Monday, March 22, 2010

The Writing Week (Vol. 3) part 116 – Used Index Cards to Help Outline

There are a lot of tools, tips, and tricks that writers use every day while crafting their stories. People write extensive character back stories – even if none of that info ever makes it onto the screen or into the script – so that they know who they’re writing about. They draw character arcs, maps, and family trees on their wall to help maintain visual on everyone in their script. They outline extensively. Sometimes, writers will even sketch out certain locations of buildings if their architecture plays a key role, and use this to help describe the scenes on the page.

I’ve done all of the above. Once thing I hadn’t done until last week, however, was use index cards to help outline my story. I knew that there were a few key beats that I had to include, some that I wanted to include, and a number of pieces to the puzzle that were necessary, but I had no idea where they fit in. Staring at a blinking cursor wasn’t getting me very far, as there’s only so much visualizing I can do while looking at eight pages of text. So, I decided to try index cards and put the plot together like a puzzle in need of assembly. I found this to be amazingly helpful.

The first thing I did was to decide how I needed to break up the information on my index cards, to determine the elements that I was working with. (As a committed recycler – particularly of paper – and, some would say, a bit frugal, I decided to use the backs of my old Far Side day calendar pages, rather than buy a pack of new index cards for this experiment.) I decided that I was essentially dealing with three major types of information. First, there were the locations and big action beats. I wrote these in big red letters. This way, I could lay out the major beats by what happens in them (never getting too specific) and be able to rearrange the plot through them. For example, at one point, my character goes to Washington D.C., so that card just reads, “Michael gets to DC.” Another would be, “Michael is chased through the trees.” Simple things that to other people might not mean a ton, but to me, carried a lot more implied information. I think I had about 10 or 12 of these.

I lined up the red beats vertically on my bed, rearranging and leaving blanks between them so that I could get a quick overview of the story structure so far and sense where I was missing something. Immediately to the right of the red cards were the blue ones. Blue was for the reveals that come with each scene. For example, if the beat was “Michael arrives in DC,” then the corresponding blue might be “His ex-wife is no longer living there.” The blue represented bits of information that were organically (and often immediately) apparent once the protagonist arrived there. He arrive in X (red) and sees that Y (blue) is the case.

Finally, to the right of all the blue cards were the ones with black text. These were the ones that were trickiest to work into the script and most important to spread out effectively and intelligently. The black notes were the bits of information that the protagonist puts together along the way, the puzzle pieces that are revealed to him through his actions and interactions with other people. For example, “He arrives at a volcano” (red), “The volcano is about to blow” (blue), “Someone is causing the eruption” (black).

Any information that did not immediately fit into the line up, I placed chronologically by color off to the side. If I knew that the five black notes that I hadn’t fit into the script yet had to be revealed in a certain way, I ordered them vertically accordingly, and was then able to see which red beats they corresponded best with. If there weren’t any scenes that naturally would reveal that information or there were scenes that didn’t organically follow one another, then I knew that I had to add another beat.

The visual of lining all of this information out on my bed and seeing what was missing/irrelevant/not yet incorporated was incredibly helpful. I don’t know why I put off this approach for so long. Just seeing everything like that helped me pinpoint what was working and what wasn’t, and – perhaps most importantly – where I was duplicating scenes because I thought that I hadn’t revealed something that was actually already there. If you’re ever stuck outlining, I would suggest using index cards (or some variation thereof) to help you break through. It certainly worked for me.