Build Your Plot – My Index Card Method


Let’s be honest, the “here’s how I build my plot” blog post is the writing blogger’s equivalent to the beauty blogger’s ubiquitous “my daily skincare routine!” post. Like, sis, no one asked, but ok, I’ll watch. Why? Because it’s at least mildly interesting to see what other writers (or beauty bloggers) do differently from our own techniques and it’s great to learn someone else’s best practices. Maybe you’ll find something new you love.

In this article, I will walk you through the difference between a “Plotter” and a “Pantser,” the basic exercise for building scenes, how I’ve made that work for me, and how it can help you break your writer’s block.

Plotter or Pantser?

If you are not a writer or new to writing, you are probably wondering, “WTF is a Plotter or Pantser?” It’s ok. The first time I heard those words was sitting in an author panel at DragonCon. (Pretty sure I was wearing a Wonder Woman costume too, but that’s neither here nor there.) Jim Butcher and another author were debating the merits of plotting your entire story before you write (“Plotter”) or letting it free flow and going by the seat of your pants (“Pantser”). I realized that I wrote my first novel (still unpublished) and the first draft of Pantheon by the seat of my pants and not knowing how either story would end was a major problem for me as I wrote. However, as my writing style evolved, I grew from a “pantser” to a plotter, mainly by using the techniques I describe here. By the time I was writing Pantheon 2: Ares & Athena and Born, Not Bitten, I was a fully fledged plotter with a stack of index cards to prove it.

During the panel, Jim Butcher recommended “The Fantasy Fiction Formula” by Deborah Chester, his writing professor from school. My kind, wonderful, and supportive spouse immediately bought it for me and I’ve been using it ever since. It has a ton of useful information, but one of the things I keyed in on was her information on building scenes. I took the information she provided and built on it. Now, using her basics, I have my own technique for plotting.

If you are a Plotter, I think you can get real utility out of my technique. But hey, if you’re a freewheeling Pantser, stick around as you still might take something away from this, especially when I talk about the dreaded writer’s block.

What Deborah Teaches:

While I highly recommend getting a copy of “The Fantasy Fiction Formula” because the whole book is loaded with good information, I will be focusing on the scene building from Chapters 5 and 8. In Chapter 5, she notes that successful scenes all contain a “goal, conflict and resolution” (pg 88). In Chapter 8, she goes on to describe the four ways in which a scene can end: “Yes,” “No,” “Yes but,” and “No, and furthermore” (pg 129-132). A “Yes” means the conflict is resolved. “No” means the characters are at an impasse, but they could find a resolution as the plot progresses. A “Yes but” scene leaves the conflict mostly resolved but sets it up for further conflict later with the unresolved portions. Finally, a “No, and furthermore” scene is the worst-case scenario and sets up your major plot points, disasters, or turning points.

I like her technique because it helps me frame the scene, know what the outcome should be by the end of the scene, and where it fits in the larger story. It also helps me keep from having too many low conflict scenes in a row. If everyone agreed all the time, it would be a boring plot. I also use a very formulaic set up for pacing to keep from dwelling too long in Act I or skip building something important in Act II. I don’t hold too rigidly to the standard set up. You all know I love a cold open and dropping straight into the action, but you can see from Pantheon’s set up, you hit your “35% first pinch point” spot on in the Syria scene.

Left: The typical Western style plot arc. Right: How Pantheon compares by word count.
Left: The typical Western style plot arc. Right: How Pantheon compares by word count.

How I’ve Expanded the Technique (AKA – The Index Card Method):

I like how the book lays out scene setting and having both a goal and resolution, but I needed a way to capture that information that worked for me. I, being a huge dork, keep index cards around the house. I also don’t like building my plot on a computer, favoring the handwritten word, usually in a notebook. So, I combined a little bit of all of these elements.

I tend to daydream out a lot of my plot before I ever write it down. As I’ve stated before, Pantheon was “written” while I drove the 15 hours round trip from school home every few weeks while getting my masters. Val, Powell, Hank, Damarcus, and Mandy were fully fleshed out people/personalities in my head before I ever put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. The problem, of course, is my fallible memory. Now I keep my pre-made plot index cards that also capture the best elements from “The Fantasy Fiction Formula” and my own tracking system.

The cards
The cards

Each card has the following pre-written: scene, goal, conflict, decision, result, character(s), and POV. Those first four come directly from “The Fantasy Fiction Formula,” and the last two are what help me track who is in the scene and whose head we’re in.

Scene: A basic title for what is going on.

Goal: This is what I should get out of the scene, my goal for the reader.

Conflict: Who is mad? Who is fighting? What is driving the tension in this scene?

Decision: Did we win? Did we lose? Is someone dead?

Result: a very shorthand version of “Yes,” “No,” “Yes but,” and “No, and furthermore,” so I can frame the intensity level of the scene.

Character: Any and all characters present in the scene.

POV: Who’s point of view takes this scene.

Other notes: Once I capture all my scenes for a book, I will order them and number them. This helps me keep track later and usually a scene number will become the chapter number. As I continue to flash out a scene and its details, I’ll put additional notes on the back.

Color coded plot cards
Color coded plot cards

Color coding: I also color code my index cards once I have a better idea of how the plot is structured. It helps me identify high points in the writing and make sure it flows logically.

White: Normal scenes

Yellow: Catalyst, climax, or plot turning point scenes

Orange: These are not scene cards, but cards that indicate what elements must be in place before the next act begins. Almost always placed directly before a yellow card.

Green: Conclusion cards. Like the orange cards, they don’t describe a scene but, based on what I want to happen in the next novel, describe all the elements or points that have to be made before the end of the book. It would suck really bad to have an amazing plot twist or idea but have to rush the foreshadowing or plot flow because I didn’t include it in an earlier book. (I’m looking at you Star Wars sequel trilogy…)

A whole book in a box
A whole book in a box

Converting Index Cards to Written Plot:

You’ve got this massive stack of cards, now what? Now you write! You have all the elements you need to write a scene. If you aren’t like me and don’t pre-write full novels in your head like a psychopath… then you have the basics from which you write your novel. Sit down and expand on the information contained in your card. You will find that when you know what the scene’s goal is and where the conflict lies, writing it out becomes so much easier. With the addition of the orange and green element cards, you can ensure you don’t miss anything, adding key information early, which gives it a more organic feel than adding it back in on a second or third draft.

Framing, to index cards, to written drafts, to published!
Framing, to index cards, to written drafts, to published!

How It Helps Break/Avoid Writer’s Block:

Ok, Pantsers, listen up! I love you free-flowing, character-following folks, but as a former Pantser, that can set you up for failure when it comes to writer’s block. If you have to follow a chronological flow, you can get stuck. You may know what the end is supposed to be, but if you are on A and the conclusion is Z, you still need to write B through Y.

This is where my method of plot framing helps kill writer’s block. Why do you care about B through P, Q, R if you already have a card for S through Z? Don’t feel motivated to write a scene? Skip it! Move on. Go to the scene you know and you’re vibing with today. Grab that card and put the verbal meat on its bones. No law says you absolutely must write the plot in order.

“But Kay, how do I keep track??” Easy friends! You ordered your cards, right? Put a scene number down? Cool, save the file with the scene number. Then, when you are able to write those scenes that are blocked, you know where to fit in the previously written scenes. For example, in Pantheon’s third installment, I have over thirty scene cards, but the only chapters I have written are 1, 3, 10, 11, 14, 15, 18, and 19. I’ll get there with time, but for now, I like that I can pick up a card I’m feeling that day and work it out without feeling pressure to link two scenes.

Conclusion:

The index card technique may feel like it’s adding rigidity and structure to the plotting process. Still, by framing your plot with scene goals in mind, you actually give yourself flexibility later in the writing process. It takes a little more time in the beginning because you need to prep cards, but I feel that it pays dividends later as I can let the creative process happen without stressing about how a scene fits or if I need to tweak a goal. The result is a more organic writing flow and a more impactful writing style. I use it to create a fast moving, addictive plot that readers can’t put down and the method helps me side steps writer’s block.

If you’re curious how I construct plot before the index cards, you can find that in my “What Happens Before the Index Cards” post.


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2 Comments on “Build Your Plot – My Index Card Method

  1. Pingback: The Story Will Out – Author K R Paul

  2. Pingback: Build Your Plot – What Happens Before the Index Cards – Author K R Paul

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