The Index Card Method & Story Structure Grid
Now that you have your Index Cards, let’s get them up on a Story Structure Grid!
If you haven’t brainstormed on Index Cards yet, that’s your first step:
For the second part of the method, you’ll need: A cork board, whiteboard, wall, or a sheet of cardboard, big enough to lay out your Index Cards in four vertical columns of about 10-15 cards each.
Whatever board (or repurposed Amazon box!) you choose, you’re going to create a structure grid that looks like this:
A trifold board (like kids use for science projects) is a perfect size, it’s freestanding, and is already divided for you; you can get them for five or six dollars at any office supply store.
Personally I like something big enough to use Index Cards on because cards are so durable and I can spread them out on the floor for me to crawl around and for the cat to walk over; it somehow feels less like work that way.
But you can also use Post-Its, and the truly OCD among us use colored Post-its or cards to identify various subplots by color. Everyone has their own method; experiment and find what works best for you.
My husband just sticks different colors of mini Post-its up on the dining room wall.
If you have room for a giant whiteboard, you can even incorporate that into your office design, like my husband and I have done (Bonus: the kids love playing with magnets on the whiteboard!)
I even have a student who painted a huge story grid on her dining room wall. No, I don’t know what her spouse had to say about it, but knowing this student— I bet not much!
You can get really granular and draw more lines on the cork board or cardboard or whiteboard to make a grid of spaces the size of Index Cards or Post-its if you’re very neat (I’m not!).
Or for a quick start, you can just pin or post a few marker cards up to structure your space:
If you’re doing marker cards, write ACT I at the top of the first column, ACT II: 1 at the top of the second (or third if you’re doing eight columns), ACT II: 2 at the top of the third (or fifth), ACT III at the top of the fourth (or seventh).
Then write a card saying ACT I CLIMAX and pin it at the bottom of column one, MIDPOINT CLIMAX at the bottom of column two, ACT II CLIMAX at the bottom of column three, and CLIMAX at the very end. If you already know what those scenes are, then write a short description of them on the appropriate cards. These are scenes that you know you must have in your story, in those places —whether or not you know what they are right now.
And now also label the beginning and end of where eight sequences will go. (In other words, you’re dividing your cork board into eight sections — either four long columns with two sections each, or eight shorter columns).
(Yes, you could just use a piece of paper with a structure grid to outline your story by writing out scenes. But I’m trying to make your life easier for you! There is no comparison between outlining and brainstorming on Index Cards or Post its. None. You can resist the cards all you want, it’s your own time you’re wasting! But once you’ve tried it, you’ll wonder what took you so long.)
Whatever way you choose, now you have your structure grid in front of you. This is the frame of your story.
Now comes the fun part, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
Take the pile of Index Cards you’ve already brainstormed in the last exercise, with your scenes on them.
If you know where a scene goes, or approximately where it goes, pin or post or tape it on your board, or wall, in approximately the right place. (You can always move them around!)
Of course, your big, dramatic game-changer scenes will tend to fall at the Sequence or Act climaxes.
And just like with a puzzle, once you have some scenes in place, you will naturally start to build other scenes around them.
I love the cards because they are such an overview. You can stick a bunch of vaguely related scenes together in a clump, rearrange one or two, and suddenly see a perfect progression of an entire sequence. You can throw away cards that aren’t working, or make several cards with the same scene and try them in different parts of your story board.
Once you have posted all the scenes you already know about your story, you can start filling in the obligatory scenes, the STORY ELEMENTS that you’ll find in nearly all stories, like
Introduction of Hero/ine
Call to Adventure/Inciting Incident
Inner and Outer Desire
Sex at Sixty
All is Lost/Dark Night of the Soul
Many of these scenes tend to fit naturally into specific Sequences or Acts, as we’ve already been talking about with Act I (find full lists of Story Elements and which Acts they occur in in the workbooks: Stealing Hollywood and Writing Love .
You may not even know what’s going to happen in these scenes—but you know you need to have them. So just write: Call to Adventure on a card, and put it up in Act I, most likely as the Sequence 1 Climax. Now your creative brain will get right to work on coming up with a great scene.
I swear. That’s how it works.
1. Make a blank structure grid for your WIP. but also do a large corkboard or cardboard structure grid for your WIP.
2. Take the Index Cards or Post-its where you’ve written all the scenes you know about your story, and where possible, pin them onto your WIP structure grid in approximately the place they will occur.
And if you have a completed draft and are starting a revision, a structure grid is a perfect tool to help you identify weak spots and build on what you have for a rewrite. Put your story on cards and watch how quickly you start to rearrange things that aren’t working! A great technique is to use different colors for different subplots or genre scenes to see where the holes are.
Try it and see where it takes you!
Read more on the Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid in Chapter 6 of Stealing Hollywood and Writing Love. Find Story Elements checklists for each Act and examples in Chapters 7-21.
Get the workbooks:
Stealing Hollywood ebook, $4.99, also available as print workbook
Writing Love ebook, $2.99
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From Screenwriting Tricks for Authors: Stealing Hollywood, © Alexandra Sokoloff