Organizing Your Story: Index Card Method

Sometimes I just have to get off my computer and use visual and tangible tools to get my brain organized. If you’re anything like me, you have about 50 different drafts (all saved as “FinalFinalDraft27.ForRealThisTime-4”). Your characters have been running amok, and your spreadsheets of details are about 31% complete because you keep getting caught up in editing when you should have been taking notes on your world building or character development. I have tried to make a list of my characters’ hair and eye colors for years, and somehow it is never complete.

So, when my artist heart finishes the draft, my editor mind has to come out. It’s time to get everything in order.

For me, the very best way to do this is with a stack of fresh white index cards and a bunch of markers.

Above are the first 9 (actually 10!) chapters of my first book, Kingdom Above the Cloud. These are my actual cards I used a few years ago to get organized. I dug them out just for this post (yep, still have them. I am a writing hoarder. I actually still have all of my writing assignments from high school, and most from middle school…). BUT, the photo at the very top of this post is for the upcoming sequel, so don’t look too closely!! Major spoilers (like, the entire story…)

Step 1: Figure out what needs to be on your cards

Things I chose to list or indicate on my cards:

  • Narrator – Name at the top and color coded by character (I use colors to quickly identify the pattern of my narrators)
  • Chapter Number – Top right corner
  • Day and Time – Top right corner, under Chapter Number. I indicate the time of day and the Day Number
  • Basic Plot

There are all sorts of things you can include! If you have just one narrator, maybe the colors indicate the setting of the scene. Or maybe you include word counts so that you can get an idea of your flow and consistency. Whatever you need to know about a chapter, you should put on the card.

If you need help, ask yourself this: “Other than plot, what changes from chapter to chapter or scene to scene in my story? What do I need to keep track of?” Is it which characters show up in the chapter? Or maybe for a mystery you need to keep track of which clues have been revealed. Whatever it is, make it your own. Just be sure to always include major story elements so that you can track your main plot.

After working with the cards for a while, I realized I needed to keep track of the symbols that were showing up on Tovi’s back. So, I added circles to some of the cards and made little notes of which symbols had appeared by that chapter:

Step 2: Make the Cards

Duh. Go make the cards. One for each chapter, or one for each scene.

Step 3: Move them around, add, delete

Recently I worked on the sequel (photo at the very top), and I needed to know exactly how many scenes Eryx turned up in. I was concerned that he was in almost all of the chapters at the beginning, and then rarely showed up at the end. So, I made big green dots for every chapter Eryx was in. And it showed me I had some work to do on his story arc. (yep. Get excited. He’s my favorite, and I know he’s many of yours too!)

Once you’ve laid out all of the cards, you need to keep extras handy. Go back to my photo of the first 9 chapters of Kingdom. See that card with yellow writing shoved between chapters 1 and 2? That’s Chapter 2 in my finished book, but it didn’t exist before this process. As I looked at my story in front of me, I realized I wanted to introduce Meira and the HH much earlier. So, even though it threw off my chapter numbers, I wrote down what I needed and stuck the card in there.

AND, well, lots of my cards end up looking like this:

So many things to cross out and change! If you’ve read Kingdom, you know Tali never goes to the HH. Lots and lots and lots can change during the reorganization and revising process.

Keep moving things around until you feel really good about the flow and escalating drama of your story. If you’re not happy, keep at it. Ask a trusted friend to look at it with you (if you don’t mind them seeing your insane scribbles and messy floor. Hey, your mess is probably less chaotic than the thoughts in your brain. So there’s that. ha!)

Step 4: Label them

SUPER important step with massive implications! Once they are in the order you think you’ll keep, you MUST number them or label them somehow. Otherwise, they will get messed up and you’ll have to start over. Image that you pile them nicely by your computer. One day you are running by like a bull in a china shop (how my mother always described me…) and you knock the pile off the desk. Cue: Painful tears and misery. Get those cards labeled in case they get out of order unintentionally.

Step 5: Pile them up and store them near your favorite writing spot, and work through them.

I keep mine piled and wrapped in a rubber band. They sit on the end table next to my sofa, but I often carry them outside (my favorite place to write). I am literally going through them, one-by-one, adding chapters as I need to. Once I’m done with a car, I move it to the back of the pile. The card on top is always my next action step.

For instance, here’s what my pile looks like right now (and notice everything that has been crossed out and added. ha! Also, this is my sequel, not Kingdom, and I put things in different spots on the card):

This is a card I added, so I won’t be revising a chapter I already have. Looks like it is time for me to write Chapter 25, narrated by BiBi, on the 5th day of the story. And it’s about Tali’s arrival (but I won’t tell you where…).

Other times, it is a chapter I’ve already written, but I need to move it to a new location.

I work through my cards, one at a time, until I have reorganized the whole story into a better flow.

Step 6: Read your whole manuscript

You need to make sure your revisions didn’t mess up the story! Keep a close eye on mysteries and secrets that are revealed. Moving chapters can mess those up pretty royally.

Feeling really stuck and need some help? Two things you can do.

  1. Do this whole process for one of your favorite books. Go through, chapter by chapter, and make an index card for each one. Note the timing, narrator, main characters, setting, and plot. Want to be really fancy? Note the main conflict and type of conflict. Lay all of the cards out and look for patterns. Try to learn from them.
  2. Still super stuck? I’d love to help you! Use the contact form to tell me about your writing and where you are stuck. So many fellow authors have helped me, and it would be my joy to help you!