World's Oldest Fledgling

The blog of Stephanie Wardrop, Y A Author

My (index) cards are on the table

on September 4, 2013

WIP it Wednesday is back, which means I am talking about writing and my works in progress. (I took a break last week because I had previous obligations – reviews and previews that had to be posted).

I’m going to focus today on organizing and outlining a plot. My plot outlining for Snark and Circumstance was easy by design: I based it on Pride and Prejudice, so I had a certain sequence of events I just had to modify and follow. But with its sequel and my WIP, I don’t have it so easy. I have to make this stuff up myself!


A lot of writers and bloggers talk about “plotters” and “pantsers” and plenty of people will argue the virtue of being in either camp. I have always been a bit of both and I’ll share my method (or lackthereof) here.

I’ve spoken elsewhere on this blog about where my initial ideas come from and how my characters develop. Once I have the idea and the characters, those characters have to do something.  I usually have a sense of where the narrative will go -sometimes it’s very vague and sometimes it’s quite specific. I just have to figure out how to get them there.


I sometimes do outlines for the plot just as I was taught to do in fourth grade science class, and sometimes this works really well.  I might have a Roman numeral/heading for each chapter or event and then list what happens within that chapter, kind of like this:

I. Becca meets Ethan

1. he is in the coffee shop, working

2. we learn he has noticed her before, out in the street

3. when she comes in, he is excited and says something stupid and feels really    mortified

I can fill in as much as I want here on the outline, and often have little arrows and scribbled dialogue pointing to one of the plot points above, like when I finally figure out the silly thing this character blurts out.

This, however, requires pretty linear thinking, and I don’t think that I am wired this way by nature. So I have borrowed a more portable and less rigid method from screen and television writers (not to mention ninth graders in the 1970s who had to write term papers).


Behold! The Index Card!

I write down a character trait or a plot point or something important on a card and keep them in a pack. I can divide the pack into smaller packs by chapter or character and reshuffle them as my ideas change. For example, if I realize that something I put in Chapter Two of my outline doesn’t work and needs to move to Chapter Three, I just move the card to the Chapter three pile, which is way easier than redoing the whole outline.

When I get really ambitious, and closer to having a sense of how all the pieces might fit, I put them on a board like this


a kind of storyboard like screenwriters do.  I can rearrange things easily and visually if I realize a bit of back story, say, needs to go somewhere else, and when I have a brainstorm I write it on a card and then figure out where to place it. It helps me to see the whole thing laid out like this sometimes. (I am the kind of person who leaves all the files on my computer desktop and not in folders because I need to see them to be reminded that they exist, which shows a shocking lack of faith in my memory but there you go.)

And here’s the craziest part.

Once I have all of that semi-impressive looking storyboard worked out, I usually totally ignore it and just start writing. Sometimes not even in the order in which things happen, which is a great trick that I have only recently learned to employ, even though it should have been obvious to me: you don’t have to write the first part first!.


Just because events happen in a specific sequence in the book doesn’t mean that I have to write them in that sequence and sometimes, if a particular scene is nagging at me I’ll just write it, even if it is near the end of the sequence of events in the narrative.  I’ll usually have to change it once I put the whole narrative together at last, but at least I have something written and I can then move on to the next scene or problem. Movies are filmed out of sequence, right? You can do that as a writer, too, and your reader will never know.

So right now I am shuffling index cards and writing scenes out of sequence for a character that I need to get to know better; writing those scenes now, and not waiting for when I get to “his” part of the plot helps me understand him better, to flesh him out, so to speak; when I figure out the sequence of events and how he fits, I’ll insert him into the narrative.  And I may not be able to do that until I figure him out better. (He’s tricky because he is charming but evil and I suspect he looks like Colin Farrell).


In addition to my storyboard and index cards,  I have started using PInterest for this particular work in progress. I have posted pictures of characters, places, and some notes on String Theory that I need to absorb.  If you want to see what I’m thinking about regarding this WIP, you can find it here.

So I am part pantser, part plotter, I guess. I do the plotting groundwork by outline or index card and then get to writing, but the outlining, even if it is not used exactly, is what allows the writing to happen. It’s the pre-thinking I need to do before I can write anything somewhat purposeful and not purely exploratory, though there’s plenty of that, too.

There’s no right or wrong way to plot. Everyone has to find their own method, and the method may vary not just by writer but by project. Sometimes I outline carefully. Other times I just dive right in.

If you have any tips to share, please leave a comment below.  Happy reading and writing!

What I am reading:


What I am re-reading:


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