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How I Wrote a Screenplay in 30 Days: Part 3


Breaking a Story with Index Cards

Download a copy of the screenplay, A Girl Named Trouble.

My characters were crystal-clear because of my work on their backstories. Next came my favorite part of writing a screenplay: breaking the story. That means I broke the story down into scenes. This is where I create the plot. Keep in mind, there was no plot, no story, before this. This is how I created it with cards over three days of intense work.

A House of Cards

I used the electronic index cards in Final Draft rather than physical cards pinned to a corkboard. I’ve created screen grabs below for you to follow along. Using cards allowed me to shuffle scenes around quickly before I started writing. But more important, it gave me a concise overview of what I needed to write every scene.

I think there’s some kind of rule that you should be able to tell your story in 50 cards or less. Makes sense. This screenplay came in at 46. Everyone does cards a little differently. Oh, and something you should know: these aren’t proofread. They’re very sloppy, with mistakes galore. And lots of things changed along the way.

Here’s what goes on all my cards.

  • Write a short nickname for the scene, like DRUG DEAL GOES WRONG.

  • Describe the action in the scene, like Sam is negotiating with Bobo. This is surface-level stuff.

  • Explain the purpose of the scene: INTRODUCE TROUBLE, BOBO and SAM.

  • I like to add a note for me about secondary objectives. In this example, I want the reader to know this is a dangerous world.

  • This is the most important note on any of my cards: What is the INTENT, and what is the OBSTACLE?

Think of it like this. In every scene, someone is trying to talk someone either into something or out of something. Someone wants something. Something is standing in the way. The intent and obstacle are what will drive the scene. If I understand the intent of a character and the obstacle they face, I can write the scene. If I don’t, this becomes infinitely more difficult.

How to Use the Cards

In this example, the intent is SELL BRICKS OF HEROIN TO BOBO and the obstacle is BOBO KNOWS THE HEROIN WAS STOLEN FROM THEIR SUPPLIER. Yes, I’m expounding on the actual card. My cards are shorthand. I know people who put even less on their cards. Here’s a longer explanation of the scene.

Introduce the characters of Bobo, Sam and Trouble by having them negotiate a drug deal. Things go wrong when Bobo determines the heroin is stolen from his supplier, a transgression punishable by death.

Of the first few scenes, I dedicate one each to introducing the main characters. I knew I wanted to reference Cane a while before introducing him, to build up his arrival.

Card Colors

The Importance of Sequences

And speaking of sequences, any story needs a few good sequences. I started with 21 cards that simply hit the big moments of the story. All these cards were yellow – but they could be any color.

Then I went back and created sequences of scenes in between the big moments. Laying out the story like this ensured my scenes were designed as sequences. For example, Bernie is the first pinch in the story. Finding him, giving him the money, and then Bernie ultimately betraying Roman and Trouble, is one long sequence that moves the story all the way to the midpoint twist.

What the Whole Thing Looks Like

Before I wrote each scene, I reviewed the card. It whispered to me everything I needed to know. It wasn’t the gospel; a lot changed along the way. My cards are only a guide, but a very important one.

This sounds like a lot of busywork, but after I finished, my plot was wired. I did one last double-check before I wrote the story – but that’s for next week, when I explore character arcs.

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Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike.

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