Friday, March 04, 2011

3x5 Card Plotting Method

I've been racking my brain trying to remember where or when I first heard about the 3x5 card plotting method - and I just can't! Probably some conference somewhere - or maybe a book about writing - I've gone to so many conferences and read dozens of books about writing over the last two decades that I am blank, but I've been doing this handy little technique for years though.

The very first book I tried it out on was The Last Snake Runner, Knopf 2002, written during the years of 1999-2000. I also used it with The Healing Spell, Murder in the House of Embalming (An ancient Egyptian thriller, unsold yet), and now my current WIP, Memoirs of a Girl.

But I've got lots of manuscripts that I haven't done the 3x5 card plotting with. For instance, my new YA Victorian Paranormal, Essence. I have about 12 cards done for it, but I haven't finished by card plotting for it yet, even though I've got 100 pages drafted. For the last 6 months I've been doing character sketches and plotting and note taking and synopsis writing for Essence in Microsoft One Note Program. I think it's similar to Scrivener for Macs. One Note is like an online 3-ring binder with Tabs and sections all in one place. I don't have to keep switching between Word documents because it's all in one place. You can also add links and images and audio recordings right into your One Note Notebook. Which is great for keeping your research together. I love One Note!

I did not do the 3x5 card plotting  for Circle of Secrets which comes out in October from Scholastic. Circle of Secrets is the manuscript I wrote on the Armageddon Book Deadline. When my editor asked if I could write a new book in six weeks, I brainstormed with a friend to flesh out my ideas and just plunged into the first draft - which I wrote in two and a half weeks. Then I spent about 4 weeks revising and adding another 18,000 words before I sent it to my editor. Whew!

Okay. When I first start getting whiffs of an idea, random thoughts, setting, characters, plot, I start throwing those random ideas into a notebook (a small one for my purse while I'm out and about and away from home) and then I transfer those ideas into a Word document or a new One Note File. I often spend a few weeks to a few months just throwing, throwing, throwing ideas, bits of character and plot and dialogue into files.

The story starts to take shape in my mind. The characters start becoming more defined. I know my setting usually very well because I'm a setting spring-boarder kind of writer - or I've been reading lots of books for research - and I get to the point that my brain is spilling out my ears. I have jumbled notes, jumbled thoughts inside my head and different plot ideas - or ideas for SCENES that are all mixed-up in my brain.

I need to start organizing those scenes and plot points. Here's where the 3x5 card Plotting Method comes in very handy!

I sit down one day and just start writing down those ideas as fast as I can on cards. ONE IDEA or ONE SCENE per card. No more! After I begin (checking my notebook or other documents to make sure I haven't forgotten anything) the plotting often start coming together more and more and I keep filling cards and more cards.

Usually the plot is out of order. Just a big jumble!


When I get somewhere between 30-50 cards I start laying them all out on a table. They are STILL out of order. But now I can *see* them all in front of me. The whole book is there! I just have to organize it.

I hover over my cards, contemplating and looking for the best place to start the story. Which card will make a great opening? Sometimes I already have this figured out, sometimes not. Sometimes I already have The First Line. I usually really like to have The First Line figured out before I start the actual drafting of Chapter One.

Then I start picking up the cards, one by one, in the order that makes sense and would be the most dramatic, building the plot, throwing in more conflict. Sometimes I'll have to grab my pen and add a few more cards. Then I look for the climax cards and put those in order. And last of all, is the denouement, or the scenes and emotional conclusion for the character. And often these cards are added to after I get through. 
 So then I end up with a stack of cards - voila!!!
All in order. 

My whole book is sitting right in front of me. Point by point. Scene by Scene. 
It's a great feeling. (The picture is cards for 4 books, published and un-published).

Now I just gotta write the book. 

And here is where the cards come in SO handy.

It's nervous time! 
I gotta start atually WRITING THIS BOOK! 
Oh, no! First drafts are so scary! What if I get stuck? What if I don't know where I'm going? 

Well, BOO! 

Your first draft is going to be a piece of cake. Relatively speaking. I mean, you gotta get your derriere into the chair very day and DO THE WORK. You gotta actually type in the words. But getting stuck rarely happens with your 3x5 cards sitting handily right beside you. Yes, those cards are going to be your best friend over the next few weeks or months while you draft. 

Because your book is now in order. It's sitting right beside you. 

You look at the first card - and only the first card. And you write that scene. 

Then you put the card at the bottom of the stack and write the scene or idea that's on the second card. 

After it's written, put it on the bottom of the stack and write what's on the third card. And so on and so on.
You always know what's coming next. Even if it's just a single line. Sometimes that's all I've written on a particular card. Sometimes I write a whole paragraph. Sometimes disjointed notes. They're YOUR cards. Write whatever works for you.

If you get stuck, just flip through your cards. Sometimes, after you've written a big chunk of your book you may realize that you have to re-order a few cards. You may end up adding a few cards because your characters that are now alive and breathing on the page and doing unexpected things. That's wonderful! Terrific! Because you have your basic book there. It takes away the scariness of that First Draft.

You never have to worry about sitting down and coming up with "what's next?" Or get stuck. Discouraged. Brain empty of ideas. Because you already have your book on those wonderful little 3x5 cards.

Try playing around with card plotting and let me know how it goes. Or if you've done this before, let me know! Or if you have some variations, I'd love to hear them 

Today, I'm putting my 3x5 cards for my new WIP back in order. Yes, the two toddlers in my household got hold of them and scattered them all over the house. And I hadn't numbered them yet. Bad me. For some reason toddlers love playing with the cards and lining them up down the hallway . . . off to play Pick Up The Cards!
Happy Weekend! 


Donea Lee said...

Hi Kimberley!! Wow - I've never heard of One Note, but sounds like something that would be immensely useful to me. (Or I may just actually go with a 3-ring binder...) Haven't tried this card method, but I do need something to get my ideas organized. My brain's just not doing its job in that respect, lately. A great plotting idea - thanks!

Btw, I just purchased The Healing Spell (GORGEOUS cover) and I look forward to reading it! I know Shannon Messenger raved about it in a post recently. Happy weekend to you, too! :)

Donna Weaver said...

I've heard of the 3x5 card outline process, too, and gave it a try for my NaNo project--I used 3x5 post-it notes. I now have a large white board to hold them on since the file cabinet got used too much. I liked it.

Francesca Amendolia said...

Okay, I love this idea. I had sort of gone halfway with the last book, but following through, working out the order - well then, as you say, it's just about writing it. If it weren't ten o'clock at night, I might go searching for index cards and get going!

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

Donea - thank you so much! Isn't that hardcover gorgeous?! When I got my copies in the mail and it had embossed lettering and purple interior and all the gators inside I thought it was one of the prettiest books I'd ever seen. I feel so blessed. And the new paperback cover is just as terrific but in a whole different way:-) I hope you enjoy!

And yes, I really enjoy One Note a lot! You can put in so many more things into it than a paper notebook or binder like images and files - as well as erase more easily!

Donna: Cool that you've tried it for NaNo! Off to check out your blog post. The post-its are an interesting way to do it.

Francesca: I love that: "If it weren't 10:00 at night, you might go searching for cards and get going!" Yay! Thanks for dropping by! I'm off to check your internet spot now . . .

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks Kimberly! I really like this, I do/did something similar on my computer when first working out a story, but realizing more and more I need more hands on the story...literally. Thanks again :)

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

Hey, Deb - thanks so much for commenting! I like that phrase, "I need more hands on the story . . . literally." That's a good way to look at it. :-) It's fun to shuffle through the cards. As well as to *see* the whole book laid out on a table in front of you.

Cindy-Rae said...

I have mine on a big white board. It's nice for an overview, and a good way to identify scenes that either don't move the plot forward or serve no needed purpose. But I like your idea of stacking them and having only the one you need to write showing on top. Seems that it would keep pushing you forward each day instead of getting bogged down in rewrites before moving on (a big problem for me).

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

I've thought about getting a white board, but no place to put it. ;-)

Many writers rewrite a lot as they go so you're not alone, Cindy-Rae. But yeah, sometimes you just gotta push yourself forward. OFTEN the opening few chapters end up getting changed once you reach the ending of the story, anyway, so why waste a ton of time on them? And you run the risk of getting bored or bogged down or discouraged to finish. My opening of The Healing Spell got rewritten about 20 times.

JennaQuentin said...

I have gotten so stuck on this first draft and finally worked out the last scenes in cards like this to know where I am going. The next book is going to be started with cards/scene notes! Thanks for clarifying this idea!!

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