Not in the Cards

Part 8 of “The Language of Story”

From the Department of Random Transitions, let’s talk about index cards for a minute.

If you’ve ever done any reading about screenwriting, you’ve probably been exposed to index cards. Syd Field is big into index cards, so many of the screenwriting gurus that have followed him are, too. I’m not going to make this a crash course, but the idea is that when you’re writing your screenplay, you think about it as a collection of scenes.

(As with earlier posts, this installment focuses on screenplay, but the structural paradigms we’re exploring are equally as important for prose fiction. Talking about film and its relentlessly linear structure simply makes those paradigms easier to talk about.)

You summarize each scene on an index card in a few sentences, creating a stack of scenes that you can read through to see how they flow. You can use your index cards to figure out if you have too many scenes and which ones should be cut. You can figure out if a scene is missing. You can shuffle scenes around to see how doing so affects the story.

Here’s the problem, though.

Index cards do a good job of helping you think about story as a succession of scenes. Especially in screenwriting, that’s a necessary skill. But seeing your story as a succession of scenes doesn’t help you understand anything about how those scenes lock together to define the shape of the story.

Index cards as a paradigm for scene-level writing are easy to work with, whether you like to shuffle actual cards around on your desk, or if you use a word processor or a screenwriting program’s point-form outlining mode. However, as you’re shuffling your scenes around, your focus on the story as a continuum of scenes gives you absolutely no sense of what function all those scenes are performing within the story.

To understand why that’s a huge problem, let’s look just at one part of a hypothetical story — a single act comprising fifteen separate scenes. That’s fifteen index cards, on which you’ve written down a few sentences talking about what’s going on in the scene. But when you start shuffling those scenes around, you’re going to discover in a hurry that there’s a world of difference between this fifteen-scene section of story:

And this fifteen-scene section of story:

Simply by looking at the structure inherent in each of the above sections of story, we can instinctively feel the differences.

In the first story, the act consists of five sequences, each of which breaks down to three scenes. Those five sequences create a more complex overall storyline for the act, complete with the broad turnarounds of three complication sequences. However, within each turnaround, the scenes build and finish at a fast pace of three beats each. Though there are no hard and fast rules for this sort of thing, this structure would suit a thriller or an action film quite well. Lots of stuff going on, lots of quickly rising action resolving and spinning off into new action.

In the second story, the act consists of three sequences of five scenes each. Comedies and light romances often follow this sort of structure. The overall throughline of the act is straightforward (featuring just one big complication), but that relatively simple storyline incorporates a number of smaller twists and turns building slowly in order to work through it.

Based on their structure, it’s clear that these two stories have a very different feel and pacing. For each hypothetical act, you’ve got a perfect sense of the function of the scenes as they make up the larger sequences, which in turn make up the act. You understand the difference between what a setup scene, a complication scene, and a resolution scene do in the story, and that functionality guides the shaping of each scene, just as it guides the shaping of the sequences built by those scenes.

Now here’s what both those acts look like as index cards:

When you’re looking at a stack of scene notes set up as index cards or an outline document, it’s a safe bet that the very first scene needs to be a setup scene, just as you want to make sure that the last scene is resolution scene. But between those two points, you’re flying blind if you’re not maintaining a sense of the overall structure that the scenes are a part of.

Here’s the reason this should alarm you. The picture above is the normal way that most screenwriters make their first approach to shaping a story. No sense of the overall structure. Flying blind.

Looking at this small section of story (one act of a feature screenplay), we have fifteen narrative beats. Fifteen scenes. And absolutely no idea what structural function each of those scenes is accomplishing in the story. Because when we approach story this way, all we’re thinking about is scenes. We don’t think about the process of scenes building sequences, sequences building acts.

In screenwriting parlance, this kind of scene-level outline is often referred to as a “beat sheet” (especially in TV writing). But whether it’s called that or not, the approach of outlining a story by breaking it down scene by scene is almost universal for screenwriting.

To see why that’s a problem, let’s expand this small section. Remember from last time, we broke out a nominal full set of sixty-four scenes for a feature screenplay story. Here’s what our version looked like:

And here’s what a beat sheet or index card setup looks like. This is breaking out the story just at the scene level, with no thought given to the functions of those scenes within the larger structural framework of the story:

We know that our story has an act structure, for sure. We thus know that each act is going to start out with some sort of setup scene and finish with some sort of resolution scene. But in between those anchor points, we have absolutely no idea what function our scenes are meant to play within the overall structure of the story.

Last time, I joked about how relatively difficult it would be to accidentally swap the resolution act for the setup act in your story. By the same token, it’s not likely that you’re ever going to push the setup act into the middle of the story to accidentally run one of the complication acts first.

But it’s oh so very, very easy to start scrambling setup scenes with complication scenes if we’re not keeping track of which of those functions our scenes are serving. It’s dead easy to confuse complication scenes with resolution scenes, or to write a scene as more of a setup when it should be a complication, or to just lose whole sections of important structural story because we’ve lost track — or never bothered keeping track — of the structural paradigms that shape our story.

When we forget that the scenes on our index cards or beat sheet outline document are all meant to fulfill one of those most basic dramatic functions — setup, complication, resolution — it becomes far too easy to push a setup scene out of order, to move a complication into the wrong place, or to drop a resolution scene by accident.

When we forget about the structure of our story, it gets far too easy to lose sight of the rule of three to five narrative beats being the optimal pattern to deliver compelling story. And suddenly you’ve got a first act that consists of a setup scene and a resolution scene with fourteen complication scenes between them.

Exercise — The Sequence, the Scene… the Whole Damn Thing

Last session, we took another look at the earlier exercise of summarizing a recently-seen-and-remembered feature film in three to five sentences (which is to say, three to five acts), then breaking each of those acts down into three to five more sentences (representing three to five sequences per act).

When we did that exercise, we said not to dig deeper by focusing on the sequences and breaking each sequence down to scenes. That’s what we’re going to do now.

Look at each of the sequences as you summarized them for each act of the story. Focus in on the first of those sequences — act 1, sequence 1; the setup sequence of the setup act. Then break that sequence down into three to five sentences, each of which represents a scene in the film.

As with the most recent version of the exercise, don’t just think in terms of beginning, middles, and end when breaking each sequence down into its single-sentence scenes. Think about each of those scenes in terms of its function — setup, complications, resolution.

This last part of the exercise of breaking down an existing story from the act level to the scene level is nominally easier than breaking down the acts and the sequences. Because we all subconsciously parse film as a collection of scenes, it’s a relatively simple process to think about the film and have the recollection of a particular scene pop into your head. By contrast, trying to figure out where sequences begin and end is often more difficult.

However, it’s easy when doing this exercise to start coming up with too many scenes for a particular sequence — more than the three to five scenes than are allowed by our model. Three to five narrative beats is the optimal pattern for telling story, so each part of the story should break out as three to five parts. Three to five acts in the story as a whole, three to five sequences in each act, three to five scenes in each sequence. You might come up with five sentences easily enough, even as you’re aware that there’s an extra chunk of story you haven’t properly described in those five sentences.

Just for this exercise, don’t worry about those problems.

Betray the three-to-five sentence limitation if you need to. Don’t simply ignore the fact that you’ve got story missing. Write more than five (or fewer than three) scenes for a sequence if necessary, and don’t spend any time trying to fix it. We’ll be doing that next time.

Do you remember way, way back to the very first exercises in this series? We did some free scene writing, then promptly seemed to ignore that as we started digging into structural paradigms?

Here’s the reason we started out with that particular exercise.

Being able to write a compelling scene is never a sure thing, but the process of crafting a single scene is at least a straightforward one. You make choices in terms of description, characterization, and action. You think about characters and conflict. (We’ll talk a lot more about both those topics in upcoming installments.) You refine and rewrite until the scene is great. What makes a scene compelling when read in isolation is the language of words.

The purpose of those initial exercises was to demonstrate that by focusing only the scene itself, writing a scene is entirely within your creative grasp. The language of words is intuitive to a writer. Words are easy.

The dramatic function that each scene upholds in relation to the whole story is the language of story. Understanding this interplay of relationships — the place and function of scenes building sequences, sequences building acts, acts building the story as a whole — is what creates compelling story. It’s what makes a great film or novel draw you in and drag you on with it as the story pushes forward.

The difference between a great story and a mediocre story isn’t the quality of the writing. The quality of the writing can be first rate in a mediocre story. Looked at in isolation, each of the scenes in a mediocre story can be deftly crafted and beautifully written.

Crafting a collection of well-written scenes isn’t enough to create a great story. Those well-written scenes have to be assembled in a way that creates the shape of a great story. And there’s not just one single way to shape a great story. As we saw above, a fixed number of scenes can shape themselves into any number of different dramatic structures. And the problem is that when we write strictly at the scene level, diving into the story to sketch it out point by point, narrative beat by narrative beat, index card by index card, the shape of the dramatic structure is lost.

The language of story is hard.

Remember this from a minute ago?

If you’re a screenwriter and this looks vaguely familiar to you, it’s because this is Syd Field’s Paradigm-with-a-capital-P for writing screenplays. As we talked about earlier, Syd Field got an essential part of his own Paradigm wrong by calling what we’ve identified as Act 2 and Act 3 above as a single double-length Act 2. That’s not important, though.

What’s important is that most of the cookie-cutter approaches being preached by far too many screenwriting gurus and their books are built on this idea of having a few dramatic points nailed down, with a whole lot of empty space in between them. Have a setup here, have an inciting incident there, have a reversal on page 90 — and then for all the scenes around those points, just write some stuff down. You know, on your index cards.

The cookie-cutter approaches to crafting story amount to a whole lot of flying blind. You’ve got your acts, so that you can figure out the setups and the resolutions. But for each of those long swathes of story in between, the sense of structure is lost.

Even if each of those “?” scenes above is deftly crafted and well written, that means nothing as regards the larger and much more important question of “Is the story working?” When you start writing scenes without being cognizant of their place and function in the story, the story is lost.

NEXT: On the Level