Tools of the Trade: Index cards

Just as my notebooks are a key component to the brainstorming stage of my writing, my index cards are essential to the outlining stage. I usually use 3″x5″ cards, but sometimes 4″x6″s if I know I’ll be including a lot of detail for each scene. I vastly prefer lined cards over blank ones, probably because they bring order to my sloppy handwriting (see below):

I know other writers use index cards to write down scenes randomly and mix up different ways of arranging them before settling on a final order. I’ve done that occasionally (most notably with The Way We Fall, because there were a whole lot of small incidents I knew needed to happen but I wasn’t immediately sure the most powerful sequence to put them in) but usually I outline very linearly, and if I don’t know what happens after scene A, I have to stop and brainstorm before I keep outlining. Scenes often feel meaningless if I don’t already know how they fit into the larger structure of the story.

But what I do like index cards for is that concrete sense of structure. Each card contains the notes for one scene, and separating the scenes onto different cards reminds me that each scene needs to serve a clear purpose and move the story along in its own right. If there’s nothing interesting or important written on that card, then I need to incorporate that information into a different scene where things are actually happening.

They’re also very convenient when I’m actually writing. I can much more easily prop the card for the scene I’m currently writing by the hinge of my laptop than an entire notebook or printed out paper. And if I’m writing on the go, I can just bring along the cards for the scenes I’ll have time to work on rather than the entire outline!


Tools of the Trade: Index cards — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing. I’ve just starting using index cards to outline my new project. I’m on chapter 5. I’m struggling because I don’t know the end of the story and I feel I need to know it before I write. Hope the inspiration hits.

    • I find sometimes the answers are there in my head, but I have to sort of let them surface rather than drag them out. When I’m stuck I’ll often leave my workspace, sit/lie down somewhere relaxing, and just picture the characters interacting and see how my imagination plays things out. It works surprisingly frequently!

      Good luck with your outline!

  2. Thanks for sharing part of your process. I often think about using index cards, but I haven’t tried it (I have stickys but they often get unstuck and sometimes lost).

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