Last week I started writing about how I finally used note cards to start to plot out that novel I’ve been meaning to start writing, and I said:

And I might even go out and see if someone else has some note card outlining wisdom to share, too.

This week I’ve actually Googled it, and this is what I’ve found:

In her article for Writer’s Digest, “Create Structure in Your Fiction Using Index Cards,” Rachel Scheller went back to a terrific example from “The Trouble With Tribbles” writer David Gerrold, who mapped out a very simple strategy that I think would work better for short stories (or one-hour TV episodes) than novels, but this is really worth taking a look at. In particular, she quoted Gerrold as having written:

Some people like to do their outlining on a computer, but the actual physical act of writing scene synopses down on cards and shuffling them around on the kitchen table is still one of the best ways to get a sense of the rhythms of story structure, because it allows you to treat scenes as units.

Though I still won’t discount the computer as a tool that’s just as good for this exercise, one of the things I immediately responded to when I started to work with these note cards is that sense of building something, the tactile quality of assembling this physical thing that will eventually be a story.

Author Holly Lisle wrote a terrific post on the subject: “Notecarding: Plotting Under Pressure.” Here she suggests using note cards to help in some sort of plot emergency, when you don’t have a lot of time to suffer over the plot of your novel and just need to get started fast.

Referring you back to all the times I’ve advised writing as fast as you can, let’s go ahead and add plotting/outlining to that, too. After all, when you begin with the assumption—and you always should—that “no plan survives contact with the enemy,” then your heavily-pondered outline will be just as subject to change as a fast-and-furious outline, but the former is actually more likely to make your writing process more difficult. After all, if you’ve spent a year thinking about the book as a series of scenes in this order, it’ll be lots more difficult for you to take a necessary left turn from the outline you spent a year crafting than the same left turn from an outline you spent a week crafting.

Reading on, Numerologist Phil began to fall into a deep numerological infatuation with Holly Lisle. She breaks down the number of scenes necessary to fill a 100,000 word book using formulae and . . . sigh. She pegs a scene at approximately 2000 words so her planned 100,000-word book will need 50 scenes. She then divides the scenes between the various POV characters . . . one scene, one POV—yes!

Then she creates note cards that are blank except for the name of the POV character, which I think is a great idea. She’s keeping these scenes, and therefore the plot of her book, focused on the characters. It really is always about them—what they do, how they feel, how they interact with each other and the world, etc. Good advice this. Then she says:

With one set of character cards in hand, start writing down one-sentence scene ideas, one per card. Be a little crazy — just write down all the fun things that you can think of that could happen to the character you have in hand, keeping in mind that all scenes require conflict and change.

I added bold for emphasis on that last bit because that last bit should always be emphasized! Then, like David Gerrold, she suggests you start putting them in order. Does this work? How about this? Wait . . . this scene absolutely has to come after this scene, but then how long after? I really like the sense of play that this process evokes—depends on, really. We don’t always hear about opportunities to make crafting an outline fun.

Also working in a way that I’ve worked myself, she advises:

Once the cards are in order and you’ve read through them once or twice to make sure you have them the way you want them, sit down at the computer, type them in using either outline or bullet format.

Copy and paste them into the bottom of your novel document. Now just look at each sentence-scene, write the scene that it describes, and delete it when you’re done with it.

Read the whole post!

It’s too short to quote here without just copying it, so please click through to John August’s “10 Hints for Index Cards.” Though specific to screenplays, this aligns well with what David Gerrold and Holly Lisle were saying in terms of one scene per card so they can be shuffled around.

This is the idea that’s really making me rethink my own cobbled-together-on-the-fly “system.” I want to give this a try now, and in the worst way.

I’ll end with words of wisdom from John August: “Use the cards or the outline as a map, not a Bible.”


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. ebedigian says:

    This is mainly for those who always prefer to do whatever, on the computer—
    Saw some reactions to that effect in the comments.
    How about Literture & Latte’s SCAPPLE?
    It’s easy, simplistic, and you don’t need a kitchen table (always, providing you at least have something like a table holding your computer.)
    Stuff can be dragged and dropped into Scrivener if you happen to use that application as well.

  2. Pingback: TIME TO EXERCISE | Fantasy Author's Handbook


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