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Posts in: April 26th, 2008

Notecard Theory

So for all you non-writers, there’s this theory floating around—mainly but not exclusively in screenwriting circles—that notecards will magically help to improve structure. There are about 90,000 different methods of doing this, but the most useful one I’ve heard works like this: for every given scene, you write down a general description of what happens in the scene, followed by (a) how it fits into the overall story, (b) the characters involved in the scene, (c) their conflicts within the scene, (d) how these conflicts are resolved, and (e) how this scene reenforces the theme. In theory, you should have all the answers and a fully-loaded 3×5 notecard, or you should cut the scene. (Or rewrite it until you can provide all the notecard information.)

Most of the time when I hear the notecard theory, it doesn’t work like that. It’s a much more useless structural idea: you map out the scenes with notecards so that you can shuffle them around. I’ve read lengthy, possibly apocryphal stories (all of them coming from unsold spec writers) explaining how notecards saved their script. One part of the story doesn’t work, so they shuffle one scene from the first act to the third act, and—boom! Citizen Kane 2: Razing Kane. Am I an anomaly for never really having problems with an overarching structure or misplaced scenes?

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