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3x5 Index Card Plotting

I've been wracking my brain trying to remember where or when I first heard about the 3x5 card plotting method - and I just can't! Probably some conference somewhere in time - or maybe a book about writing - I've gone to so many conferences and read dozens of books about writing over the last two decades that I am blank, but I've been doing this handy little technique for years.

The very first book I tried it out on was The Last Snake Runner, Knopf 2002, written during the years of 1999-2000. I also used it with The Healing Spell, Murder in the House of Embalming (An ancient Egyptian thriller, unsold yet), and now my current WIP, Memoirs of a Girl.

But I've got lots of manuscripts that I haven't done the 3x5 card plotting with. For instance, my new YA Victorian Paranormal, Essence. I actually DO have about 12 cards for this project, but I haven't finished the card plotting, even though I've got 100 pages drafted. For the last 6 months I've been doing character sketches and note taking and synopsis writing for Essence in
Microsoft One Note Program. I think it's similar to Scrivener for Macs. One Note is like an online 3-ring binder with Tabs and sections all in one place. I don't have to keep switching between Word documents because it's all in one place. You can also add links and images and audio recordings right into your One Note Notebook. Which is great for keeping your research together. I love One Note!

I did not do the 3x5 card plotting  for
Circle of Secrets which comes out in October from Scholastic. Circle of Secrets is the manuscript I wrote on the Armageddon Book Deadline. When my editor asked if I could write a new book in six weeks, I brainstormed with a friend to flesh out my ideas and just plunged into the first draft - which I wrote in two and a half weeks. Then I spent about 4 weeks revising and adding another 18,000 words before I sent it to my editor. Whew!

Okay. When I first start getting whiffs of an idea, random thoughts, setting, characters, plot, I start throwing those random ideas into a notebook (a small one for my purse while I'm out and about and away from home) and then I transfer those ideas into a Word document or a new One Note File. I often spend a few weeks to a few months just throwing, throwing, throwing ideas, bits of character and plot and dialogue into files.

The story starts to take shape in my mind. The characters start becoming more defined. I know my setting usually very well because I'm a setting spring-boarder kind of writer - or I've been reading lots of books for research - and I get to the point that my brain is spilling out my ears. I have jumbled notes, jumbled thoughts inside my head and different plot ideas - or ideas for SCENES that are all mixed-up in my brain.

I need to start organizing those scenes and plot points. Here's where the 3x5 card Plotting Method comes in very handy!

I sit down one day and just start writing down those ideas as fast as I can on cards. ONE IDEA or ONE SCENE per card. No more! After I begin (checking my notebook or other documents to make sure I haven't forgotten anything) the plotting often start coming together more and more and I keep filling cards and more cards.

Usually the plot is out of order. Just a big jumble!


When I get somewhere between 30-50 cards I start laying them all out on a table. They are STILL out of order. But now I can *see* them all in front of me. The whole book is there! I just have to organize it.

I hover over my cards, contemplating and looking for the best place to start the story. Which card will make a great opening? Sometimes I already have this figured out, sometimes not. Sometimes I already have The First Line. I usually really like to have The First Line figured out before I start the actual drafting of Chapter One.

Then I start picking up the cards, one by one, in the order that makes sense and would be the most dramatic, building the plot, throwing in more conflict. Sometimes I'll have to grab my pen and add a few more cards. Then I look for the climax cards and put those in order. And last of all, is the denouement, or the scenes and emotional conclusion for the character. And often these cards are added to after I get through. 
 So then I end up with a stack of cards - voila!!!
All in order. 

My whole book is sitting right in front of me. Point by point. Scene by Scene. 
It's a great feeling. (The picture is cards for 4 books, published and un-published).

Now I just gotta write the book. 

And here is where the cards come in SO handy.

It's nervous time! 
I gotta start atually WRITING THIS BOOK! 
Oh, no! First drafts are so scary! What if I get stuck? What if I don't know where I'm going? 

Well, BOO! 

Your first draft is going to be a piece of cake. Relatively speaking. I mean, you gotta get your derriere into the chair very day and DO THE WORK. You gotta actually type in the words. But getting stuck rarely happens with your 3x5 cards sitting handily right beside you. Yes, those cards are going to be your best friend over the next few weeks or months while you draft. 

Because your book is now in order. It's sitting right beside you. 

You look at the first card - and only the first card. And you write that scene. 

Then you put the card at the bottom of the stack and write the scene or idea that's on the second card. 

After it's written, put it on the bottom of the stack and write what's on the third card. And so on and so on.
You always know what's coming next. Even if it's just a single line. Sometimes that's all I've written on a particular card. Sometimes I write a whole paragraph. Sometimes disjointed notes. They're YOUR cards. Write whatever works for you.

If you get stuck, just flip through your cards. Sometimes, after you've written a big chunk of your book you may realize that you have to re-order a few cards. You may end up adding a few cards because your characters that are now alive and breathing on the page and doing unexpected things. That's wonderful! Terrific! Because you have your basic book there. It takes away the scariness of that First Draft.

You never have to worry about sitting down and coming up with "what's next?" Or get stuck. Discouraged. Brain empty of ideas. Because you already have your book on those wonderful little 3x5 cards.

Try playing around with card plotting and let me know how it goes. Or if you've done this before, let me know! Or if you have some variations, I'd love to hear them 

Today, I'm putting my 3x5 cards for my new WIP back in order. Yes, the two toddlers in my household got hold of them and scattered them all over the house. And I hadn't numbered them yet. Bad me. For some reason toddlers love playing with the cards and lining them up down the hallway . . . off to play Pick Up The Cards!
Happy Weekend! 



( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 7th, 2011 06:17 pm (UTC)
Cool! Thanks for sharing this! Question . . . after you write the scene on the card, how do you tie them together? Or do you already have a tie-in established as you put them in order?

I think I'm going to give this a try on my next novel. It's similar to my notebook method, but might save me quite a bit of time because I won't have to flip back and forth between pages as I'm hunting for the thought or note or scene I'd written in the notebook (and sometimes can't find). =)

Hope you can get all your cards reordered!

Mar. 8th, 2011 05:53 pm (UTC)
Hi Joan! I hope it's helpful. Sometimes I have to try something new with my writing just to keep it *fresh*. :-)Or change locations.

No, I don't usually write down the transitions, although sometimes I do if it comes to me right away. Usually I just make those when I'm actually drafting. Sometimes they're easy and natural to come up with, sometimes not. Like all writing! And like I mentioned sometimes the cards get added to or taken away as I get into the middle of the book. Usually added to!
Mar. 7th, 2011 07:17 pm (UTC)
I also use the cards for scenes for my first draft. very helpful as a prompt
Mar. 8th, 2011 05:54 pm (UTC)
Cool, Karen! It helps so much when you start thinking you're stumped to just look at the cards and say, "Well I'll write *that* scene today." The blank page is MUCH less scary!
Mar. 7th, 2011 08:18 pm (UTC)
Wow, that's very interesting! Although I can't imagine seeing that far down the story's road without writing it out in draft form.
Mar. 8th, 2011 06:06 pm (UTC)
Thanks for commenting! Try it, you might like it! I DO spend quite a bit of time thinking about the story and jotting down a lot of notes during the early stages of an idea, but when my head is starting to burst I find it really helpful to write down one plot point per card and figure out the order of the story. And lots can/and does change once I start actually writing. :-)
Mar. 8th, 2011 01:50 pm (UTC)
Wow! That's a lot of cards! You must be much more organised than me to keep all these cards in order! ; )

Card plotting has never really worked for me (except with writing screenplays), but they do say different methods work for different writers. I'm glad you've found the perfect plotting tool for you!
Mar. 8th, 2011 06:08 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Samara! Perfect for now . . . next book may be something totally different! I've tried a lot of different things over the years. :-)
Mar. 19th, 2011 12:16 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this, Kimberley, it's given me real food for thought. I've tried the note-carding technique before, but it didn't work at that stage, for that book. Right now, however, I think it's just what my current WIP needs, so I've dug out my old, unused cards and set about card-plotting. It's definitely helping at the moment - the plot arc is feeling a lot more in my control - so thanks heaps for the prompt.
Mar. 20th, 2011 11:42 pm (UTC)
Hi Jenny, thanks so much for friending me and commenting! Glad this post helped, too - that's really great to hear. You're so right in that the ideas for a book have to be at the right stage to do the card plotting, but I'm always SO glad when I have them finished and in their cool, little pile.

For instance, I'm at about page 65 of a new WIP and find myself stumbling here and there on where to go next (scenes spiraling on and on in meaningless dialogue) and then I slap my forehead and think: "Just like at your next upcoming card!" and then I think, "Oh, yes! That's what's next!" and can write the next scene and keep moving forward. And I always keep my cards very close by if not in my hand shuffling through them to keep me focused . . . :-)
Mar. 21st, 2011 11:35 am (UTC)
You're welcome - thanks again for posting about it, and thanks for friending me back. It's always great to meet new writerly folks.

My notecards have become increasingly vague the further into the novel I've got, but I'm just going with it at the moment. I'll add flesh to the bones as it develops. I have the next few scenes pretty well worked out, and the more hazy outline of the rest at least points my direction - and means I don't have to go riffling through my notebook all the time!

Hope your WIP is going well. I look forward to getting to know you.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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