gratifying to hear that this can make the whole overwhelming business of writing a novel easier!

Good luck with it!