“We work out the story on index cards to break it down.”
Screenwriter Ted Elliot (Pirates of the Caribbean) on how he and writing partner Terry Rossio work
“While I always outline scripts, for me it’s 50/50 whether I use index cards or not.”
Screenwriter John August
A few years ago the popularity of Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat! introduced a whole new group of writers to using index cards in the screenwriting process. I’ve seen writers mount their index cards on walls, neatly place them in Moleskine* notebooks, and even stack them on their desk using a funky little system. Some even have a color coding system for their index cards. (Some technically use post-it notes.) But screenwriting via index cards has been a long-standing tradition in screenwriting circles.
“I write each sequence on (three-by-five index) cards. One card for each sequence. I usually end up with twenty-eight, thirty sequences per hour of film. I put them on the floor so I can see them from up here. Probably because I was a film editor. I think it’s very good training for a screenwriter because I can tell the actual lengths of sequences in terms of film. Frequently, before I write them, I know pretty much how they’re going to come out, in some strange way…I’ve rarely written anything that I‘ve looked at and said this doesn’t work at all, because the cards seem to tell me this.”
Edward Anhalt (1914-2000)
2-time Oscar-winning screenwriter
Panic in the Streets (1950), Becket (1964)
One bonus of using index cards is they are cheap and another is you can find them easily in every city. If you’ve never used index cards here’s a simple little exercise you can do to get your feet wet. The next time you watch a favorite film at home get a stack of index cards and write down every scene in the movie. Just a line or two of what the scene is about and what characters are in the scene. When the movie is over flip through the cards and see if you get a feel of the story.
Now you just need to do that with your own ideas and stories. I find 40-60 scenes is what most narrative stories can hold. To borrow from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird concept, you don’t need to write your whole screenplay at once, just chunk it out card by card. Not every writer uses index cards, but the next time you see a photograph of a writer in their office look at the background and see if you see any index cards lying around or mounted on the walls.
Even though my screenwriting software does index cards for some reason I prefer the old school, basic white 4X6 index cards (with lines). I like writing on the cards (in black ink) and like being able take them with me and just shuffle through the cards when they are not mounted on a board. Essentially I am doing what Anhalt is talking about—I’m running the movie in my head.
And sometimes like on the script I am working on now I just use the index cards to write down a thought or two. (Most recently I wrote down “Atlanta” and “Size 10 shoes” on a note card that was something I wanted to work into the script.) I could (and sometimes do) make notes to myself on my iPhone or place it on the bottom of the script, but the index cards are really my favorite way of keeping track of new ideas.
Anybody have any index card tips you use or index stories to tell?
*Moleskine has a Storyboard Notebook that has three 16:9 panels which looks pretty useful.
Update 11/30/10, John August link: 10 hints for index cards
“There are index cards everywhere in Aaron Sorkin’s office…The writer of The West Wing and The Social Network likes to use those cards, tacked to a large corkboard, to keep track of key elements. Social Network’s pivotal scenes are still up there, with notes that read, “Mark and Erica in bar,” “Mark walks back to dormitory” and “Mark begins drinking, blogging, hacking.”
Inside Aaron Sorkin’s Writing Process
The Hollywood Reporter