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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?

To paraphrase William Goldman, once you find the spine of the story, you can fuck up just about everything else and still have people thinking there’s something in the screenplay worth saving. This is what I’ll politely call The Mountains of Indiana Syndrome—one of the many reasons I find that writer so frustrating is that his stories are structurally sound; it’s everything else that’s the problem. I have a pretty harsh reason for not buying into the validity of these “repositioning one scene saved my script” legends: if you put an act-three scene in act one, chances are you have bigger problems—problems that a notecard can’t solve. That is the “tough-love” approach from a guy who believes, more than anything else, that story is structure.

Of course, the “story is structure” mantra applies more to dramatic writing than, say, a novel. Novels have quite a bit of structural freedom, and you can throw pretty much anything at it and still come out a winner. Or, at least, you can if you can write well. Probably the best recent example I can think of here is Stephen King. Why are so many Stephen King movies terrible, when you feel like his books are ready-made for film adaptations? Critics might tell you it’s because he’s just plain not as good as everyone wants to believe, but if you’ve ever actually read one of his novels, you might notice that they’re very loose and rambling. He describes everything in vivid but plainspoken detail, making you feel like you can see everything. He often does this without resorting to hoity-toity poetic imagery that turns a lot of “mainstream” readers off of “literature,” but…he also has a tendency to go way over-the-top with descriptions. A description of an ashtray will start off with a paragraph about the ashtray, then deviate into a 30-page meditation on one character’s lifelong love of smoking, its effects on his wife and children, and the grim specter of his cancer-killed father looming over every cigarette he smokes. (Also, he repeats details all the time: in any given book, there’s about a 99% chance a smoker will strike matches on a thumb hardened and yellowed by nicotine staining.) He basically writes fictional versions of this blog.

That’s a problem: how the fuck do you adapt that? Unless the novel is called John Q. Smoker Gets Ironic Lung Cancer, there’s a high probability that it will be adapted as follows: JOHN Q. SMOKING-ISN’T-CENTRAL-TO-THE-PLOT, skinny mid-30s, takes one last drag on a used-up cigarette, then stubs it out. Maybe there’ll be later references to the character smoking, but we don’t need the case history.

Knowing what to cut is one of the general struggles of adapting, but it’s even worse with somebody like King, where everything feels cinematic but only about 10% of what he writes has anything to do with the dramatic “movie story” he’s telling. So people either complain that an adaptation sucked because they cut out all the good parts, or they complain because they tried to cram in everything and very little of it made sense. Or, like my complaint with Kubrick’s The Shining: completely missing the point. This is a book about a man dealing with alcoholism. The only way King could make this point less subtle is if he’d titled it Jack Torrance Is a Drunk, and It’s Not as Fun as It Sounds. I don’t know what the fuck Kubrick was going for, other than a shoddy horror movie or some kind of meditation on insanity. (For the Kubrick defenders: I know Torrance is portrayed as a drunk in the movie, but it’s downplayed to such a degree that it’s an irrelevant detail. Also, you can’t defend against the fact that Jack Nicholson—who’s usually great—plays Torrance as insane from the first second he appears on screen. Where’s the gradual descent into madness?) For my money, the best book-to-screen adaptations must retain the spirit and theme of the source material. It’d be nice if they kept the characters and the overall storyline, but they can hack it to pieces as long as it has the same underlying purpose.

What I’m getting at, at long last, is this: my novel, Back Home Again, is about as good as it’s going to get, with a few exceptions:

  • One of the later chapters deals exclusively with two minor characters. Although these characters are central to the plot, this chapter is not. It’s universally reviled by everyone who’s read it—not so much because of what happens, but because of when it happens. I admit, I tried something a little different. At the end of the day, this is a straightforward story I could have just as easily written as a screenplay, but I threw in a few novelistic flourishes every now and again. The one in the next bulletpoint, which worried me much more, got a warm reception, but I guess that’s the difference between giving readers a cliffhanger at the beginning instead of the end. When you’re on page 300, leaving them hanging, then spending 30 pages with different characters before getting back to the main story, does not make them happy. Good to know.

    On the plus side, nobody hated the chapter—the suggestion from every single person was to merely take the events condensed in this chapter and sprinkle them throughout.

  • It’s a whole different ballgame when you’re on page 50 and you take a 100-page diversion from the main story. This surprised me, because it’s 100% backstory—taking the three main characters on a journey from 1985 until 2005 (“present day” for the story) to show not only how they’ve changed—which they already know from the first 50 pages—but why they’ve changed. Everyone loved this little trip along the scenic route, but that didn’t mean they had no criticism. I got two main points from everybody’s feedback: first, I have to incorporate a fourth character into the backstory chapter; second, certain backstory elements didn’t work for them. More to the point, it’s implied that the story might take a totally different direction (not my intention, but this is what the readers picked up on), and when it doesn’t, it got a little confusing.
  • This is related to the flashback chapter: while some parts of the backstory need work to clarify the actual story, the main complaint from me is that much of the backstory isn’t funny enough or interesting enough to sustain readers’ attention. This was actually backed up by one reader, who suggested I established certain characters and situations and didn’t take full advantage of them. I’m trying not to be too coy, but I’m also trying not to give everything away. Sorry if this all sounds really bland and stupid.

    The bottom line is, I picked up on one moment in a related story that made me rethink the characters’ backstory. Fortunately, these new thoughts only affect the main story in the sense that they make it even more tragic. I won’t have to take a backhoe to the whole thing just to change out one little tiny piece.

If you were paying attention during that little list, something might have occurred to you. If it didn’t, I’ll bluntly state it now: I am going to start using notecards. OH I WENT THERE.

My feeling is, notecards aren’t really as effective for something structure-dependent like a play of any kind. Maybe they help some people, and that’s fine. I’ve never felt the need to use them and have never had any complaints about structure.

A novel is different. It’s a bit more unwieldy: more scenes, for one thing, and in those scenes many things can happen that don’t happen in a screenplay—internal thoughts, repeated descriptions (in a screenplay, you usually describe a person when they’re introduced but otherwise, nope; in a novel, you have to give yourself a clear picture of the person because you’ll be describing them multiple times), flashbacks or little bits of anecdotal backstory… Hell, in my particular novel, there’s even a lot of weird history of the town that would never get into a screenplay.

Because most of the changes above have to do with inserting and removing scenes, notecards are optimal for this type of thing. In the first bulletpoint, I’m trying to find similar scenes that I can use to combine events from that late chapter with earlier events. In the second and third, it’s the simpler matter of pulling certain scenes out and replacing them with something new. The notecards will help me keep this all straight.

Is it ironic that the first time I’m using notecards in a non-classroom environment is for one of my few non-screenwriting projects? It seems like notecards should be more common for novelists, but I don’t hear much about that as a viable method to help keep things straight. Maybe I’m just not cut out for it.

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