Writing

Three Ways to Plot With Index Cards

It can be tough to pull together the plot for a novel. There’s a lot that goes into it, and it’s hard to make sure that you have it all straight in your head before you start writing. Sometimes the only way to be sure is to get it out of your head and onto paper, where you can see it.

While you could just use a notebook to do your plotting, it’s easier to handle the back-and-forth that plotting requires with index cards.

Even if you’re happy with your current method of plotting, shaking it up can knock fun things loose. To that end, here are three ways to plot with index cards, from fastest to most in-depth.

Before You Begin

Before you plot your story, you should know what your story is. While some people focus on worldbuilding, and others find characters more appealing, you’ll need both in hand before you can do more than sketch your plot. There might not be much to either of them, and that’s okay. You just need to know in general who your story is about, and where it takes place.

If you’re a seat-of-the-pants sort of writer that prefers to sit down and bang out a first draft without planning, these plotting techniques can still work for you – just pull the details out of your draft instead of your head.

Without any further ado, let’s move on to the first and fastest notecard exercise:

Plotting Under Pressure

Holly Lisle wrote about a way to use index cards she calls Plotting Under Pressure. It goes something like this:

Ingredients

  • Index cards
  • Clear floor space
  • Pen

Directions

  1. Figure out how many primary and secondary viewpoint characters you want to use. Primary viewpoint characters are generally protagonists and antagonists. Secondary viewpoint characters can be the best friend of the protagonist, the antagonist’s henchperson, a redshirt – anyone with a relationship to the primary viewpoint characters, no matter how tenuous. Holly suggests using 1-3 primary viewpoint characters and 1-2 secondary viewpoint characters.
  2. Ascertain the number of scenes available to craft your novel. Either use your own formula or the following: Novel words / words per scene = number of scenes. For example, if I was planning to publish a short story online, I’d probably aim for about 30,000 words, with 3,000 words per scene. 30,000/3,000 = 10 scenes, a very reasonable number for a short story.
  3. Divide the scenes between your chosen viewpoint characters, giving the primary viewpoint character(s) the lion’s share.
  4. Count out index cards, one per scene, and divide them into character piles. Write the name of the viewpoint character on one side of each of their notecards.
  5. Take a character stack, blank side up, and start writing one sentence descriptions of scenes you want to write involving that character, one per card. A scene can usually be written as three things: the beginning state, the change that happens during the scene, and the end state. The scenes do not have to be in any particular order, just write down whatever comes to mind.
  6. Lay your cards out on the floor in columns, one column per character, scene sentence up.
  7. Find a good opening scene and move it to the top of its column. Then look for another scene that logically depends on that scene and move it to the top of its column (or under the opening scene, if it’s the same character). Continue this until all scenes are sequenced.
  8. Lay everything out in a line from beginning to end. Make sure that the plot makes sense: causes come before their subsequent events, the opening and closing scenes have strong emotional content, and so on. Take out boring or nonsensical cards. Add missing scene cards, if needed.
  9. Stack your cards in order, then type them into a document as a bulleted outline. Write each scene. Tweak the outline as needed.

When to Use This Method

It might be obvious, but those who don’t like using multiple viewpoints will probably get less out of this method. You could still make it work, but I think part of what makes this method click is its ability to weave together multiple viewpoints in an organic manner.

The appeal of this method is its easy, get-off-the-ground-fast style. This method would be particularly useful to worldbuilders and character artists that have difficulty moving from their strong suit into creating an actual story – just spend a couple of hours tossing around cards, and you have an outline, with the writing pre-sliced into bite sized scene pieces.

Story Threads

This is the most common way of using index cards by far; in general, if you talk about plotting with index cards, this method, as discussed by Writer’s Digest, is what novel and screen writers will think you’re talking about.

Ingredients

  • Index cards (white or several different colors)
  • Colored markers (If you’re using white notecards)
  • Pen
  • Masking tape
  • Clear space, like a kitchen table or counter (You could also use a magnetic whiteboard or a cork board)

Optional Add-Ins:

  • Page flags
  • Stickers (stars, emoticons, whatever you want)

Directions

  1. Choose a color (marker or card) for the plot and each subplot of your story.
  2. Write out each plot point on its own card. A plot point is an event in the story, something changing. Don’t worry about order, just get it all down.
  3. Spread out your plotlines in horizontal rows, plot at the top, dependent subplots underneath. Your main plot should be the first one to start, and the last one to end. The same goes for any tertiary plots: they should begin after the subplot they depend on, and end before it.
  4. Look at each plot individually. Play through the scenes in your head as you move from card to card. Does it flow well by itself? Is there anything missing, nonsensical, or boring? Does the plot seem logical? Are major revelations foreshadowed, or do they come out of nowhere? Add, edit, rewrite, move around, and delete index cards as needed.
  5. Cast your eye over the layout to see how the story flows as a whole. Where do the plotlines cross and influence each other? Ask yourself the same questions as for the individual plotlines. Add, edit, rewrite, move around, and delete index cards as needed.
  6. Keep repeating #4 and #5 until the story runs like an well-oiled mechanical avalanche down a mountain.
  7. Combine the plots into a single row. Tape together any plot and subplot points that will be used in the same scene. Or, leave the plots where they are, but mark the order of the scenes with numbered page flags, or arrows, if you’re using a whiteboard.
  8. Run through it one more time to make sure that it all works. Take your time, imagining each scene.
  9. Either write your cards into some sort of outline format, or simply stack the cards in order and keep them within arm’s reach. This method could translate well to an Excel file, with a column for what plots are getting forwarded in the scene, who should be there, where the MacGuffin is, and so on.

When to Use This Method

This method is tried and true, so if you’re looking to try something that many authors swear by, it’s a good one. This method requires less of the unerring experienced writer’s gut than Plotting Under Pressure, which is also a point in its favor, but it takes more time and more thinking. The biggest advantage of this method is that there are interesting and useful variations available. For example:

  • Inner and outer conflict. Plots are driven by conflict, both from outside the protagonist and within them. Write the outer conflict on one side of the card, and the inner conflict on the other side of the card. Making you think about what’s going on inside the character during outside-focused plot points and vice versa will help you to understand your character’s motivations to act in the world, and avoid continuity errors while they’re navel gazing.
  • Character arcs. If you’re character driven, writing out your character arc and seeing how it fits into your plot can be incredibly useful. Once your plot is laid out, construct a set of cards for the character arc. Write the character’s original state on the first card, then look for plot points they are involved in. Make a short note on each subsequent card about how that event affected them, and any small change they undergo because of it. The card representing your climax should complete their transformation.
  • Patterns. If you enjoy embedding patterns or symbolism in your writing, this is also a good way to include them. Perhaps you want to acknowledge the effects that Ocarina of Time had on you or your story, and have your characters visit locations that reference each of the seven temples. Or maybe you want the events of your story to subtly echo the predictions of the seer in Völuspá. Write out the patterns you want to include, then look through your scenes for opportunities to show those hidden depths.

Traditional Story Structures

Novice and experienced writers alike use established storytelling structures to figure out their plots. There are plenty of ways to do this on a computer, of course, but if you need to get it out on paper, why not take this author’s route and go BIG?

Ingredients

  • Index cards or sticky notes
  • Pen
  • Thick marker/s
  • Clear space or cork board
  • Butcher paper
  • Masking tape

Directions

  1. Find a story structure that you find appealing. There are many available in the wilds of the internet, most of which can be represented visually.
  2. Draw the shape of the structure you’ve chosen on the butcher paper. Don’t be shy, take up a lot of space!
  3. Write the parts of the plot that you already know, one scene or plot point per card. Lay them in the section of the design where they belong.
  4. Fill in the spots that are missing. If you get stuck somewhere, jump to another part of the design and fill that in. Keep going until you have at least a couple of scenes in each section.
  5. Look at each section of the design individually. Figure out what order the scenes make sense in. Fill in any gaps between scenes, if necessary. Look at the sections’ feel and what ideas it covers. Does each scene resonate with this section? Does the series of scenes as a whole properly represent this section of the structure?
  6. Look at the design overall. Make sure each section transitions smoothly from the previous section and into the next section, without weird jumps. Each section should flow from cause to effect to cause.
  7. Once you’re satisfied, tape everything down into place. Post your story outline up where you can see it from your computer (or notebook, or typewriter, if you’re old school like that). Write!

When to Use This Method

There are some strong, classic-for-a-reason plot structures out there. There’s nothing shameful about using something like the Hero’s Journey or one of Tobias’s Master Plots for your story’s frame. You’ve still got to build the house all by yourself.

If you’re stuck, or if you feel like your plot is sagging, limp, or incomplete, using a plot structure could be just the ticket. If you’re a novice writer, it’s also a good way to make sure that you don’t make some of the more obvious plot mistakes.

Index Card Plotting Tips

  • Try to keep your cards short – if you find yourself writing a paragraph, it’s probably multiple plot points or scenes, and should get broken out into more than one card. A scene can usually be written as three things: the beginning state, the change that happens during the scene, and the end state. A plot point is often just the change.
  • Whatever method you use, make it your own. Mark up the cards or doodle on them if you’re so inclined. Use kitten stickers to mark which scenes your protagonist’s tiger familiar shows up in. Use emoticon stickers for the way the reader should feel during and after the scene. Award stars to your favorites. Get ridiculous. Have fun with this.

 

None of these methods stand on their own. There is no magic way to make a story appear. But changing the way you think about your story by changing your tools can help you get further than just staring at your screen.

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Comments

  1. Brigitta M.

    I do a variation of the Traditional Story Structure method.

    Lots of floor space
    pen
    5×7 cards
    paperclips (optional, not the itty bitty ones, but the larger ones)
    post-its (optional)

    By the time I get to this method I have a general idea of the larger structure but I need to fill in a number of gaps. I’ll usually use about 50 to 100 cards for a novel and while this wouldn’t be enough for someone who needs to have every detail planned out ahead of time it’s enough to get me started on a solid beginning while giving enough wiggle room for character development.

    The first few cards I write out have things like “Inciting Incident,” “Midpoint,” “Climax,” “Denouement,” and other “big scene stuff” that can vary depending on the story I’m trying to tell. For example, in a zombie post-apoc piece, a big scene might be “group encounters massive horde.” While in a ghost story somewhere along the line “MC realizes they can’t depend on logic to explain the happenings anymore.” These cards will be in a horizontal line.

    It’s about putting in what I know readers will expect if they’re genre-savvy so I can be sure to hit those high points. Then I’ll fill in a card that says where they run across the horde or what incident makes the MC say “Yep, it’s a ghost” and other things that the group or MC had to do to get to that point. Those cards go underneath the bigger scene cards as it’s all connected.

    Most of the time, since I write horror, there are a LOT of character deaths. I’ll put those names on post-its and what incident causes them to die. Not that the darn characters won’t stubbornly survive on occasion or die when they weren’t supposed to. These post-its just kind of end up in a pile by my side, but they could just as easily go with the vertical group. Someone else could use colored index cards but I find the post-it method is a better way to keep track of the living and the dead when the count is high.

    When I’ve got my 50-100 or so cards, I’ll paperclip a stack together so I have the larger themes/concepts together then shuffle those around in accordance to what order works best for the story. Sometimes the mid-point I had planned works better as the climax (horror and tragedy often go hand-in-hand which means sometimes the story is better served by letting the villain have the big win and no takebacks, but the hero gets the mid-point instead, because it’s at least got to seem possible for them to do so).

    I don’t know if this technique would work for everyone. It’s a bit too loosey-goosey for someone who needs something like the Snowflake method and it’s also best if the writer is experienced in the genre they’re writing in so it’s not necessarily a technique I’d recommend for a beginning writer since it’s a good way to fall back on cliches and tropes as opposed to knowing what’s necessary for the type of story that they would be telling (still using horror, it’s pretty standard for the hero to trip while being chased by the villain. It makes sense due to fear, etc, but it’s also overused. I’ll usually replace it with doing something like running headlong into a wall or other obstacle because the character is so busy panicking they didn’t watch where they were going. Added bonus: wall equals new barrier for hero to overcome).

  2. I, User

    I still can’t get over the fact that the name of the article is Three Ways to Plot With Index Cards but the URL says Three Excuses To Use Office Supplies. Does this reveal an original name that was changed?

    • Em Dash Buck

      Haha, good catch! Yup, my original title was in fact Three Excuses to Use Office Supplies. It’s an open secret that I collect office supplies, and I love coming up with excuses to use my hoard. It ended up getting changed because Three Ways to Plot with Index Cards is a clearer, more accurate title.

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