The Screenplay Outline: Carding Out Your Story

I am a big outliner. I think it’s important when breaking story. I know some screenwriters approach writing the screenplay as do many novelists: they let the story find them. However, with the script, page count is so limited and every scene and every word so valuable – so why take the risk of not outlining?

Outlining takes a load off. I find it comforting to outline the hell out of something and then when I sit down and hit the page, most of the heavy lifting has already been done, so I can write that first draft relatively quickly. That’s not to imply that I don’t slash and burn once I’ve written something, but I can say I don’t suffer from writers’ block. If you already know what scene you have to write and what the beat is, how can you be blocked writing it?

Everyone has their own writing process, but what I love and find helpful is using a system of index cards to begin to play with ideas and construct story in a non-linear fashion. I just write down the scenes that I know I need and then start to work them together.

When you use cards, it affords you the luxury of piecing together a puzzle – so you can start connecting the edges and work your way in as the picture starts to come together. You can start with the inciting incident and the aftermath and then fit in the most logical scenes both before and after. Or, you can start with the act 1 break and the midpoint and work out from there. Once you have those second scenes, you can build again from there, find the connecting tissue.

I find carding important also because I can sit down, lay all my cards out and see how the whole story fits together. I can see if my dramatic stakes develop and grow in intensity as the journey progresses. I can see how the character arc works. It is easier to fix the bigger story problems when in card form.

With carding, everything gets broken into the four component parts:
Act 1
1st half of Act 2
2nd half of Act 2
Act 3

If you look at your script as 100 pages, then each component falls at around 25 pages.

If you create 10-12 cards per section, with each scene running approximately 1-3 pages, you already have enough basic scenes to construct your script.

You can know immediately that you need one or more scenes in each section with secondary character “Sarah.” So, right there, you already have at least four cards. In addition, Sarah will need her own character arc, and so you can pull those cards easily once you’ve constructed the story and look carefully at what additional you need to do to establish and pay off that arc.

Also, and I haven’t seen this too much this reading season, when using index cards it is easy to tell if you’re dumping too many beats within one scene. Each scene should have one major story beat and expose character. Or one major emotional beat.

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3 Responses to The Screenplay Outline: Carding Out Your Story

  1. mel June 26, 2009 at 4:49 pm #

    Great, technical advice. As a real “organizer”, I have many great beginning ideas carded out which then tend to be too “soft” after p. 30. I like your suggestion that you can be organic and, as I read your post, put cards anywhere until the carding is done.

    Can you scan a couple of your cards and post them so I can get the idea of what you put on each?
    Thanks, M!

  2. Monica June 26, 2009 at 5:08 pm #

    Yes, I’ll post a couple of cards so that you have an idea. The cards should contain the main story beat of the scene and then any relevant emotional/establishing info necessary. Just a sentence or two. You can look at the Wedding Planner beat sheet for an idea.

  3. djc May 26, 2012 at 2:56 pm #

    I color code the characters on the cards and also have a B story color as well.