Creating an Outline with Index Cards

Creating an outline with Index Cards

All you need to create your outline are 60 index cards, a pen or a marker of some sort and a large space in which to spread out the cards.

This method utilises the Three Act Structure which is a useful structural tool not to mention an excellent way to outline a story.
I would suggest taking a quick note of the key points of the Three Act Structure before you begin, though it doesn’t really matter if you wait and do it at the end.

Take your 60 index cards, which you can buy from almost anywhere (I just make my own from whatever’s handy) and a pen and write out the 60 most important things that will happen in your novel. Just a single sentence to give an idea of what the scene or event will consist of is enough.

Since there are usually about sixty scenes in a novel (there can be more, or even less) it is a good idea to use 15 each for the first and third acts and 30 for the second. This is where the primary focus of the action will be and where a huge chunk of the story is told.

This part might take a bit of thinking, especially if you have not begun to outline your story yet, or even thought about what might happen from beginning to end.

Once you’ve written the single sentence event on all sixty cards, spread them all out in front of you. I use my coffee table because it’s large enough, though you can use a dining table or even the floor if you like.

Take a good look at all of your events. Are they all in the order they need to be in?

Now, remember that list of key points from the Three Act Structure that you may or may not have made a note of? Well, we’re going to use that now, so if you haven’t jotted down the points, you may want to do so now.

First, all of the parts that belong in the beginning, or Act I go in one pile, all those that belong in the middle, or Act II, go in another and finally, all of the events that belong in the end, or Act III, go in a third pile.

Next, take the scene cards in the pile for Act 1 and match them to the elements of this act (you won’t be able to match every card, but you’ll have a sense of where they’ll need to be placed in the story.)

For example, take the scene or event that you think is your exposition or set up. This is where the character is going about their normal, day to day life.
This scene should be first, and the scene that you think describes your inciting incident (the scene that changes the protagonist’s world or forces them out of their normality) – goes next, and so on and so forth until you matched up all the cards with the key points of the three acts as best you can.

Having sorted your cards into their respective acts and matched them with their corresponding points, you can go back to them and add any other information you need to.

A good tip here is to keep a blank sheet of paper handy and that way if you run out of space on the index card, you can mark which card you’re working on and continue on the paper. This is what I do when I use index cards because I never seem to have enough room. However, you don’t need to do this if you are able to use the space available or have a great memory.

You can add things like setting and which characters are involved or even things like which POV your scene will be written in along with any other information that jumps out of your head.

That’s it really. When you’ve done all of that, you should have a relatively detailed outline of your novel.

While this outline was presumably designed to be used for novel outlines, I don’t see why it can’t be modified to work for any form of writing.

A short story of 7 scenes and 10,000 words could conceivably be split up into a 2, 3, 2 formation of index cards for the beginning middle and end.
This is just an estimate, and of course, you can experiment with it yourself and see what works. The 7 scenes and 10,000 words are just what appeared when I googled ‘how many scenes are there in a short story.’
The truth is there is no set number, just as there is no set word count. I don’t think I’ve written a short story yet that was over  6,000 words.

Anyway… I’ve gone on for long enough. Thank you so much for reading, I really appreciate it!

Until next time,


© 2017 GLT

Categories: Outlines

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

5 replies


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