Create Structure in Your Fiction Using Index Cards

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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 Earthwillplant 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.

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