Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Ocean is a Big Place; or How to Use Note Cards to Make A Plot Outline

In case you haven’t noticed, the ocean is a really big place. It’s really deep, and there are all sorts of creatures that live there. It’s very easy to get lost in the ocean. That’s why some people take life jackets with them, and boats, and food, and all sorts of other stuff.

Writing a novel is a lot like trying to sail across the ocean. There’s an vast expanse of possibility to explore, if you get writer’s block it’s very much like being in the doldrums, and I pretty much imagine my internal editor as a shark. 

This sentence is terrible! Arrrrggggghhh!!!!

Some writers, like yours truly, like to be prepared. We like to sail across the ocean, safe in the knowledge that we’re never going to run out of food or drinkable water, that if we hit the doldrums we’ll just plop our motor into the ocean and keep sailing, and there are plenty of life vests aboard. We plot the book out, make character sheets, do some worldbuilding, and have all sorts of worksheets on our novel. This preparation will keep us safe from disaster. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves.

I think I can, I think I can...AHHHH SHARK!!!!!!

Other writers like to just wing it. They, like Joseph Selby, write the book by the seat of their pants, otherwise known as pantsers. They might have ideas and characters and plot stuff in their heads, but they plan very little. I like to imagine these writers as the Indiana Jones of the ocean. Instead of packing supplies into their state of the art ship, they just jump aboard a raft with a machete between their teeth, and set sail. If they’re hungry, they just dive into the ocean and stab a tasty looking fish. If a shark tries to eat them, they just give that shark the hairy eyeball, and the shark swims away in terror. At least, this is what I imagine, since every time I have written a book on just a wish and a prayer I wind up getting eaten by sharks. 

Equals dinner!

Regardless of your chosen sailing methods, things will go wrong. Over planners can pack their boat so full they sink, and under planners can take the longest way possible to get to the other side, which means lengthy revision (not to mention lots of shark encounters).

That’s why this voyage, I am trying to go for a happy middle ground via note cards. I am building my plot outline from note cards. According to one of my other writer-friends who write by the seat of her pants, she enjoyed using note cards to keep track of her plot as well (she doesn't have a blog or I would link to her).

If you try to keep everything about your novel in your mind at once, you’ll give yourself a headache. Do it right now, and see if I am wrong: think about your book in it’s entirety. Think about the character arcs, the progressive complications, every single place your character goes and how it looks, foreshadowing, symbolism if you use that, tense, POV shift, sensory images, and oh wait, don’t forget about the secondary and tertiary characters.

It’s enough to make your head explode. That’s why I use note cards. Because I don’t want my head to explode. I will now show you how to make your head not explode. With arts and crafts.

"Head explodes" was too horrible to wiki, so here's a pretty picture.

Supplies Needed:

*a book idea
*white note cards
*a hole punch
*a metal ring
*a pencil

Personally, I like to wait until I am further along in the novel planning process before I make my note cards, but you can do this as early as you want to.  

What to Do:

1. Basic set up

Get your pack of note cards, and open them. Punch a hole in the very top left corner (doing this BEFORE you write on them saves you from punching through important information). Keep your metal ring (I got mine in a pack from Staples. They are just a slim metal ring that connects to itself. You could unwind a paperclip just as easily) to the side, since you don’t want to bind your note cards up just yet.

2. Set up your note cards.

Each note card stands in for one scene in your book. You might have several scenes per chapter, you might only have one. Since a scene is the smallest unit you can break a novel into and still retain the essence of a book, we’re working with scenes. Plus, imagine how many note cards you would need if you decided to use one per paragraph. Yikes! And I find chapters to be too much information to deal with, which defeats the purpose of the note card.

You should have the following information on your note card, for the sake of your sanity:

*a sentence describing what happens in the scene
*the note card number
*the POV

But you’re not going to have all that information on the note card right away. You just need a space for it.

A Sentence
After you’ve punched a hole in a few note cards, you write down in the middle of the card a single sentence describing an event in the book.

Theoretically, you could write whatever type of sentence you wanted. You could write “the cat explodes” and be fine. But I prefer to save myself some work and headache in the future, and include where the scene will take place, who the protagonist and antagonist of the scene are, and what the conflict is.

So I would write: Jane and Bill struggle with dynamite in the living room, and the cat explodes.

I have shot myself in the foot before with a fragment like “the cat explodes” because when I get to the scene, it’s too vague for me to make any use of it. I tell myself I will figure out how the cat explodes later, but I almost never do.

"Cat explodes" was also too horrible to wiki, so here's a relaxing picture of a seagull.

The Note Card Number
The note card number is as it sounds. I just lay the cards out in the order I think the events will play out, and number the cards starting with one. This allows me to play with the scene order without having to remember how I originally thought events would unfold.

Which character’s perspective you think the scene might be from.

More Information
I like to put a place for more information on the note card. You don’t have to fill it all out for every card, but you will see how it might come in handy in a minute.

*Scene Number
*Chapter Number
*Conflict Rating
*Type of Scene
*Time Frame

Scene and Chapter Number
I leave a space for these numbers, and fill it in as I write the book. Doing so allows me to use this card for revision later.

Conflict Rating
How intense I think the scene is going to be. I use a scale from 1-10, with one being nothing is really happening to ten being the planet is exploding. This might change as I actually write the scene, but I have an estimation.

Rating the conflict lets me play around with the plot conflicts, and make sure I am not going to have a long stretch of really boring scenes in a row. If I lay my note cards out in front of me, and see that the first five scenes have a conflict rating no higher than four, I know I need to rethink some of the content in the scene.

A note about conflict: Conflict is conflict. Just because you’re writing a coming of age story where a woman discovers she’s been adopted doesn’t mean you’re writing a “boring” book and none of your conflict will be over a five. Another way to look at conflict is the amount of tension in the scene. The scene where the protagonist finds out she was adopted, and her parents have been lying to her for years would probably rate at least a seven. Don’t assume just because no one is getting shot means you have no conflict.

In the right context, this could be the most tense moment of your entire book!

Type of Scene
This is just a quick note to myself of what type of scene I think it’s going to be. It’s a single word, and just a tool I use to focus the scene. It’s subject to change, and not set in stone. Scene types range from contemplative, action, suspense, romantic, dialogue, dramatic, and many more. Essentially, this is the “feel” or the “tone” I am shooting for in this scene.

Time Frame
The time of year, the month, and possibly day this scene takes place in. Depending on how much you go back and forth in time, you might consider moving this category up to “must have” for your note cards. I usually at least keep track of the time of year, and month for books that don’t require a really time intensive plot. For a book with a ticking clock, you might want to keep track of the day this event is happening. It will save you lots of looking back through your book to make sure you don’t have a character in two places at once.

Wait a minute, you’re probably saying to yourself right now. I thought this wasn’t supposed to be plot overkill? I thought the pantsers would be able to use note cards too?

You can. I know it’s a long-ish explanation to go through the function each section your note card could have, but now you know how to use each item, and can pick and choose what you need.

I set my note cards up as such:

Very top line of the card: POV character/ Scene Number / Chapter Number / Note card Number
Next Line: Conflict Rating / Type of Scene / Time frame
Skip a space
One sentence: Scene event, including protagonist, antagonist, and an interesting setting.

Any of those pieces of information you decide is irrelevant to your project, you simply don’t include.

3. Fill out your note cards.

Every scene idea you have goes on a note card. You can have as many or as little note cards depending on how much you plot ahead of time. I think having at least four note cards would be a good skeleton for you pantsers: the opening scene, the inciting incident that starts the ball rolling, the middle that changes everything, and the climax.

You could also make note cards as you write the book, and plan out the next few chapters as you go, using the material you’ve already written as inspiration.

For us plotters, you might have many more note cards. You might have as little as 40 scenes in your book to over a hundred. It depends on how long the book is, and how long your scenes run. My suggestion for you is to write a note card for the major events and any scenes you are really excited to write, but leave spaces in between. The object is not to plot out your entire book, scene by scene, but to have a working skeleton.

The ocean is a big place. But with the power of note cards, we can tame it just a little.

4. Go nuts with the note cards.

Now that you have your scenes written on your note cards, the real fun begins. At this point, you might have spent a day or two working on your note cards, or all in one afternoon.

Lay your note cards out on the floor or a cork board. A table might work if it’s big enough, but I don’t recommend your bed. The minute you lean forward and your mattress caves in and slides your note cards to your knees, you’ll know why.

Now you get to play with them! I love playing with my note cards. I like to have hard copies, even though there are some excellent software programs that simulate note cards on a cork board. For me, part of the fun is touching and manually arranging the note cards. This is one of my favorite parts of writing. There is so much possibility ahead of you, you feel like you could do no wrong.

I actually dreamt last night that I sold a book on a note card outline, that’s how happy it makes me. :D Not that would ever happen in real life, but you get the picture. It’s fun!

I place the note cards in the order I think they are going to go first, and then number them. After that, I pick up all the note cards and shuffle them. Yep. I shuffle ‘em like a deck of cards, and lay them out randomly. Doing this has yielded some amazing plot ideas. It helps break up your preconceived notion of how the plot should unfold, and gives your plot a more spontaneous feel. It can even spark ideas for new plot events.

Play around with the order of events as much as you want. See what would happen if you started with the ending first, the beginning next, and the middle last. What if a certain character was introduced earlier? Rearranging events open up new possibilities for plot events, and can help you spot plot holes.


5. Secret Bonus

Remember I talked about how difficult it is to hold your entire book in your mind? Spreading your note cards out in front of you is an excellent way to look at your entire novel in a condensed fashion. All that empty white space under your sentence? You can make all kinds of notes right there. You could remind yourself to mention something in that scene, or plan to add in some foreshadowing.

I prefer to set up a different set of note cards for revision (the reason why is too long to go into here. Suffice to say you want different things out of each set of note cards), but if you didn’t want to do new cards for revision, these card are already set up to help. Again, since you’re looking at your book in miniature, it’s easier to see where the conflict sags, and where you could add a little twist.

Do not cling to your outline like a life preserver. The beauty of writing is things change. Don’t get so attached to your outline you refuse to deviate from them, even when a much better, cooler idea happens. The note cards should be a guide, not commandments chiseled in stone.

Plans change, and the some of the best parts of your book comes when you get that spark of creativity. This is another reason not to make a note card for every single scene in the book. If you get a better idea midway through, you’re going to feel like you wasted time with those note cards, and consider not using that new idea just because of the time you invested in the outline. 

I hope you guys enjoyed this tutorial. Let me know how things turn out for you! Do you have any note card success or failure stories?


  1. Holy hell that's a lot of work!

    ...and your internal editor is scary looking.

  2. Really? You think so? It takes, ten minutes to bust out the note cards and write on them...explaining the meaning behind all my notations..that was a lot of work.

    Yes. My internal editor is scary. Especially during shark week. But during revision we swim together as though we were one. :D