Thursday, December 12

Using Index Cards To Outline A Novel

"The card system is your map and your guide; the Plot Points your checkpoints along the way, the 'last-chance' gas station before you hit the high desert; the ending, your destination." (Syd Field, Screenwriting)

I've been changing how I write. These days I use (virtual) index cards to create a detailed outline of my novel before I put pen to paper to create a first draft.

That said, I do write bits and pieces of scenes here and there, as the ideas come to me, so I have a feeling for my main characters' voices while I'm doing the cards.

Filling out index cards--approximately 56 index cards--will be familiar to just about anyone who has written a screenplay.  

Writing A Novel Using Index Cards

The first question I was asked after I explained this method to a friend was: That's too detailed. Are you nuts?!

But, hey, this is working for me (so far), maybe it'll work for you.

Before I go on, I'd like to mention that I'm not using physical index cards, I'm using the Index Cards app. I've been using this app for a few months now and can't recommend it highly enough. But one word of warning. I've had the program crash on me a few times, so I've learnt (the hard way) to back up my outlines. Be thou warned.

The Structure of a Novel

Although I love writing novellas--they are so much quicker--my first love is the novel, and I think this is also true for many readers. For my purposes, a novel is 80,000 (or so) words.

I've structured my current novel as follows:

First Act:
Trailer: 4 cards
First sequence: 5 cards
Second sequence: 5 cards

Second Act:
Third Sequence: 7  cards
Fourth Sequence: 7 cards
Fifth Sequence: 7 cards
Sixth Sequence: 7 cards

Third Act:
Seventh Sequence: 7 cards
Eighth Sequence: 7 cards

Total: 56 cards. That comes out to about 1,400 words per card (/per scene).

Those numbers are approximate. At the moment I have more than 56 cards, and the scenes are going to vary in length. When I roll up my sleeves and get writing I'm confident that not all scenes are going to be between 1,400 and 1,500 words! Some are going to be longer--much longer--and some much shorter.

These cards aren't meant to act as a straight jacket, just an approximation. After all, I'm writing a novel not a screenplay. They are a tool I can use to expose the bones of my story and let me suss out the gaps, the enormous gaping plot holes. As many, many, writers have said, it's much easier to change an outline than to change a completed first draft!

The Three Act Structure

I've written about the three act structure here: Story Structure.


Each sequence, like the story itself, will have a beginning, middle and end. In the beginning we introduce the characters and setting. Also, we might foreshadow at least a few of the conflicts to come. 

In the middle we have conflict and try-fail cycles. Characters strive to achieve their goals and are thwarted. They devise new strategies and try again. They are thwarted again, and so on.

At the end there is a resolution. Either the character achieves their goal or they don't. Usually they don't. Stakes are raised (and clearly spelt out).


Each scene is a lot like each sequence. Each has a beginning, a middle and an end. In the beginning we establish the characters and setting, in the middle conflict is generated by characters striving for goals and falling short. And, at the end, though there is a resolution of sorts, most commonly the hero will not reach their goal, the stakes will be raised, and they'll have to try, try, and try again.

Elements of an Index Card: Scenes

Each index card is either a scene or a sequel. (Here are two excellent articles by Jim Butcher which explain scenes and sequels.)

If the index card is a scene, then here are the categories I use:


Who is in the scene? List each character.

Character's goal

For each main character in the scene, list his/her goal for this scene. Each character's goal should be concrete/specific enough to take a picture of. (Each character's goal will tie into their goal for both the sequence and the story as a whole.)

Character's stakes

For each main character in the scene, if the character wins/achieves her goal, what will he/she win?
If the character fails to achieve his/her goal, what will he/she lose?


What happens in this scene?


Where does it happen? Indoors? Outdoors? 
Is this setting interesting on its own? Does it have any significance to any of the characters? To the theme?


When does the action in this scene take place? What time of day or night is it? What date is it?


Why must this goal me accomplished now? If there is no sense of urgency, conflict is undermined.


What opposes the character's acquisition of their goal? 

Elements of an Index Card: Sequels

Dwight V. Swain in his invaluable text, Techniques of the Selling Writer, writes that:

"A sequel is a unit of transition that links two scenes, like the coupler between two railroad cars. It sets forth your focal character's reaction to the scene just completed and provides him with motivation for the scene next to come."

Swain goes on to note that the functions of a sequel are threefold:

a. "To translate disaster into goal."
b. "To telescope reality."
c. "To control tempo."

I'm only going to touch on the first of these functions--turning disaster into goal--here.

So, if a particular scene is a sequel, then these are the questions I ask:


How does the viewpoint character--as well as the other main characters--react to the resolution of the previous scene? If the hero achieves his goal is he happy or is he devastated because it's not what he thought it would be? If he didn't achieve his goal, is he angry, resigned, depressed, emotionally devastated, etc, etc, etc?

Remember, this is unfiltered emotion. The hero is just reacting. (Although how a character reacts can tell readers an awful lot about your character.)

Review hero's situation and enumerate his/her options

After your POV character (which for the sake of brevity I've been assuming is your hero/protagonist) stops reacting they need to figure out what to do. So they'll need to review their situation (what were the stakes?) and think of several things they could do next. For each possibility make sure the goal is clear, as is the opposition and the new stakes.

The main thing: Make the goal for each possible alternative scenario crystal clear.


The hero must decide. Which option the hero picks should be consistent with their strengths and weaknesses, who they are as a person. Which is just another way of saying that it should be plausible.


That's almost it. As I go through my cards I try to remember to ask myself these questions:

- Have I shown that the protagonist is clear and resourceful?
- Have I given readers a clear idea of what the hero's wound is?
- Have I shown the hero's special talent?
- Have I shown the hero's primary strength and weakness?
- Have I shown the hero's quirk?
- Have I demonstrated the hero's guiding principle?
- Is the protagonist pursuing justice?
- Is the hero active? Does he/she act of her own volition or is she pushed into action by plot events?

That's it! Good writing.

PS: I just listened to The Narrative Breakdown podcast and picked up these tips:

1. Surround your hero with characters that lack his/her particular strength.
2. Give the hero three rules to live by, whether stated or implied.
3. A catchphrase (Poirot: I do not approve of murder) can go a long way to communicating character.

Photo credit: "Index card pic" by Karen Woodward under Creative Commons Attribution.


  1. I've been really enjoying your recent posts. I've played around with a lot of these same sources, particularly the 7 point plot stuff, and scenes on index cards. I'd say that learning about scenes and sequels was one of the major breakthrough points for me. I first saw an article on scenes and sequels on the 'Snowflake' guy's Blog which he'd cribbed Swain's selling writer.

    I also found Jim Butcher's livejournal a good source of info on how to use scenes and sequels to control the pace of your novel. I don't think he's updated it for a few years but what is there is a very good resource for genre writers, and well worth a look.

    Anyway, enjoying the posts keep 'em coming.

    1. Lee, thanks for your kind words.

      "I'd say that learning about scenes and sequels was one of the major breakthrough points for me." Myself as well. Dwight V. Swain's books were a revelation. They changed my perception of what writing is.

      Yes, Jim Butcher's discussion of writing was what, indirectly, first put me on to Dwight V. Swain. It's an excellent discussion on its own, but it opened a door for me to a group of teachers who meticulously break the craft down and show you how it's done--or can be done. To me, Dwight V. Swain was like a magician demystifying his craft.

      By the way, if you haven't yet taken a look at Deborah Chester's blog (Jim Butcher's writing mentor and one of the ppl he dedicated Storm Front to) you might enjoy it. Lots of great advice on writing:


    2. I found the snowflake guy, that led me to Jim's livejournal, and then I bought the swain book. I think I must have read Mr Butcher's stuff on writing a dozen times before I'd even read one of his books. Then I promptly devoured his Calderon series. Have added Deborah's blog to my blogroll thanks for the heads up.

  2. Thanks for your post! I've recently started working with index cards, but it's good to know what information should be included. I really like your blog, lots of helpful advice :)

    1. Thanks Kim!

      Don't feel that you need to stay true to these categories. Experiment. Keep what works, change what doesn't. As G. R.R. Martin said recently, "As the famous saying goes; stealing from one source is plagiarism but stealing from lots of sources is research!"

  3. I recently discovered the index card app, very useful for writing on the go. Great post, thanks for the tips.


    1. Thanks mooderino, I bought the index card app after Chuck Wendig recommended it, but didn't use it much for the first month or so. Now, though, I do all my outlining in it. Don't know what I'd do without it!

  4. Karen, you say that in your first act you devote four cards to the trailer. What is the trailer?

    Then, you say that you devote 5 cards to the first sequence. Does the sequence consist of scene followed by sequel? So, your 5 cards are split say 3 cards for the scene and 2 cards for the sequel? Or are those five cards your beginning, middle, end and try/fail sequel?

    1. Hi John, great questions!

      A while ago I read Syd Field's 2005 update of his classic book, Screenwriting. Most of what I'm going to say comes from that book.

      Syd Field believed (I should double-check this, but this is what I remember) that one should have 14 cards for each 30 minutes of film. That works out to about 56 cards (most screenplays are 120 pages long; one page per minute of film). Anyway. The classic breakdown--or so I gather--is three acts, five plot points and eight sequences.

      Act One -- Sequence 1 & 2
      Act Two -- Sequence 3, 4, 5 & 6
      Act Three -- Sequence 7 & 8

      That said, eight sequences are an approximation, a generality. For instance, many (most?) adventure movies (think James Bond, Indiana Jones, etc.) have three sequences in the first act, bringing the total number of sequences to 9. (Or it could be that the third act is shortened, leaving the total number of sequences at 8. I don't know.)

      Syd Field didn't say a lot about what happens to the cards. For instance, are the cards in the first act divided equally between the three sequences--4, 5, 5--or some variation of that, or is the card count for all the sequences adjusted?

      That's the background. As I mentioned in the article, since I'm writing a novel I'm not worrying about being as precise as a screenwriter would have to be so I'm shooting for 4 scenes in the trailer and 5 each in the other two. That said, I'm practically positive I'm going to need more than 14 cards for the first act! Ah well.

      So, what's a trailer. A trailer--this is what I think at least--is that opening bit at the start of a movie that gets the audience on the edge of their seats. For example, in Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the trailer is that marvellous sequence where Indy searches for the golden idol, claims it, runs for his life, gets the idol taken away, runs from angry aboriginal people, climbs in a plane, freaks out about a snake, and escapes. Whew! Now THAT was great filmmaking! (I'm SO excited that Lawrence Kasdan is helping to write Star Wars 7. Yes!!! * Does happy dance *)

      Okay, back to your questions. What's a sequence?

      Here's a quotation from Syd Field's Screenwriting:

      "As far as I'm concerned, the sequence is perhaps the most important element of the screenplay. A sequence is _a series of scenes connected by one single idea with a definite beginning, middle, and end_. It is a unit, or block, of dramatic action unified by _one single idea_. It is the skeleton, or backbone, of your script and, like the nature of structure itself, holds everything together."

      That quote is from chapter 11, on the second page.

      You asked:

      "Does the sequence consist of scene followed by sequel ? So, your 5 cards are split say 3 cards for the scene and 2 cards for the sequel? Or are those five cards your beginning, middle, end and try/fail sequel?"

      At the moment, I have 9 cards in the first sequence (yes, they grew!). Beginnings are difficult for me because, well, it's the _beginning_. I'm starting, in a sense, from square one. There's no tension, the reader doesn't identify with my characters (they haven't been introduced yet!) but I need to set the story up as quickly as possible. It's said--and I think there's a lot of wisdom in it--that if one doesn't grab a reader's attention with something gripping, significant and curiosity-provoking in the first page they'll put the book down and find something more interesting. (No pressure or anything.)

      (I've reached the character limit for a reply! Will continue this in the next comment.)

    2. (This is a continuation of my previous comment.)

      Because of this, I find that the first scene is an unholy Frankenstein-ish mix between scene and sequel. It's a scene, but I try and also weave in elements of a sequel. Or perhaps it's better to think of it as a scene followed by a short sequel (one that isn't long enough to be a different Scene) followed by more of the scene. Sort of reflection-on-the-go. Reflection light? lol Whatever. Something along those lines. (grin)

      That sort of fine tuning comes later. I just write the first scene knowing it's crap and that I'll have to change it later. (The trailer is what contains all the action, so hopefully that'll act as a promissory note to the reader: good stuff coming soon (tm).)

      Right now I'm top-heavy on scenes. As I say, the first sequence contains (at the moment) 9 cards, nine Scenes, but only two of those are sequels. When I'm done there should be either more sequels or more more mini-sequels woven into the scenes themselves.

      By the way, about sequences, yes there are (give or take) 8 sequences in a script but, more generally, a sequence can be any length as long as it's unified by one single idea. So you could have a sequence nested inside a sequence nested inside a sequence nested ... well, you get the idea.

      John, I hope I've answered the question! Though something tells me that I just muddied already murky waters.



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