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Dr Goodwrite or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the [index] card

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This topic contains 20 replies, has 8 voices, and was last updated by  mattd_85 5 months, 3 weeks ago.

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    Gary Holler

    Too tired to Photoshop myself riding a stack of index cards. Ennnnyway…

    For what seems like forever, and really for the past year, I’ve been trying to come up with a system I can use in my creative process when developing a screenplay. Something consistent that can be used over and over. This is probably something you’ve been through yourself.

    I’ve done the pre-formatted Word document with beats and sequences. I’ve done notepads. I’ve done notebooks. I’ve used iPhone apps. I now have a pretty clear course of my flags (18 of them), and I can now just list 1-18 on a napkin and beat a movie out. The pre-formatted thing was no longer necessary. Cool. No more typing until I had to.

    That left notebooks and phone apps. Notebooks were problematic when it came to beats because if things changed around, I either had to rewrite the entire damn course, or erase and rewrite. Both are inefficient and quite a bit messy.

    Apps were OK. Story Skeleton is great, but my fat thumbs don’t work very well with the iPhone. I spent 33% of my time retyping words that my thumbs massacred the first (or second) time.

    I vacillated between tech, paper, notebooks, and back again. Trying to find a way I could stick with.  Never satisfied.

    One thing consistent in each approach was the use of index cards. They were nothing more than scene placards used to fill up my board and let me visualize how “full” my movie was. Just something about popping a card on the board with a pushpin made me feel good.

    One day, I wrote a few notes in a book and wound up changing some flags around, which resulted in rewriting much of the course. After that, I stood up and rearranged some cards on the board. Noting how much simpler rearranging cards was, it hit me. Why not just do everything on cards?

    At the time, I was using only white cards with different color pens to signify important scenes and information. In order to make this work, I needed to evaluate what went in to the creative process and how best to make the cards work.

    After some brainstorming, trial and error, and lots of dollars dropped at Staples, I came up with a system that is 100% index-card based. It’s streamlined my approach, helped me better organize my thoughts and has made me more efficient.

    At the core is the card. Different colors corresponding to different aspects of the process.

    WHITEGeneral scene descriptions
    REDFlags (beats, key scenes)
    YELLOWWhat I call “flashes”, those fleeting moments I see in my mind’s movie and have to record before I forget
    BLUEGeneral background stuff, history
    GREENBits of dialogue that surface as I get to know my characters
    PURPLE – Character bio, background, descriptions, quirks

    At any given time, if something occurs to me, I simply grab the appropriate card, write on it and pin it to the board. If it’s character-related, I’ll header their name on it. As time goes on, I build a significant stack for each character.

    With this new system, I’ve had to expand my board. It’s now this huge monster with one half devoted to the course and the other devoted to the background and supplemental stack. If nothing else, there’s a subtle psychological boost when the board starts to physically build up. There’s something gratifying about seeing accumulation.

    This system might not work for everyone, and I don’t have an extensive amount of time in trials. I’ve been using this process exclusively on the spec I’m currently working on. So far, it’s been great and I feel much more in control and much more efficient.

    Hopefully this gives you guys some ideas about how to structure your process. If nothing else, my board is a whole lot more colorful!





    • This topic was modified 1 year, 9 months ago by  Shaula Evans. Reason: changed title because you liked this version on Twitter

    Shaula Evans

    Gary, thank you for taking the time to write this up. Great, detailed advice. And congratulations on the breakthrough of finding something that works so well for you.

    I feel compelled to say: “I love the smell of lo-tech in the morning.” (Hmm. That worked about as well as the photoshop of you riding the stack of index cards. I’ll work on it.)

    We’ve got a lot of different discussions about writing processes, so I’ve got a request for everyone with this thread: let’s keep it to your experiences with index cards or your questions about working with index cards.

    [TQA–Your post-it notes are the office-supply cousins of index cards and they “count” for the purposes of this discussion, before you get worried.]

    Who did Scott interview who had a table that held exactly the right number of index cards for a script… and we were all going to break into his house and steal the magic table? (I can’t believe I forgot who that was.)


    Mark Walker

    @Gary – fantastic post….I’m always envious of people who get that organised – I’m working on it! One question from an anally retentive loon…..what size cards do you use? (yeah, I know, I need to get out more…..)

    I have a love/hate relationship with index cards – well I don’t really hate them….just haven’t quite found the best approach to our relationship yet). I love the concept and used it a few times, but never really have the space to “spill out” with them and really use them to their full potential..I can lay them all out on the floor, but then I have to collect them all up every time I finish a writing session (anyone with kids will understand the disaster waiting to happen if you allow kids and little bits of card on the floor to meet – bit like dropping water on a Mogwai)…so I usually just end up with a stack of cards that I use as a guide when drafting….nothing that couldn’t be done with a pen and paper to be honest.

    I also tried using the tool that Dave Trottier put up on his website that was the “concept of the card” but in a Powerpoint presentation….which doesn’t get you away from the computer but you can slip into slide sorter view and move “card” around really easily. Used that a couple of times and quite like it.

    Currently I am experimenting with a simple list of scenes in a word document – which kind of feels like I am de-evolving as a writer, but I will see how it goes – so far it seems to work…..but I am only planned out to the end of ACTI at the moment.

    It is a love/hate relationship as I can see myself coming back to the card eventually as it is such a useful tool…..I just need to make sure I can figure out a way to use them effectively….I’m just a bit behind you Gary…..playing the field before figuring out the best approach for me! ;-)

    Dave’s Story Sorter is available……here!


    Gary Holler

    @Shaula – Thanks for the kind words. If you’re the one responsible for the Twitter link, I love the reworking of the title. I remember that picture of that magical table but I forget the writer.

    @Mark – I use 3×5 cards. The colors are arbitrary. That’s just what comes in the pack. As for cork, I started with two 3’x2′ boards that were like $10. I used black tape to create sections for eight sequences. Once I started working with cards exclusively, I had to double my board space.

    With the new office I’ll have in my home, I’m considering buying enough rollout cork from Flex-a-chart to cover one whole wall. That would be cool.


    Mark Walker

    Gary, I’m planning on a small lottery win to convert the attic into office space…. ;-)

    If I had the space I would do the same, and make as much use of that space as possible. (we did have a room, but I turned it into a miniature home cinema before I was writing seriously).

    Not sure my wife would let me put some cork boards up in the living room or bedroom!

    One thing that might help some people – and which I first read about in Save the Cat, was the use of an artist’s portfolio as a portable, foldable cork wall….I might go back to thinking about that, as it can be folded up and slipped away under the sofa!



    twitpic from F. Scott Frazier (The Numbers Station)

    board and index cards.

    pretty good illustration of working the timeline and setting up the board.



    If I had the space I would do the same, and make as much use of that space as possible.

    Mark I used to wish I had more space and one day starting sticking them to the doors. Obviously you’d have to consult your wife first and arrange them above child grabbing height.

    I had notions about getting myself a vast dedicated wall, but eventually realised that my yearning for an extensive cork board was just another form of procrastination.

    *Reclines on couch* That’s when the O.C.D. symptoms first started.

    [TQA–Your post-it notes are the office-supply cousins of index cards and they “count” for the purposes of this discussion, before you get worried.]

    I actually dispensed with post-its a long time ago. I found them not fit for purpose. They’re inclined to curl. And fall off. So I ditched them in favour of record cards I found in the supermarket. They’ve changed the proportions of said record cards recently but they still work the same.

    (whispers to Mark. Try Tesco’s stationary aisle. They’re cheap. Don’t want to advertise but that’s where I get mine having searched around. I have a batch set aside for my next writer’s meet. I love them so much and want everyone to share the love.)

    They’re not sticky but I remedy that with this amazing tool called sellotape. They still fall off.

    But sometimes that adds to the story.

    I wish you could see the doors.  But seriously I’d ask any cohabitors first.

    I toyed with a colour coded system for a while, even got these little sticky things. But it just made me procrastinate, so I ditched them too. They are pretty though.

    But yeah I’m all about the low tech. For some reason when I do the same with the note cards on the computer it never has the same effect.

    I find it more satisfying and easier to glance up at the doors as you type. And I was dubious about it as a system for a longtime but it’s been a revelation.



    I used to love rolls of butcher paper, but as I’ve gotten more preppy (necessary to avoid holes in the wall where I’ve pounded my head), those “notes” became a mess, very Pollackish.

    Onward to technology. I’m with Gary on this one.  Something just doesn’t feel right, but terrific laughs in figuring out what in the world my fat thumbs have typed. I’m also hesitant to keep an iPad or laptop with me at all times (there are thieves and scoundrels everywhere!).  But I did DL the Story Sorter, Mark. It’s hard letting go of of the techno bug, ergo more holes in the wall from head banging. I can dictate thoughts into Evernote, but in the end it still comes down to putting them on cards. Or…

    Using the giant Post-It notes, one for each element – character, theme, on and on. Great for morning exercise doing squats picking them up from the floor after they’ve fallen during the night.

    Very glad to see this post and grateful for your guidance, Gary, because a fresh supply of white and colored index cards have been purchased and put everywhere that’s handy, including my purse and coffee table by the couch where I sleep when working. After much angst finding what works, I’m back to the origins, i.e. index cards. Sometimes what goes on the card is a distillation of many pages of writing, when and if something not requiring slender thumbs is handy, but it boils down to seeing the movie on a surface similar to a movie screen (a table won’t work because the dogs would think it’s a game). And it’s physical, all that moving about to skewer cards anew where they belong, at least at the different stages of development, then standing back and “seeing” the movie.

    So far, it’s not working. The corkboard is too blasted small, but I think I’ve just stumbled upon cork heaven on amazon. What an assortment! Rolls and frames and long ones and squat ones and the small one I’ve got for the essential 20-23 cards a film boils down to.

    I should note that I know many writers who work quite well without using index cards, but for those who do, some organization of those little darlings is needed.

    • This reply was modified 1 year, 9 months ago by  CydM. Reason: remove a horrid link


    Harumph. The link doesn’t work. Just go to amazon and type in cord board. The results are almost as good as chocolate.


    Mark Walker

    Great posts everyone….I have an urge to buy cards again…… ;-)



    @Mark DITTO!  I love how tactile index cards are, but without a home office I also gave up on the idea.  after reading this thread though, I think I may just go ahead and find a wall to cork  because the index card thing just makes sense to me.

    (I also like the idea of using red string to make links between things a la Sherlock Holmes… but mostly because I want people to come ’round and think, “That Grace is a GENIUS!  Look at this amazingly complicated web of ideas and theories.”)


    Mark Walker

    @Gracee….or “yeah, we knew she was bloody crazy…” ;-


    Gary Holler

    @Gracee – Colored yarn or threads are next on my list. LOL. I think between The Wire, Homeland and Sherlock Holmes, the desire to use a board and cards really started eating at me.

    To update, I’m a bit of a cabinet-maker at  heart. In the blood. Dad, uncles, brother all ran or currently run their own shops.

    I’m sketching up ideas for a table that will hold a large board, at an angle similar to a draftsman desk. I’m trying to figure out a way to make it so it holds several large boards at once. This way I can juggle multiple projects without having to dismantle anything.

    I have three months before I move to the house, and my storage unit is full, so I have plenty of time to design it. If I ever come up with something and build it, I’ll be sure to take pictures and post them here.

    Depending on the response, I’ll fill orders at a reasonable price. ;)


    Shaula Evans

    > I’m sketching up ideas for a table that will hold a large board, at an angle similar to a draftsman desk. I’m trying to figure out a way to make it so it holds several large boards at once. This way I can juggle multiple projects without having to dismantle anything.

    What about a map cabinet or blueprint cabinet? (Do you know what I mean?) But the drawers could pull out and display at an angle, like some spice racks do. At that point, it could be wall mounted and the drawers could be lined with cork.


    Gary Holler

    Shaula, you sound like a crafts(w0)man at heart! I’m using the blueprint cabinet concept as a base, just without the full-blown drawer mechanism. Something that slides out and flips into place.

    Or just storage for 4-6 boards and angled surface to lock in the current board.

    I like the way you think!

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