How to Use Index Cards to Outline Your Book

So, I haven’t posted in quite a while. I do have a few good reasons though. I’ve been busy with my photography blog, A Moment to Capture, posting photos and looking for opportunities to take more pictures. I have also been working on a medieval novel that I’m writing. Well, I haven’t started the actual writing process yet. I’m still in the planning and outlining stages, but I’m hoping to move on to writing my first draft soon.

It was while I was outlining my story that I had the idea for this post. I want to show you how I outline my stories.

Outline Your Novel Using Index Card

This is a picture of my story outline so far. Yes, every one of those white rectangles are index cards.

Now, I know some people are all about completely outlining their story before they begin, while others just want to jump right into the first draft. No matter which method you prefer, you might find this helpful.

I used to outline all of my stories on my laptop. I would use a typical word processor to create a traditional outline. If you use this method, you might have realized it can be difficult to view your outline as a whole. It also isn’t the easiest thing to use when rearranging scenes and then trying to check if the new arrangement works.

In 90 Days to Your Novel, Sarah Domet covers several different ways you can outline your novel as well as their pros and cons. I chose to try the Index card method.

The layout for each card will look something like this:

Setting: Small Village

Characters: Belle, Gaston, Lefou

  •  Belle returns a book to the library and gets a new one
  • Gaston is determined to marry Belle and tries to win her with his “charm”
  • Everyone in the village thinks Belle and her father are odd

Goal: To set up who the characters are and what they want

At the top, you list the setting for that scene. You can be as vague as “small village” or as specific as “Belle’s Cottage”. It all depends on what you prefer. Or, in my case, it depends on if I have a specific name for the location. In my outline, a lot of my cards just say “castle”. I know the scene will happen somewhere in the castle. I just don’t know what specific room yet.

Then you list all the characters in that scene. Now, I do not include background characters or minor characters that don’t even have a name. I list all my main and minor characters that have a specific role in that scene. If you feel like adding every single character in your scene, go right ahead.

Then you list a few major points in your scene. The size of your Index card will determine how many points you can have. If you don’t have enough room for your entire scene, just continue on another card. I’ve had to do this a couple of times. Just like the setting, you can be as vague or specific as you like. I tend to be more general about my points then get into all of the details during the writing process.

Finally, you list the goal of your scene. This is something that I had never thought about until switching to this method of outlining. Sometimes it’s difficult. You might have to spend a few minutes racking your brain for a reason. I know I had to do this many times. If you can’t come up with a good reason, chances are that scene doesn’t need to be in your story.

So, what are the cons of this method?

Using Index cards has the potential to get very bulky. If you are creating a 1000 page book, Index cards might be overwhelming. If you’re writing a short story or novel, you probably won’t have this problem. I don’t have this problem right now. I also use an Index card holder with alphabet dividers, which is great if you’re working on multiple stories at once. This can help if you’re struggling with bulkiness but still want to use this method.

Another con is that it’s on paper, so you don’t have any sort of backup. If you lose a card or spill coffee all over it, it’s gone. To fix this problem, I type out my outline on my computer. Now, it might sound like that’s just taking me back to my old way of outlining. It’s not. I use my Index cards for all of the outlining. The purpose of typing it out on my laptop is to ensure that I do have a backup should anything happen to the cards.

To some of you, this may seem like a lot of work. Personally, I don’t mind spending the extra time. Outlining my story and making sure I have a back up is very important to me. Just keep in mind that this outline won’t be for everyone. And that’s perfectly fine.

By now you might be wondering, are there any pros to this method? Yes, there are.

As you can see in the picture above, I have all of my cards laid out on a table. This gives me the ability to look over my entire story and easily locate specific scenes. No more scrolling through page after page on my computer.

I can leave gaps in between the cards, which shows where I have gaps in my story. This is great if you are a visual person. It actually motivates me. Seeing gaps makes me want to brainstorm and fill them in more than the word “gap” on my computer does.

My personal favorite is that it gives me hands on interaction. I can rearrange scenes with my hands. For some reason, it’s fun for me. It gets me thinking “what if…?”. What if I move this scene over here? What if my villain does this after my hero does that? “What if…?”, however daunting, is crucial to creating a great story.

Plus, keep in mind that you can customize the template for the card any way you want. The template for the Index card was the way Sarah Domet presented it, and it’s the way I use it. Change the order around, add information that you need, take away things you don’t. Just experiment with it and see what works for you.

If you have any tips or tricks for outlining your story, please let me know! I’m always looking for ways to help me organize my story and make the creating and writing process easier.


8 thoughts on “How to Use Index Cards to Outline Your Book

  1. In my perspective, their is a con to laying them out on a table: IT MAKES ME WANT TO READ THEM SO BADLY! But Meagan’s smart, she turns the cards around to how they are upside down if I walk past the table. Also, I like how you used Beauty and the Beast as the example ;D By the way, “Holy encouragement Batman”, so awesome!

  2. Thanks for the suggestions! I know this was written almost a year ago but I just ran across it in pinterest. I have been using a system on cards that is similar but they’re more like a single point that I scribbled onto the card to remember where I want it to go and I use a color coding system to help me to keep both my main plot and subplots going throughout. I like your idea of detailing out the setting, characters, some points and a goal. Seems like it will give each scene a little more focus.

    • You’re welcome! I hope they helped! I love your idea of color coding your ideas for different plot lines. Sounds like a great way to create a visual and make it easier to keep track of your different plots.

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