How I Use Note Cards for Outlining

Note Cards for Outlining

Finding the Story with Note Cards

I’ll admit it, I’m outliner. I love plotting my story as thoroughly as possible before I write a scene. And I LOVE using index cards for outlining. LOVE! Most writers I’ve met either love or loath them. I used to loath them and now I love them. I’ll show you the process I use now, but first let me tell you why I didn’t like using note cards before.

Because I didn’t know how to use them!

I heard about the concept of using note cards when I was taking my first creative writing class several years ago. My teacher mentioned it, but he didn’t seem like a big fan. However, I liked the idea of having everything on cards that could be moved around, eliminated or added to easily, so I made them. A lot of them. And then I started laying them out on the floor and all looked good. Right up until I needed to move part of a card…

See, when I started using note cards, I wrote partial scenes on them which made it impossible to change elements of the story. For instance, if I was making note cards for the story about Jack & Jill, I would have put ‘Jack and Jill ran up the hill to fetch a pale of water and Jack fell down and broke his crown’ on a single card.

But what happened when my story evolved and I needed to give Jack and Jill some bigger problems? For instance, using my Jack & Jill example, maybe I decided I wanted Jack to trip on his way up the hill and Jill to stop and pick flowers where she ended up meeting a guy named Tom, but my card said they had to go up the hill together to get the water! At first I would scribble out parts and add new ones in, but that ended up being a mess (not to mention, impossible to read).  I had way too many events on one card. I needed the freedom to move things around and add new elements, so I got very stuck because of my method. That’s the moment my love affair with note cards ended. I felt pigeonholed and I didn’t have the experience to know it could be done a different way.

And THIS changed everything:

Dustin Lance Black's Creative Spark

This is Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black’s method for writing a script. Even if you aren’t working on a script, you will probably still find some very useful bits in here. I particularly LOVE his method with note cards, which he discusses in the video.

This is where I learned to use note cards correctly.

And it’s super simple: Every card has a singular idea. A singular idea.

So let’s take a look at the above Jack and Jill example to see how this works out. If I were to create those note cards again using this method, it would look something like this:

Note card 1: Jack and Jill start walking up the hill.

Note card 2: Jill sees flowers.

Note card 3: Jill tells Jack she’s going to pick flowers and that she’ll catch up with him.

Note card 4: Jill wanders away from Jack to go pick flowers.

Note card 5: Jill meets Tom.

Note card 6: Jack falls down.

So now with each event on a separate card, there’s freedom to move these around.

For instance, does Jill meet Tom before she picks the flowers? Does she meet Tom while she’s picking flowers? Does she end up not meeting Tom? When you have all of the ideas on separate cards, the choice is yours. You can change the order, eliminate or add. And for me, this is where my imagination soars! I can just move cards around and try out a few different ways of delivering a scene.

When I start shaping a scene, I’ll stack these on top of each other and summarize the scene on the top card (as shown in the video), then use binder clips to hold the cards for that scene together. That way I always have access to all of the parts, so if I decide to pull those apart and try something new, the information is there.

It does take me a lot of time to do this! And I’m not sure I’ll always use this exact method, but I’ve found it particularly useful for writing a historical piece because it helps me to keep track of all the research and events.Plus, as I’m adding additional subplots and characters, I find it easier to use this method.

What about you guys? What methods do you use for outlining and planning your novel, script or writing project? Drop a line in the comments below and tell us about it if you like!


P.S. An update about Camp NaNoWriMo is coming soon!

You can see this article and many more at my new site, here. 🙂


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Ch. 2 of Your Book Starts Here (Outer Story vs. Inner Story) | Ellie Lewis

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