Saturday, October 22, 2016

Nanowrimo Prep: Story Elements for Brainstorming Index Cards

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Now we've covered the Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure and you've seen how you can lay those sequences out on a story structure grid, and how to use index cards for brainstorming your plot.

So on to what we REALLY need: a cheat sheet for brainstorming.

Below is a general Story Elements Checklist, so you have a whole overview of scenes and story elements that appear in each act, of pretty much any story,  to help you flesh out your story to the end.

In the next ten days, you can put together an outline of your own story very quickly by using the list below and the Index Cards and Structure Grid. You can also print out this list as a general roadmap as you're writing next month.

When you start out brainstorming index cards, you can make cards for all of the elements below, even if you have no idea what those scenes might look like, because with only one or two exceptions (which I've noted below), these are scenes and elements that are going to appear in your story no matter what genre you're writing in.  

Even better - they're almost certainly going to appear in the Act in which I've listed them below.  There are exceptions, of course, but those are rare. 

It's okay if there are holes, right now! Write in what you know.  I'm a big believer that just asking the question will get your subconscious working on the perfect answer. Write out the card in the most general sense today, and you may well wake up with the perfect scene tomorrow morning.

Once you've got the cards in rough place on your structure grid, then  try putting your story in order in a simple outline.

You don't have to follow the outline exactly, or at all! But while you're writing next month, you'll have it as a roadmap to pull out and remind you where your story is going, when you inevitably get lost in the pure creativity of a first draft.

We'll talk about these elements in depth in the next couple of weeks.




* 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. You may not have one or s/he 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

* Plan, Central Question, Central Story Action

* 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.

*Bonding with Allies


* 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.

I strongly recommend that you watch at least one, or much better, three of the films I break down in the workbooks, following along with my notes.

                                           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)


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

1 comment:

Nicola Mostyn said...

Hi Alex,

Thank you so much for this site. It was my main resource for understanding structure and plot when I was rewriting my novel and, after a lot of joyful graft I got a two book deal with Little, Brown! I really made use of the index cards, the sequencing, and the advice about getting those crucial scenes that you know will definitely happen in there, so you can get a backbone before filling in the rest, and it made a huge difference to the pace and plot of the book. Ditto your advice about a 'blocking' draft, about making a list of what you love, and about watching films to understand structure. This info is so valuable for writers like me, so thanks for sharing it. Best wishes, Nicola