One of the more recognizable plotting methods out there is Note card Plotting. The idea of physically carrying and rearranging ideas appeals especially well to hands-on or visual writers, though the specifics of the method vary.

Note Card Plotting

General Method: Isolate and collect ideas to visually organize.

Materials Needed: Note cards, Pen, Space

With this general method in mind, get creative. The quick summary above identifies the three benefits to using a note card method.

First, writing ideas separately isolates the facets of a book/scene/character. Once isolated, ideas can’t be so quickly muddied up by their connection with others. Suppose you created a character for a new story who had a few interests and talents. Each of these would go on a separate note card. While working the story, it could be this character’s main traits shift from being a gardener first to being a pianist first. Placing the pianist trait ahead of the gardener trait is a clear reminder of this change to the character and it will be kept in easy view no matter how long the story may sit on a shelf. This way you won’t be going over the same ground of writing them as a gardener when you pick it up again.

Idea collection is the second major benefit of all note card methods. Not everyone works with note cards the same way. Some are super-motivated and have deadlines to meet, using cards to slot in necessary information for a quick first draft. Others treat note cards as a kind of butterfly collection. Anne Lamott, in her book, Bird by Bird, uses note cards this way. Not only is it helpful to catch ideas as you have them and keep them somewhere accessible, but the physical work of writing something down improves recall of that information. Keeping them organized is up to the individual and what works for them.

The third and most obvious benefit to this method is the ability to visually organize otherwise slippery ideas into a cohesive whole. What that “whole” will be is up to you. Some people like to have a resource drawer for characters, settings, and plot ideas in neat little drawers. Others like to lay out the structure of a specific story. Some even just dump the cards in a box at the end of the day and do a kind of grab-bag activity to get their writing started for the day. The important thing is that writing the note cards benefits your writing somehow.

Meagan Burgess uses notecards to outline. Click the picture for the link.

Optional Material: Story structure, Target story length, Scene length/Number formula, Organizational aids (highlighters, post-its, flags, etc.)

Demonstrative uses of the note card method vary, and they usually differ based on what goals the writer has for the exercise. Having an idea for the end product makes the exercise more focused, for sure.

The more methodical applications start with a target word-count. With this constant, and a constant average word-count per scene, you know how many scenes to prepare with note cards. If you take a little time at the beginning of the process to produce a quick logline (definition) and nail down a couple of characters, those scenes can be parceled out to a certain number per character. See how this can boil down the process to bite-sized pieces? This is very useful for people writing a book in a hurry.

Others work off a specific story structure, whether it’s a Basic Plot (like the Hero’s Journey or Rags to Riches) or one of the classical Act Structures. The cards may then be mapping conflicts between the main landmark scenes. In these brainstorming sessions, there’s likely a pile for main plot conflicts, subplot A conflicts, and subplot B conflicts.

Organizational aids, like color codes, help make the visual planning more efficient. A common method is color coding the cards according to characters, or plot/conflict group, or even setting. This makes it easy to evaluate any gaps in the narrative just by looking at it. If there’s an overabundance of red subplot cards in one area of the spread, or a cluster of blue minor character cards, perhaps it would be good to disperse them (unless, of course, you have good reasons for the groups). If mapping out a journey story, you could physically divide the characters when their paths break, giving you a firm grasp of who will be present in certain scenes.


However you choose to use note cards for your writing, remember this is supposed to be a helpful tool, not a burden. Just because a famous author said they did this, there are as many methods for writing as there are writers. Give new tricks a try, but don’t feel obligated to make something work that doesn’t help get words on a page.


Links/Resources: carding-plotting-under-pressure/



Commenting area

  1. I do the same thing with 3×5 post-it notes! Such a great way to organize your thoughts and story line.

  2. Peggy Barker January 19, 2016 at 2:36 pm · · Reply

    It reminds me of the tool, the Story Forge Cards, you taught us about at our last Salt River Scribes meeting. I will have to give it a try. Thanks!

  3. I’m thinking about plotting a lot these days. I’ve heard of this method before and even tried it myself. Alas, it stressed me out more than helped. I felt like my thoughts were scattered all over the place. The more I talk to authors about outlining the more I realize how deeply personal it is. Still trying to find the way that works best for me. Thanks for this post. I will keep it in my collection of outlining strategies.

    • We’ve noticed many of the posts on note card plotting had firm numbers-oriented strategies that appealed to very organized minds. Thankfully, using note cards is simply putting words on small pieces of paper. It’s up to you how you use them, and how they help you will be different from how they help other writers. Try it out, or stick to tried and true methods! Just do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t. Happy writing!

  4. I’ve found Scapple to be better than note cards.

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