No personal blog crapola.
Just one guy's quest to unlock the mysterious art of storytelling on screen.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Alternative To Index Cards

TreePad Lite is a free program I've used for many years, and I can't imagine being without it.

If you craft stories, and you have no satisfactory method for managing your projects, you need this program. It is truly free (no nags, ads, malware), it's robust, and it has a long and distinguished history.

So what is it exactly? TreePad is a text editor that organizes your information into a tree structure (hierarchy). There are many bells and whistles, of course, but essentially that's what it does. And it does it very well.

For each of my writing projects I maintain a master treepad file/database containing various branches for things like:
  • Character concordance
  • Plot ideas
  • Research notes and links
  • Story treatment, breakdown, drafts
There are some simple but important features in the program that make it enormously useful. Keyboard shortcuts is one of those. You don't want to stop typing every few seconds to reach for the mouse.

Another is hyperlinks. Although TreePad Lite works with plain text only, you can drop in hyperlinks and activate them with one click. That comes in very handy for linking to files on your local drive or to pages on the Net. For example, for each character in my project file I like to place a link to a picture stored in an images folder on my hard drive. Then, when I'm examining the character information within Treepad, I put the cursor anywhere inside the link text, hit CTRL+H (or click on the 'follow hyperlink' button), and my graphics program opens showing the picture. You can place a hyperlink to any file type and, when activated, Treepad opens the file using the application associated with the file type (e.g. MS Excel for .xls files).

Now, what about index cards?

Writers and storytellers have used the index-card method for a long time. It works like this:
  • Break down your story into its component scenes/units
  • For each scene, write a short identifying header at the top of an index card. You can include more information on the card, and you can be as elaborate as you prefer with colour coding, graphics, etc., but try to keep it simple so you can identify cards quickly at a glance.
  • Fix the cards to a wall, pin-up board, or any other suitable surface. You want to see them all at once and you want to be able to rearrange them quickly and with minimum fuss. Also, you might like to include blank cards anywhere you know there is a missing scene or gap to be filled in the story
  • Order the cards, reorder them, add cards, remove cards — in short, juxtapose the elements of your story until you find something you are happy with
  • Having locked down your story content and format, go write it!
For whatever reason, the option of using index cards like this may not be available to you. So long as you have a PC, TreePad is the next best solution. Use it to create nodes equivalent to index cards. Shuffle the nodes around until you find a compelling story structure. Print it out. Think about it. Go back to TreePad, clone the first timeline, and shuffle some more to make a new version. Print that out and compare it with the first hardcopy. Which is better? Etc.

There is a program called Writer's Blocks that tries to faithfully duplicate the index-card method on the PC, but IMO it's overkill and unnecessary. A 17-inch screen cannot recreate the experience of arranging index cards on an eight-foot-wide corkboard. What you want to do is recreate the process (quickly arranging units of information), not the format (physically moving index cards), and that can be achieved using TreePad or similar hierarchical-notes programs.



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