How to Use Index Cards to Outline Your Screenplay

Use index cards to outline your story. Screenwriting is visual. Putting note cards onto a cork board lets you look at your story like a puzzle. You can see the full picture. Computer programs, white boards, and Post-it notes make it easier than ever to customize this method. Let’s dive into the what, how, and why of outlining your screenplay with note cards.

Why index cards?

First write out a full outline in a document. Second, put the main points of your outline onto note cards in order. 

When you put these note cards on your cork board, you’ll see how the story flows. You can also physically move the note cards around to change where scene land. 

A scene doesn’t work where you think it should? Take that notecard and see how the plot flows if you move it a couple of scenes earlier or even a couple of scenes later. You can change, add, and subtract scenes quickly. 

Methods To Outline Your Screenplay

Blake Snyder Beat Sheet

For features, you will most commonly come across the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet.

  1. Opening Image (1)
  2. Set-up (1-5)
  3. Theme Stated (5)
  4. Catalyst (12)
  5. Debate (12-25)
  6. Break Into Two (25)
  7. B-Story (30)
  8. Fun and Games (30-55)
  9. Midpoint (55)
  10. Bad Guys Close In (55-75)
  11. All is Lost (75)
  12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-85)
  13. Break Into Three (85)
  14. Finale (85-110)
  15. Final Image (110)

Blake Snyder takes those 15 beats and expands them into 40 beats, which become the 40 index cards used to outline on your cork board. Divide your board into four rows.

  • First Row = Act One, 10 Index Cards
  • Second Row = Act Two (A), 10 Index Cards
  • Third Row = Act Two (B), 10 Index Cards
  • Fourth Row = Act Three, 10 Index Cards

Noam Kroll breaks this down into impeccable detail. He’ll walk you through the finer points if this is your preferred screenwriting technique. 

The 8 sequence method

Another popular method for outlining a screenplay is called the 8 sequence method. E.M. Welsh talks about this here. The 8 sequences easily translate onto index cards. You can put them up on a cork board in the same fashion as the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet. 

Television Format

TV pilots and specs also employ their own act breaks and page counts.

  • Comedy typically uses 3 acts plus a teaser and tag.
  • Drama ranges from 4-6 acts depending on the network and commercial breaks.
  • Cable tends towards a three act structure with more leeway for comedy and drama.

Basically, take whatever the main story beats are for your script and pin them to your board in a way that makes the most sense to you. If you can draw from example, find some scripts and examples to read

Screenplay Cork Board Tips and Tricks

Here are ten hints from John August on how to use index cards.

Scott Myers shows you several ways you can use note cards here.  

Color Coding

Use colorful index cards or highlighters to make certain note cards stand out. I highlight b-story note cards to make sure the b-story informs and eventually merges with my a-story.

Colors help keep track of characters, subplots, action, or anything you need to pay special attention to in your story.

Options other than a cork board

The reason I love a giant cork board is because I can see and manually move the cards around. I connect better to the material. I stand back and assess the story visually. It’s interactive for me.

Maybe you don’t have the space, don’t like the way it feels, or operate better on a computer.

Digital programs

Post-it notes

Cork boards (bulletin boards) take up a lot of room. You can scale down and easily color code with post-its. Instead of using a cork board, use a poster board or any type of smaller set up. This also stores without difficulty!

Which method will you use?

Related Post: Screenwriting Like a Boss: The Writing Process