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Who uses index cards, and how?

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Hi, all - As I'm thick in the plotting stage of a new book (in the past have written organically without pre-plotting), and I've decided that for now the only way to keep track of ideas as they come, and figure out how they fit in the overall scheme of things, is to use index cards.

I am using white 5 x 8" ones that give me enough room on each one to note ideas, themes, even lines of narrative or dialogue as they occur, and also allow me to highlight, color-code, and whatever all else helps to keep track of everything, but gives me the mobility to move them around as the overall story develops. (I also carry a handful with me to work/on errands so I can capture any new ideas as they come to me).

(I am using them in the conjunction with the nine-block plotting outline (

If there are any committed index card plotters out there, I'd love to hear any of your tricks for using them, recording ideas, keeping track of characters, themes, plotlines,etc.

This all feels very artificial to me in some ways. But oddly enough since I started transferring some of the ideas from my coomputer file to the cards, the story seems to have taken off with more energy than before.


#1 - September 07, 2008, 09:36 PM

How timely this thread is!  I just bought a bunch of index cards this past weekend!

I always used index cards whenever I did any type of paper in school.  I am currently outlining and revising a YA WIP.  Since I am moving some of the things around, as well as adding and filling in "holes", it just makes more sense to me to put the "outline" on index cards so I can physically rotate them as I add, move and subtract.  My goal for today and tomorrow is to transfer everything to the cards (I chose 4 x 6, I think I must be more "wordy" than you!), so we'll see how it works!

Time will tell whether this is efficient and successful...

Hugs, Jodi  :love
#2 - September 08, 2008, 07:23 AM
WHEN A DRAGON MOVES IN, Flashlight Press, May 2011
GOOD NEWS NELSON, Story Pie Press, Dec 2012


I'm like Jodi -- I don't use it in the beginning stages, but in my last WIP, I really needed to wholesale move scenes, so it made more sense to write a short summary of the scene on a card and . . . shuffle. At least that's what it felt like!
#3 - September 08, 2008, 07:29 AM


I've used index cards for my last two WIPs. I use them after I get a first draft done. Once I have key plot elements written on each one, I lay them out all over the living room floor and look at the big picture, and find areas that need the most attention for revision.
For my last WIP, I have alternating POV, so I used colored index cards to represent each character (three separate plots that intertwine at a critical moment). That made for a pretty living-room floor display :) but also made me see HUGE gaps in an individual character's story.
For long works, I really like them -- it makes it easier to see the entire forest because I tend to get caught up staring at one tree.

#4 - September 08, 2008, 07:36 AM


I'd thought of using coloured cards, but as my wip is told from one character's POV, I'm using all white for plot elements, then using coloured dots and highlighters to emphasize character elements and themes.

I think that when I lay them all out on a single plane at some point - I've taken over one wall of the study for this -   the coloured elements will help me identify patterns and progressions.

Interesting that some people use this as a second draft process. The current WIP is only at the idea phase, but I may well go into another WIP that's stalled about 3/4 of the way through later and break it down using cards, and see what happens then.

#5 - September 08, 2008, 08:19 AM

addicted to YA
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I used index cards after my 1st draft was done. (I like to write organically - letting the characters take me where they want to go within the general parameters I've set in my brain.) 

I took a card for each chapter - listed characters, plot point, action, if there was positive forward movement, etc.

I may consider doing this with my current WIP - since I let it sit for several months while working on another project. So, I've forgotten a bit of what's where in the story - and the index cards would definitely help!
#6 - September 08, 2008, 08:46 AM
XVI, Puffin/Speak, available now
Truth, Puffin/Speak, January 2012

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I used index cards to plot out my most recent book and so enjoyed them that I'm using them again.

I carried my little box of index cards (not a real box, just the cardboard sleeve they came in) absolutely everywhere with me, and whenever I had any sort of thought about the book -- it went on a card.

Some of those were backstory ideas, some were about character, some were Exciting Things that should happen -- every idea, big or small, had a card.  Sometimes I used the back of the card for more info about that idea (looking up interesting words, checking historical facts, creating family trees).

Then I would sort the ideas/cards into some sort of order. 

I also had a notebook for this project, with, again, family trees and so forth -- and, most important, a page where I just had the chapters listed by number and by the main thing that would happen in each one.

Writing this book was a breeze!  I loved slapping cards to the back of the deck as I wrote! 

Anyway, it also helps me to have something I can spread out physically (on the floor, as others have said) and rearrange.  AND -- I love not losing those little flashes of inspiration that come at odd moments.

Good luck!
#7 - September 08, 2008, 11:22 AM
THE CABINET OF EARTHS -- HarperCollins, 2012

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I use index cards for my characters.  I keep important information - even information that may not be in the book.  I keep characteristics, birthdate, parents, grade in school, and anything else that is important. 

Keeping information on each character means that later on I do not have to go back to the beginning of my ms and hunt for information on some minor point.  Did the charactor say she loved broccoli :broccoli early in the book and then later state she hated it and is refusing to eat any, and this has nothing to do with the plot...

Liz :paperbag
#8 - September 22, 2008, 08:50 AM
You must do the things you think you cannot do.  Eleanor Roosevelt


I've never used index cards before, so I'm thankful for this thread :) I'm definitely going to try this with my revisions.
#9 - September 25, 2008, 05:33 PM

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Here's another useful link ... and it has links within:

I like index cards -- they're so portable.
#10 - September 26, 2008, 09:02 PM
BOUND (Bodach Books, 2018)
TEN EASTER EGGS (Scholastic, 2015)
Author of over 60 books and 60 magazine pieces

I just used index cards last week to assist in my revisions! What I did was, I wrote the name of a scene on each card and laid them out in chronological order in a long strand on the floor in front of me. (Which was great, except my cat thought I was creating a special little bed for her to lay on...)

Then, I took little scraps of colored paper--different colors for each character, subplot, etc. Going through each character and subplot one at a time, I placed a scrap of the colored paper on whatever index card scene they pop up in. It gave me a great visual representation of any long stretches without a certain character or areas where I should expand upon the subplots. Much more effective than making an outline.  Then, I'd write down in a notebook things like, "Where is character X in between Scene 5 and 15?" Then, I took all my notes and went back to my WIP and sort of filled in the blanks.

Hope that helps!

Good luck with your revisions!
#11 - October 15, 2008, 08:28 AM


I use large Post-Its.  This works great if you've got the wall space and don't need to carry them around.


#12 - October 17, 2008, 08:56 PM


I use them for my character descriptions, character traits etc. that way I can keep track of them all! Reading through this thread though has given me a few new ideas for using them! Can't wait to get some new index cards! :broccoli
#13 - October 25, 2008, 01:05 PM

Well, I guess I'm not the only one then...   :yay  I use index cards a lot when I write.  I break down my work on index cards.  Like others here I use it for characters, and most recently for worldbuilding. 
#14 - February 07, 2009, 06:06 PM
« Last Edit: February 08, 2009, 05:57 AM by GLG »

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I've always been a linear writer, but my newest WIP is coming to me in bits and pieces - and out of order. I've been writing scenes and placing them on note cards. I have a wall next to my computer covered with cork board and tacks. It allows me to rearrange scenes as needed.
#15 - February 07, 2009, 07:17 PM


I just bought some colored ones to help with ideas for my newest WIP. I have lots of scenes  in my head, and I need balance. This will be a mg, but there will have to be flashbacks to elementary school to show the true nature of my character's problem. Those scenes will be heart wrenching, some as a result of well-meaning teachers, some not so much. Those will go on one color. Current  time and place of story will have scenes of success that move the character toward her goal, and scenes of failure, that will be the source of much frustration and discouragement. Those will be two different colors. The fourth color will be motivations for the character to overcome her problem. Some of those motivations may turn into scenes. I've not used cards before. But I'm hoping it will help.
#16 - February 07, 2009, 09:52 PM

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I'm new to using index cards, but I'm finding them very helpful.  If you've got the space, I highly recommend a big cork board.  I'm loving mine--you can move index cards around with push pins.  I'm using the Vogler method so I have large index cards going across that say things like: "Call to adventure; Refusal of call; the Ordeal" etc.  Then I have smaller index cards underneath with different colours for each major character.  Best of luck!
#17 - February 08, 2009, 07:10 AM
Lena Coakley
Exquisite storytelling plus atmospheric worldbuilding equals one stunning teen debut. Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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I use index cards in a pretty straight-forward way--when I'm ready to do a full outline for a book, I put my notes for one scene on each card.  If I'm still trying to figure out the order of events I'll leave them unnumbered and lay them out and try to figure out where there are holes that need to be filled, etc.  Once I'm pretty happy with the order of events, I number them so I can remember what order I mean them to go in.  :) 

And then I refer to them as I'm writing.  I find it handy because then I can just keep the card for the scene I'm working on with me instead of the entire outline, which is especially useful if I'm writing away from home.

I've also used index cards to write out character arcs and subplot progressions so that I can look at several strands of the story at once without having to flip back and forth through a notebook.
#18 - February 08, 2009, 10:18 AM
YA paranormal, sci fi, & fantasy:
Fallen World series
Earth & Sky trilogy

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I use index cards after I've finished a first draft. I break down each scene on one card -- include what plot point (or sub-plot point drives the scene, which characters are in the scene, and if other important info is somehow included.

I lay out the cards in their current order. It's easier to spot missing scenes, when plot points need to be brought in sooner. Characters that might need more to do (or killed off because their work can be done by another character), scenes that could be condensed, etc, etc, etc.

#19 - February 08, 2009, 12:09 PM


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