Whether you’re a plotter or a panster, writing fiction or nonfiction, you can benefit from using index cards to plot your book ahead of time. The old-school outlining format we used for research papers in high school isn’t for everyone and can often make it more difficult to rearrange material later on.

So, grab a stack of index cards, your favorite pen, a large cup of coffee and spread out somewhere comfortable. We’re going to draft every scene of your book using index cards.

  1. On one side of each index card, write names of characters who will be in the scene. Also, include the location where the scene will take place.
  2. At the top of the other side of the card, write a one-sentence synopsis of the scene.
  3. Under that one sentence, add as many notes about this scene as you want. Use full sentences, phrases or bullet points—whatever feels most natural to you—to flesh out each scene a bit more. Keep in mind though, you only get one index card per scene.
  4. Don’t worry about writing the scene cards in the order you think the story should be told. Just write scenes as fast as you can. You’ll organize them later.
  5. If you’re writing a full-length novel, you should have close to 60 index cards at the end of this process. A novel typically has about 60 scenes in total.
  6. Shuffle the stack of index cards, then begin laying them out on the floor or a large table. With the one-sentence synopsis side up, place the index cards in the order you think makes sense to tell your story. This is similar to storyboarding—just without images to go along with the text.
  7. Once you’ve placed all of your index cards, read over the cards and ask yourself: Does the progression of scenes make sense? Does anything seem out of place? Am I missing any important scenes?
  8. The act of physically laying out your scenes allows you to easily see the big-picture view of your book and if any scene seems out of place.
  9. Move your index cards around to adjust the flow of your story before you even start to write.
  10. When you’ve locked your scene order in place, you can either tape all your index cards to a wall in story order and remove scenes as you complete them, or you can display only the index cards for the scenes you’re currently working on so you don’t feel overwhelmed by the enormity of writing a book.

Have you tried plotting your book with index cards?