Brainstorm Your Story With Index Cards


Nanowrimo—National Novel Writing Month—is coming up faster than we all think! I’m going to be doing some prep posts, starting now and through Preptober. I’m also going to start adding videos to some posts, like I use in my online workshop, to see if that works better for some of you.

Let’s jump right in with the number one plotting tool of most screenwriters I know. It was an absolute lifesaver for me when I was working on assignment and would sometimes have to come up with a full movie plot overnight. And it’s just as effective for novelists!

Index Cards on Story Structure Grid, from Screenwriting Tricks for Authors.

Get yourself:

- A pack of index cards or Post-Its

What you will start to do now is use the index cards to brainstorm scenes.

A movie has about 40 to 60 scenes (depending on pace: a drama or romance has more like 40, an action movie more like 60), so count out 40 to 60 cards. All you do at first is write down all the scenes you know about your book or movie, one scene per card.

Now, if you’re writing a long novel, you may be doubling or tripling the scene count. But for me, the chapter count remains exactly the same: forty to sixty chapters to a 400-page book.

You don’t have to put them in order yet, but the next step, which I’ll cover in the next post, will be arranging the cards on a Story Structure Grid.

You can also use Post-Its, and the truly OCD among us use colored Post-Its or cards to identify various subplots by color. Personally I like cards because they’re more durable and I can spread them out on the floor for me to crawl around and for the cat to walk over; it somehow feels less like work that way. Everyone has their own method; experiment and find what works best for you.

For now we’re just brainstorming! But if you know approximately what Act a scene goes in, and you don’t want to wait for the next post, you can start laying the cards out on a table, or pinning or taping or sticking them up on a corkboard or whiteboard or just a blank wall space, in approximately the right place. (You can always move them around!)

I love the cards because they are such an overview. Just like with a jigsaw puzzle, once you have some scenes in place, you will naturally start to build other scenes around them. You can stick a bunch of vaguely related scenes together in a clump, rearrange one or two, and suddenly see a perfect progression of an entire sequence. You can throw away cards that aren’t working, or make several cards with the same scene and try them in different parts of your story board.

You will find it is often shockingly fast and simple to lay out a whole story this way.

And yes, I understand that there are software programs that simulate the index card method. But I very strongly encourage you to try this physical method in addition to brainstorming on the computer. Working with actual cards or Post-its is kinesthetic learning. It activates different parts of your brain and creative processes than typing does. Brainstorming with a software program is not the same as using your body as you work. You’ll be doing plenty of typing as it is, so why not try a different kind of creativity and see where it might take your story?

In upcoming posts we’ll start working with a Structure Grid:

— and how to plug various Key Story Elements into this overall structure to make the plotting go even more quickly. These are scenes that you’ll find in nearly all stories, like the Introduction of the Protagonist, their Inner and Outer Desire, Theme, Call to Adventure/Inciting Incident, the Protagonist and Antagonist’s Plans, Setpieces, the Special World, the Midpoint, the All is Lost/Dark Night of the Soul scene, and more.

Many of these scenes tend to fit naturally into specific sequences or acts, so we’ll be talking about that, too.

And for you pantsers—don’t panic! No matter how you create a story yourself, chances are it will organically follow this flow, because you have seen it in action so many times in all the thousands of books you’ve read and movies and TV you’ve seen over the course of your lifetime.

Give it a try and see how game changing it can be.


Get a pack of index cards or Post-Its and write down all the scenes you know about your story, one scene per card. Make cards for the other scenes that pop into your head while you’re doing it!

You can read this chapter and more about Index Cards, the Structure Grid, and the Three-Act, Eight-Sequence structure in either of the workbooks:

- Chapters Five and Six of Stealing Hollywood

- Chapters Five and Six of Writing Love.

©2011 & 2015, Alexandra Sokoloff

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