Structure pt II - Note Cards and Cork Boards

So here we are for another session of Screenplay Techniques Adapted For the Novel, and I still can’t think of a better introduction than pretty much just restating the title. I considered a pithy anecdote, but I lead a pretty uneventful life, so you get this fumbling intro paragraph instead. All three of you who read this (hi, Mom and Dad!).

But like arriving early to a party where you don’t know anyone but the host, now that the awkward introduction is out of the way we can get down to serious business. Except instead of binge drinking, we’re going to focus on structure for the second time in a row. Last time we dealt with the basic background of the three-act structure, and I’m hoping everyone picked up a book or two to flesh out my rudimentary explanation. And I know I said that this time we would look at how to apply screenplay structure to a book series, but as I was planning this post out, I realized we should probably learn to walk before we run a marathon.

Because that’s what writing a screenplay/ novel/ series is, a marathon you need to prepare for first. It’s frustrating, I know, but training is what keeps you from puking, passing out, and then probably pooping in front of that pretty girl you wanted to impress by running said marathon. I speak, of course, about a friend’s experience, not my own.

I also believe that the marathon metaphor for writing is apt because both are so daunting in their length. But they don’t have to be. There’s a quote out there from Stephen King via Neil Gaiman that I love about how if you just write one page a day, just 300 words in a 24 hour period, you should have a 365 page novel by the end of the year. And that’s not even taking leap years into account.

But many of us aren’t as prolific as either King or Gaiman (or age nearly as gracefully), which is why structure again becomes paramount: Because it breaks what you’re writing into bite-sized pieces. So not only is it useful in crafting a story that people are hardwired to process, but it also allows you to chew instead of trying to swallow a story whole; which again leads to the puking, passing out and pooping. And not necessarily in that order.

Yet one more thing before we get to our technique of the week, and that’s the difference between a Throughline and a Subplot.

Until I started researching a throughline when I started this post, I thought I knew what it was from using it probably a dozen times per conversation with other screenwriters. But then I googled it* and found out its origin goes back to acting, which confounded me to no end. So, in terms of screenwriting (at least in what I understand it to be) the throughline is your major plot, the spine your story is built upon. So, in Star Wars: A New Hope **, which is how I conceive of most concepts in the universe, it is Luke learning to become a Jedi to defeat Darth Vader and the Empire.

It’s basically what the story’s basically about.

In contrast to your throughline, subplots are secondary threads in the tapestry of your story, usually consisting around a supporting character’s arc. They often tie back to the throughline by either intersecting around the finale, being thematically connected, or the love story shoehorned into pretty much every movie these days. So, to use my Star Wars example again, Han Solo’s subplot was about overcoming his scoundrel ways and joining the Rebellion by saving Luke from Vader's TIE fighter in the end.

Alright, now that we got all that out of the way, it’s time to haul out ye ol’ cork board and note cards. I should have probably researched how this technique was introduced to the screenwriting community, but instead I’ll just tell you I learned it from Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat book.

As you can hopefully see, it’s divided into quarters, the top line signifying the Break to Act II, the second one the Midpoint, and the third line the Break to Act III. Each of the cards sums up a scene on its most basic level, which are then placed in the order they’re going to occur in the screenplay going left to right, then from top to bottom. Snyder advises you to carry these cards with you everywhere, so when inspiration strikes you can jot a new scene down and then order it later on the board. He also had some sort of color coding system in his book, but, to be honest, I did away with that long ago in my personal practice because of the Bruce Lee tenant I mentioned in my first post: “Absorb what is useful. Discard what is not. Add what is uniquely your own.

And these cards are exceedingly useful in ordering your thoughts. Before I learned about these, I had trouble shuffling the scenes into the semblance of order. So I ended up having to use a half-assed form of algebra on a whiteboard, listing one important scene as X and another as Y, and a third Z. Then I took the other scenes that I knew had to group around them and wrote stuff like X+1, Y-3, and Z+2 beside them. It worked alright, but was pretty cumbersome, and involved a lot of algebra, which few people enjoy as much as I do.

These note cards, on the other hand, don’t require an esoteric numbering system, and you can just pick up a scene at a time and move it around physically when you realize the order isn’t working instead of erasing and writing the new order out. That’s why a lot of screenplay/ writing software come with their own form of note cards. Because it’s so useful. In fact, it was so useful back in my Scriptclub days in NYC *** they became ubiquitous and you could be conversing with a fellow member who would suddenly excuse himself to go jot something down in the midst of your conversation. This might be considered rude, until you remembered you did this exact same thing to your significant other two days before that. And to your boss at your temp job just the day before that.

In screenwriting these cards represent scenes, but for my novels they represent events in the story lines; beats that MUST occur for the plot to make sense. So when it’s time to plan out a story, I sit down and write out all the events that NEED to happen for my throughline first. These are the major plot points.

And they don’t readily come in an easy or obvious order. Instead they appear piecemeal, in beats that I KNOW have to happen, or in dribs and drabs that lead me on merry chases down rabbit holes. But it doesn’t really matter how they manifest because I write them all down with abandon knowing I don’t have to order them until later. And once my throughline is out of the way, I then examine each character’s subplot, writing each event and going down those newly emerging rabbit holes.

Then, when they’re all written out, or at least I think they are, it’s time to order them. For screenplays you can easily use the cork board, though I forget how many note cards Snyder thinks a screenplay requires because I haven’t used this bit for years. ****

But for my novels I use it A LOT. Hell, I even brought color coordination out from retirement with my post-its crammed onto my wall.

The picture is intentionally unclear so as not to spoil the plot to anyone who might actually read this novel, but the pale blue cards up above are each of Snyder’s beat breakdowns, e.g. Setup, Catalyst, Debate, Break to Act II, etc. Since my series consists of two different timelines alternating between chapters, the pink ones above are the present day story line, while the blue ones are for the past; each timeline consisting of numerous subplots that were initially broken out by individual beats. The yellow cards are for what the characters are going through emotionally at the time.

I probably shouldn’t have started out with the finished product, instead showing how I initially just stuck all these random post-its up on the wall under the category I thought it belonged, be it Fun and Games, Break to Act III, Bad Guys Close In, etc. With them generally in the right area, I was then able to start ordering them, transforming the individual beats into sequences, which later morphed into the chapters you see outlined here.

And I should add that this modified cork board/ note card system isn’t just useful for ordering your sequences; it also proves invaluable in discovering issues with your story before you even start writing it. By looking at this I saw I had one villain appearing in two present day chapters back to back, while the other villain appeared in two different back to back chapters. Realizing this, I was able to alternate them so as to add some extra variety to the story. I also noted I only had 26 chapters though my previous book had 35. So this technique allowed me to see some major issues and head them off at the pass long before I set pen to page/ fingers to keyboard.

Because it’s much easier to fix something at the conceptual phase rather than 200+ pages into the rough draft.

Anyways, that’s the screenplay structure technique of using a cork board and note cards adapted for a novel. Next time I’ll try and explain how it can be adapted to deal not only with a TV/ web series on a macro scale, but for a book series.


* Fun fact: Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the first show to use the word “google” in it. And they used it as a verb rather than a noun, which tickles me to no end.

** The ONLY movie that deserves to be called Star Wars. The ONLY other two in the series are The Empire Strikes Back and The Ewok Adventure. Return of the Jedi, on the other hand, can go suck it.

*** Shoutout to Troy, Greg, and Ruthy, wherever you are.

**** Yet I’ve kept every set of note cards for every screenplay I’ve ever written. Because I’m either very sentimental or a packrat.

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MD Presley is a screenwriter, blogger and occasional novelist… which basically means he’s a layabout. But if you’ve ever got a hankering for some grimdark gunpowder fantasy with a female anti-hero, I have a suggestion...


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