Plot Cards — Writing Tools

I have always been a planner when it comes to writing. I like my plots in orderly little rows before I start writing. Now, that’s not to say that I don’t fly by the seat of my pants on occasion, but I like order. I like to know what the beginning is and what the end is and have a good idea of what happens in the middle.

For a long time, I did standard outlines like I was taught in school, with the letters and the numbers and at least 2 points in each subcategory, yadda yadda. I used the Hero’s Journey as my blueprint for my plots and everything worked fine.

As time passed, I heard different authors talk about writing their outlines out on index cards. Seemed crazy to me. What a messy way to outline! What happens if you drop your cards? Outline all over the place. Way too disorganized for my orderly brain, thank you very much!

Then I picked up Holly Lisle’s Create a Plot Clinic. She talked about using the note cards for plotting out a story (and for using a similar technique for revision). Though skeptical, I gave it a try for one NaNoWriMo. I believe it was 2011, when I wrote The Insane Sorceress, since that’s the first stack of plot cards I could find. After Nano, I decided to take the plot card thing one step further and I wrote out every scene for the Sentinels of Mysera. Then… horror of horrors… I shuffled the cards… I laid them out on the table and started playing around with the order of my story. I let my imagination play with the “what-ifs” that came up with the random order of the cards.

Two cards randomly ended up next to each other. Two scenes that were originally in reverse order and very far apart in terms of the story. But when I looked at them… something clicked. I rearranged the story furiously and then stared at the completely new (but better) direction this took SoM.

I became a firm convert of plot cards for outlining. Every NaNo since then has been plot carded out. I’ve used the exercises from Create a Plot Clinic to give myself ideas and work out the kinks in the plot ahead of time. If you want to know more details about plot cards, I highly recommend Holly Lisle’s clinic, but I’ll give you a very basic rundown.

The plot cards have been very helpful in this year’s NaNo planning so far (which I have managed to squeak in between Redwall Survivor stuff). I had a lot of ideas for this year, but I wasn’t sure how to make them all mesh into something that made sense.

My cards all follow a similar format. I start with a title that sort of describes the scene (sometimes I get quite snarky). Beneath that goes the POV character for the scene (except for when I did Maiden of the Wood, which was all one POV, so there was no need for that). Then I do a sentence or two that describes the scene I have in mind. As you can see above, I changed a little bit after initially writing the card. At the very bottom, I occasionally write a snippet of dialogue that comes to mind, or notes that I want to make sure to remember for that particular scene.

I keep writing cards like this. Sometimes I’ll follow a plot thread for several cards, and sometimes I just write random scenes that don’t seem to have any place. Once I have a decent number of cards, I start playing with the order. Stuff gets shuffled around and rearranged. I play with the different orders that present themselves. Eventually, I get something that works. There are almost always holes in the plot at this point. Sometimes I fill them in before writing starts, and sometimes it happens in the middle of writing.

Once I have a good number of cards (which for NaNoWriMo tends to be between 30 and 50 to reach the 50,000 word mark) in an order I’m happy with, I ring them together.

As I go through writing, I flip through the cards and write the scene on that card. When the scene is done, I flip to the next one. On occasion, I come up with a new idea in the middle of writing. This happened last year with The Traitor of Mysera. I decided on a whole new direction partway through the month and pulled out several cards and slipped in new, hastily-written ones.

How about you? Are you a planner or a pantser? Do you use a traditional outline, plot cards, or something else?

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