The other day I walked back into the modest guest wing of our home that serves double-duty as my wife Kris’s writing office.  Kris was not there and a part of me felt like I was intruding on her private world.  But I couldn’t help but notice that on the quilt covering one of the single beds was an impressive array of 3 x 5 index cards with hand written notes on them.  The cards were arranged in three columns, each of which was identified with its own card at the top that read Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3.  What I was looking at, of course, was the beginnings of the plot invention for the novel she’s working on.

Another way of putting this is that what I came across was the work of a writer in the middle of figuring out her story structure.  And a writer who knows she needs to get her potential plot points–each individual and separate piece of action as she thinks of them–out of her head and organized in front of her.

It’s the same for playwrights and screenwriters.  There comes a time in the writing process when you have to invent your plot and figure out how to unravel your story in such a way that it moves along and gathers momentum and pace.  A plot that will increasingly pull your audience into your tale as it unfolds.

It doesn’t matter if you use actual index cards, post-its on the wall, or do it digitally for this phase in creating a script.  I prefer using the cards that can then be shifted around into a different order or easily taken out of consideration altogether as new cards are added.  I also like the tactile approach of moving the cards around and, just as important, getting this phase of the work removed from my writing journal and/or the computer completely and out there in front of me.

However, what’s important is that you capture each and every plot idea you come up with as a single potential unit and put it down on a card and get it out of your head.  This makes more room for the brain to invent new plot ideas that can then also be captured and added to the growing assortment in front of you.  And arranging the cards into the three acts starts to give you, no matter how sketchy it may seem at first, a sense of the structural shape of the story you’re telling.

Years ago I asked playwright Tina Howe if she worked with plot outlines before attempting to write her first drafts.  Her answer pretty much sums it up:

“Oh, outlines, outlines, outlines!  Months of hopeless, detailed, endless, horrible outlines.  I paste them on my windows.  It’s a process of starting with a few ideas and then just building them up.  When the windows are covered, I start doing the room.  Eventually my husband comes in and says, “When are you going to take the play off the walls and put it down on paper?”  I do an enormous amount of plotting, which is basically a way of convincing myself there’s something there.  My outlines are maps to help me on my journey.”

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I’m the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our next residency runs January 3-11, 2016 and we are now considering applications for starting the program in January.  I’m also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), and a professional script consultant.