Sunday, March 14, 2010

Story Elements Checklist for brainstorming index cards

As any of you who are brainstorming Index Cards right now have found, this is not an orderly process. You will be coming up with scenes in no order whatsoever, all over the structure grid. Some that you will have no idea where to put. And so while I continue to work ahead through story structure in a relative order, I want to re-post the whole general Story Elements Checklist, so you have a whole overview of scenes and story elements you will be needing beyond whatever act we happen to be talking about at the time.

Act One is here
, and subsequent posts will detail the different elements of Act Two, Act Two, Part 2, and Act Three.



* Opening image

* Meet the hero or heroine in the ordinary world

* Hero/ine’s inner and outer desire.

* Hero/ine's ghost or wound

* Hero/ine’s arc

* Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure

* Meet the antagonist (and/or introduce a mystery, which is what you do when you’re going to keep your antagonist hidden to reveal at the end)

* State the theme/what’s the story about?

* Allies

* Mentor
 (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story).

* Love interest 

* Plant/Reveal (or: Set ups and Payoffs)

* Hope/Fear (and Stakes)

* Time Clock (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story)

* Sequence One climax

* Central Question

* Act One climax


* Crossing the Threshold/ Into the Special World (may occur in Act One)

* Threshold Guardian/Guardian at the Gate (possibly)

* Hero/ine’s Plan

* Antagonist’s Plan

* Training Sequence (possibly)

* Series of Tests
* Picking up new Allies

* Assembling the Team (possibly)

* Attacks by the Antagonist (whether or not the Hero/ine recognizes these as coming from the antagonist)

* In a detective story, Questioning Witnesses, Lining Up and Eliminating Suspects, Following Clues.


* Completely changes the game

* Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action

* Can be a huge revelation

* Can be a huge defeat

* Can be a “now it’s personal” loss

* Can be sex at 60 – the lovers finally get together, only to open up a whole new world of problems


* Recalibrating – after the shock or defeat of the game-changer in the midpoint, the hero/ine must Revamp The Plan and try a New Mode of Attack.

* Escalating Actions/ Obsessive Drive

* Hard Choices and Crossing The Line (immoral actions by the main character to get what s/he wants)

* Loss of Key Allies (possibly because of the hero/ine’s obsessive actions, possibly through death or injury by the antagonist).

* A Ticking Clock (can happen anywhere in the story)

* Reversals and Revelations/Twists.

* The Long Dark Night of the Soul and/or Visit to Death (also known as: All Is Lost)

* In a romance or romantic comedy, the All Is Lost moment is often a The Lover Makes A Stand scene


* Often can be a final revelation before the end game: the knowledge of who the opponent really is

* Answers the Central Question



The third act is basically the Final Battle and Resolution. It can often be one continuous sequence – the chase and confrontation, or confrontation and chase. There may be a final preparation for battle, or it might be done on the fly. Either here or in the last part of the second act the hero will make a new, FINAL PLAN, based on the new information and revelations of the second act.

The essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and antagonist. It is often divided into two sequences:

1. Getting there (Storming the Castle)

2. The final battle itself

* Thematic Location - often a visual and literal representation of the Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare
* The protagonist’s character change
* The antagonist’s character change (if any)

* Possibly ally/allies’ character changes and/or gaining of desire

* Possibly a huge final reversal or reveal (twist), or even a whole series of payoffs that you’ve been saving (as in Back to the Future and It’s A Wonderful Life)

* RESOLUTION: A glimpse into the New Way of Life that the hero/ine will be living after this whole ordeal and all s/he’s learned from it.

* Closing Image

Now, I'd also like to remind everyone that this is a basic, GENERAL list. There are story elements specific to whatever kind of story you're writing, and the best way to get familiar with what those are is to do the story breakdowns on three (at least) movies or books that are similar to the KIND of story you're writing.

Which we will talk about next.

- Alex


Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE



Adventures in Children's Publishing said...

Fantastic post! I use a Turning Points Worksheet I developed that contains the same general framework you've used, plus a word-count to help me keep track of about when I need to get to a certain point. Yours is much more detailed and the points you've included are so important! I'm going to merge the two and see if I can use that on my current novel. This post is a gift!

Admin said...

Dear Alexandra,

I recently found this site and have been attempting to make my "master list" and do all the steps to use this card method. I tried a similar card method over a year ago which I never got very far with. I'm a notorious pantster who is trying to make sense out of all my chunks. I think this method will help me.

Thanks for your helpful posts.

John said...

Gotta love checklists. I've been using this since I found your original posting of it and I agree it's an amazing gift to those of us starting out, so thanks once again Alex.

Since I like to keep my index cards brief, I copy each ACT checklist into its own word doc and "answer" each item in as much detail as I have available at the time, usually a good solid paragraph of detail. This way on my index card I can simply write, "Jim meets Sue at restaurant," for example. The details of this scene I copy from my ideas notebook to the applicable ACT checklist event.

This also helps to keep my head straight as to what elements I have addressed and keeps the details of the ACT checklist intact while my index cards are being rearranged around my story grid corkboard.

Mary Aalgaard said...

This is immensely helpful. Thank you so much.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

So was that Marissa or Martina?

Either way, excellent that you keep developing your own checklist and adding to it. We are all teaching ourselves to write, all the time; it's the only way it ever gets done.

And we have to re-teach ourselves with each story.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Rhonda, I always LOVE converting a pantser! ;)

Hope you have lots of breakthroughs. Keep me posted.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, John.

Your process of the ACT checklist is exactly what I'm doing with my own book, now. All this outlining can get unwieldy, especially when you're still struggling with what order things go in. I'm going to try separating the Acts into four diffent Word docs, as you mention. I think that will be less crazymaking for me, so thanks a million for the tip!!!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I'm glad to hear it, Mary, thanks!

wonderactivist said...

Alex, your timing's always right on for me-THANKS! Just finished the rough draft of my first mystery and wanted to say how much I appreciate your empowering posts. In the past year I've gone from forcing out every word to just listening to the characters and writing down what they say; from torturing myself for ideas to just testifying on life as I write. Your snippets of unintimidating structure helped me to relax. Thank you again. This checklist is a perfect starting point as I begin my first pass on editing. Thank you a third time!

Taryn said...

I've seen so many novel checklists/outline helpers/how to write a book posts, and this is by far the best. Thanks so much!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Wonderactivist, "unintimidating" is about the best compliment anyone's ever paid me, thank you. That's truly what I'm hoping for every time I tackle one of these concepts.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks for the feedback, hopejunkie. It makes sense to me now, but took years to compile to a point that I actually understood that these points actually do fall in relatively the same place every time.

Anonymous said...

Would you explain what you mean by "a set piece"?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I talk extensively about set pieces here, starting a few paragraphs down.