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Create Structure in Your Fiction Using Index Cards

Categories: Back to Basics, Craft & Technique, Excerpts, Haven't Written Anything Yet, Writing for Beginners, How to Improve Writing Skills, Literary Fiction Writing, There Are No Rules Blog by the Editors of Writer's Digest, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy, Writing Your First Draft Tags: craft/technique, creative writing exercise, fantasy, novel, paranormal, plot/structure, science fiction, short stories.

I was reading through some of our older science fiction titles, and I came upon Worlds of Wonder by David Gerrold (published in 2001). As I was flipping through the book, I read an opening line that intrigued me:

“All writing is list-making. Nothing more. The trick is knowing what to put next on the list.”

This seemed a puzzlingly simple notion–that developing the plot of your story was in some way akin to the act of jotting down your grocery list. And yet, as I started to read further, what the author was saying made a lot of sense:

The thing about Lego bricks is that you can build just about anything you can imagine–if you’re patient enough. People have built whole cities out of Lego bricks. The problem is that you have to figure out yourself how to put the things together. While there might be instructions on how to build a specific kind of Lego castle, there are no instructions on how you can build the castle that exists in your own imagination.

Planning your story is the same experience. You have a sense of what you want it to be, how you want the pieces to fit together, but actually getting this brick to fit next to that one…. Pretty soon, you start to wonder how the hell Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven and Frederik Pohl and Richard Matheson and Jack Finney and Anne McCaffrey and C.J. Cherryh and Connie Willis can make it look so easy.

David goes on to suggest this exercise, which I share with you below. (A sidenote: What’s particularly amusing about it is that he is the writer of the episode “The Trouble with Tribbles” from Star Trek: The Original Series, which is, in my opinion, one of the best Star Trek episodes ever.)

Get yourself a stack of index cards. Write a one-line synopsis of each specific scene that you think should be in your story, one scene per card. Don’t worry about writing them down in any specific order. Just write them down as fast as you think of them:

  • Lt. Uhura brings a tribble aboard the Enterprise.
  • Lt. Uhura first gets the tribble from a local merchant.
  • Uhura’s tribble has a litter of little tribbles.
  • Scotty discovers tribbles in the air vents.
  • Kirk finds a tribble on his captain’s chair.
  • Kirk and Spock beam over to the space station. Kirk opens up the storage compartments and lots of tribbles fall down on his head.

But this isn’t enough for a complete story. You need a second plot line too, something to complicate the first one: 

  • The Klingons want shore leave, but what they really want is … to disrupt the plan for Sherman’s Planet.
  • The Klingons are on the speace station. A barroom brawl breaks out.
  • Kirk investigates the fight. He bawls out Scotty and restricts him to quarters. Scotty is glad for the chance to read his technical manuals.
  • The plan for Sherman’s Planet is that Earth will plant a new grain. If nothing earthlike will grow, the Klingons get the planet.
  • The Klingons are here to poison the grain.
  • The tribbles eat the poisoned grain, reproduce like crazy and fall on Kirk’s head, but McCoy discovers that they’re dying.

Now, take all these separate cards and shuffle them together and start laying them out on the kitchen table in the order you think they should go. First organize each plot line in its own thread. Then you can go back and forth between separate threads, picking up the next appropriate scene from each.

When you have all the cards laid out in order, go through them as if you’re reading a comic book or a storyboard and see if they read like a story. Is this a logical or inevitable progression of events? If it isn’t, start moving the cards around–no, this one needs to go before that one; this scene has to follow that scene, this group goes here, not there. Oops, I need a scene to fill in between this one and that one, I need another scene to foreshadow.

Keep doing this–adding, cutting, rearranging–until you think you have all the scenes the story needs in an order that works.

What you will discover is that everything is connected to everything else. As the various pieces of the story start fitting together, they affect each other; so you will have to make continual adjustments as you go.

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.

A story is a set of motivational units, strung like pearls on a string. Every scene must serve a specific purpose. Every scene should propel the story forward. Every scene must make the next scene inevitable.

So what do you think–is this sound advice? For my money, I say it is. I especially like what David has to say about treating each scene as a “motivational unit” and being able to see, from a visual perspective, those scenes that don’t move the story along, and therefore are necessary to cut.

Do you employ this technique, or something similar, when creating a structure for your novel or story? Or do you disagree entirely with this approach? I’d love to hear about your own methods.


Rachel’s Pick of the Week

Writing Science Fiction, Fantasy, and the Paranormal Tutorial, taught by Lucianne Diver

This 60-minute tutorial, taught by literary agent Lucianne Diver (who also writes paranormal), covers everything from worldbuilding and character development to creating magic systems and internal and external conflicts, and readying your manuscript for submission. It’s an essential tutorial for those interested in writing science fiction, fantasy, or paranormal, and I highly recommend it!


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11 Responses to Create Structure in Your Fiction Using Index Cards

  1. G Robert says:

    And in lieu of using index cards, for those woe prefer a computer, a standard excel or numbers file. Enlarge the rectangles and write the ideas in each rectangle..arrange later. I have used this formula before.

  2. january5bday says:

    I personally still prefer making an outline on the computer, but that’s just because I would get too disorganized and confused using the index card idea. It’s a great idea, however. I read about a similar technique in my creative writing class.

  3. Baba10 says:

    What if, I know a streamline of story, but exactly positioning the scenes seems tough for me. Please suggest something that would suite me as a starter. ??

  4. Rina75 says:

    I’m going to buy index cards at my local KMart tomorrow and plot out my Sci-Fi story.

  5. petersaye says:

    This is a great method. Personally, I have ideas and jot them down, then sketch out a plot plan – like a map – on a notepad, supplementing it as new ideas fill in the plot. I then write from this, picking areas of the plot that give me the most inspiration at the time. However, I print out chapters and often jiggle them around to fit better, so I think it comes to pretty much the same thing as far as chapter order, but not in plot building. I’m definitely going to try to work this method into my writing, thank you for the ideas.

  6. Jim S. says:

    This technique is similar to what I learned in my English Composition class with Professor Roffman at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). But instead of focusing on the scenes as a functional unit, our lessons taught us different sentence structures for both literary and rhetorical works. We’d use one sentence structure per index card, and on the back we’d write examples of the pattern in use.

    I will definitely adopt this technique for my own works. Thank you for sharing this online!

    Warm regards,

    Jim

  7. Martin Lake says:

    I think this is an excellent idea. However, I have two problems with it. I can barely read my own writing and I would be bound to lose some of the cards (but that may be as the story demands of course.)

    So, instead of cards I use PowerPoint. I don’t lose them and can move them around although I’m sure that the physical handling of cards will be better still.

    I think I’ll try to improve my writing.

    I gather that Scrivener allows you to do something similar so I’ll check this out.

  8. Crossing Guard says:

    Thank you, this was a fantastic way to “see” things differently. And the most amazing part is that instead of using index cards, I can do the same thing with each scene in Scrivener. I have been playing with the software for a few weeks now, but the way you so clearly laid out my PURPOSE, it has given me new inspiration to get back into the game. Thanks!!

  9. FairytaleDreamer9 says:

    Thank you this really helped on getting me back on track with my fantasy novel. I have the whole story planned out, with the exception of details, in my head. They just raced so fast that it was hard to get to them. But now, I organized and plotted chapter eleven and I am ready to begin writing my book once again. I really think, with how long journey will be, that my little child, Key to the Secret Dreamers, is going to grow up into a trilogy. :D.

  10. Naomi says:

    I employed this method to lay out the framework for a novel. Being able to have each “motivational unit” on its own card, and then adding, deleting, and/or changing things as needed is much easier for me than when I use a traditional outlining method. Looking at the individual index cards helps me see where my story is stagnating (oh, no — nothing new happens for X number of index cards!), or where the flow did not make sense (okay, I’ve been piling more and more peril on my main character for X number of index cards — I need to switch things around, and give that main character a chance to catch their breath, and be pro-active!). I write out the cards using a pencil, so that I can easily change what happens on each card, if necessary. My favorite writing program has an index card feature, which I also use.

    I think “The Trouble with Tribbles” is one of the all time best episodes of all Star Trek series.

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