Outlining With Index Cards

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but on the continuum of pantser to plotter, I’m pretty far down on the pantser scale (as in, by the seat of my pants, meaning I don’t do much in the way of outlining). I do try to outline–really, I do! I’ve read a number of craft books promoting the practice, from Story Engineering by Larry Brooks to Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. I’ve downloaded beat sheets and mapped pinch points.

But for some reason, outlining has never quite clicked for me. I’ll get half-way through an outline for a project, only to get so excited about the project that I abandon the outline and just start drafting. Or, I’ll outline all the way through, but then once I start drafting I’ll realize some plot point isn’t working, and instead of going back to the outline and working it out that way, I just say eff this! and figure it out on page. Usually, by the time I’m done with a novel and go back to look at my original outline, the finished manuscript looks absolutely nothing like the outline I started out with.

And honestly, that’s worked out okay for me so far. I’ve written mostly first person narratives that move linearly through time (well, one was close third person, but that’s almost the same). I’ve never pushed myself to work with multiple POV characters, different settings or times, or even too many subplots.

Until now.

I’m really excited about the project I’m about to dive into (no spoilers yet!) but I’m self-aware enough about my own creative process to know that my usually laissez-faire style isn’t going to cut it. With 4-5 POV characters, two parallel timelines, and plenty of intertwining plot lines, I need to do the diligence of actually outlining. Which means I think I need to change my method of outlining in the first place, since nothing has really worked for me in the past.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the past few days, and I’ve finally decided to try out using index cards to outline! It’s not a method I’m totally unfamiliar with–several authors (including Caraval author Stephanie Garber) who I follow on social media use it to outline their books. But I never knew exactly how. Apparently there are numerous methods, but all of them focus on the basic principle of writing scenes, character arcs, plot points, conflicts, etc on single index cards, then adding, removing, or rearranging the index cards until they begin to resemble the coherent plot of a novel.

I’m not positive it will convert me from my pantsing ways, but I’m hopeful for a few reasons:

First, it seems like a very tactile method. Before I actually start drafting on my laptop, I really enjoy brainstorming, jotting down ideas, and fleshing out characters longhand. But in the past, I’ve done my outlining digitally, either on a word processor or in a program like Scrivener. I’m hoping the index card method will be a more organic way for me to explore my ideas.

Second, there’s plenty of flexibility. Like I said, the second I feel boxed in or off base with my outline, I go off script in the draft. But with index cards, if something isn’t working I can just get rid of the card or write a new one. I don’t need to have a sense of pinch points, character arcs, or even linear plot in advance of jotting down scenes and seeing how they fit together. I’m hoping this will stimulate my creativity while still providing structure.

Finally, it seems new and fun. Hey, I’ll admit it–I can be a bit of a dilettante! But sometimes, exploring a new method or element of craft can be just the thing to keep you moving forward and learning new things.

If you’re interested in learning more, here are a few of the resources I tracked down:

Holly Lisle–Plotting Under Pressure

Writer’s Digest–Create Structure in Your Fiction Using Index Cards

Greenkeys–How to Plot a Novel

Have you ever outlined using index cards before? Do you want me to report back on how it turns out? Let me know in the comments section!

One thought on “Outlining With Index Cards

  1. I have tried outlining with index cards before, but I failed.:-( I tried to do it all in one color, and I think that’s where I messed up. With a pile of lookalike cards (with too many words on each card), it was hard to search for a particular scene. If I tried it again, I’d write fewer words on each card and use different colors for different POV’s.

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