Craft: ‘Notecard’ Story Structure Plotting


None of this is original to me–you can find instructions on how to do basic three act story structuring with note-cards in any number of writing and screenwriting books, or on writer Alexandra Sokoloff’s extremely helpful website–but I thought it might be useful to post a picture of the thing in operation, since that’s something I’ve never really seen anyone else do.  For a basic rundown of the note-card method, see Sokoloff’s post about it here.

So, here’s the story for Oyster War, just wrapped up this evening (although, likely to be revised as things progress) all pinned up on my bulletin board.  I’ve added outlines around each act’s group of cards, just for clarity’s sake.  But you can see that each group of cards here corresponds to an act in the story, with the second act being about twice as long (and having twice as many cards as) the first and third acts.  If you were doing this for something with a proscribed time limit, like a film, you’d have to be more particular about how many cards you’d have in each act, so that you’d wind up with a two-hour movie (or whatever) but for a graphic novel, I don’t really pay that much attention to that kind of stuff, other than to just make sure that the second act is somewhere in the neighborhood of twice as long as one and three.

The closing events of each act, as well as the mid-point of act two, are important to really nail, so I use different-colored pushpins to indicate these and make sure those points in the story structure are occupied by solid story turning points.  The finales are indicated with red pins and the mid-point of act two is with a green pin.  The last book I wrote, Midnight Sun, had two parallel stories (the reporter, and the men stranded on the ice) that eventually converged–so, for that story I used different-colored note-cards to keep things straight: red cards were scenes with the reporter, blue cards were scenes on the ice, and yellow cards were scenes where they’d converged and therefore involved both the reporter and the stranded men.  In Oyster War, though, the bulk of the story is shown from the viewpoint of the story’s single protagonist, so different-colored cards would have been a bit much.  You can maybe see a couple of cards that have been marked with highlighter; these are the few scenes that take place aboard the “bad guys'” ship.

This is about as far as I usually go with “writing” before I start doing thumbnail breakdowns, but in the case of Oyster War, I may do a written story summary before I move on to thumbnails because act two was such a pain to pull together that I’m afraid there are likely to be some plot problems that I’m unaware of now but will need to sort out before I actually put pen to paper.


2 pings

  1. Dan says:

    Hey Ben,

    Interesting post. I’ve never really been one for index cards. However, I’ve been using Scrivener for a while now and the index card feature in the program is a real help when tackling long form projects (I think the program even allows for different coloured pins, but I never really thought of a use until reading this post.

    Oh, and I finally got around to reading ‘Midnight Sun’. Fantastic work!

  2. Ben says:

    I’ve tried using some writing software (Celtix, I think) but I find old school index cards suit my needs much better, especially since I pretty much never write out a formal script for anything (unless I’ve got to run it by an editor or something, in which case I usually “reverse engineer” it from my thumbnails).

    Glad you liked MIDNIGHT SUN–that one was a bit of a “hybrid” between being fully plotted in advance and the proverbial “pantser” method (which is probably evident to the trained eye of a writer, upon reading the book).

  3. Dan says:

    I clicked through on the links you referenced in the post and there’s some fantastic posts on there that I’ve added to my Instapaper list.

    I saw the “pantser” method mentioned on there and had no idea what it was until just now.

    It’s a method that I’d inadvertently started using for nanowrimo (mostly because between a day job, a degree and already established writing time I had nowhere to put planning time for it).

    I have to be honest, I’m struggling without all the pre-planning to the point I’m close to giving up. It’s incredibly hard not to go back and self-edit whilst you’re writing something almost stream of conscious.

    Excellent post though, with some great links.

  4. andrewwales says:

    This is a very helpful post, and the links are a gold mine. Thanks!

  5. Ben Cohen says:

    Thanks, its like being in class again.

  1. Ben Towle and Index Cards « Tim Stout says:

    […] this blog entry, he shares his approach to the three-act structure for graphic novels using a common writing tool: […]

  2. Process: Oyster War Page 35 Start to Finish » Ben Towle: Cartoonist, Educator, Hobo says:

    […] want to get too much into my general writing process here, but if you’re interested I did a post about it a while back. I don’t always do this, but for Oyster War I actually wrote out a full prose […]

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