Why Index Cards Don’t Work (For Me)


I bought another pack of index cards.  I’m at this point in my story where I’m chucking what doesn’t work (after 11k words, trust me when I say: it could be worse).  I’ve got to keep what works (mostly the characters) and dig deep and find the goals and the antagonist(s) and the conflict.

(Why do I forget these things when I first start writing?  It’s like I have to play with my characters for a bit before I can rip them apart and say, “You’re not quite right.”)

So, I’m in the grocery store and there’s this pack of index cards. A big stack, probably a 100.  And they’re unlined… *sigh* (The lined ones restrict my process, somehow).

Next thing I know, despite the fact that the last time I tried using index cards to plot it was a colossal failure, I bought index cards.  Again.

I get so caught up in how well it works for authors like Roz Morris (who convinced me to do it last time with her very good book, Nail Your Novel
, and she’s just so passionate and convincing) and Johanna Harness (who I’ve linked to before about her use of magic index cards).  They make it sound so fun, and creative, and organic.  But, that’s where it doesn’t work for me.

I think I crave the structure that goes with them.  Being able to make sense out of something huge and messy. As first drafts tend to be.

I write down everything floating in my head, and really, that’s a lot.  But it’s not a whole novel. And, so, I have my index cards, which amounted to about 20 for the first act, 8 for the second act, and 2 for the fourth act (I write with a 4 act structure) the last time I tried.  Nothing for act three.  The middle. Which, you might’ve heard, has been known to sag.  Be boring.  Or be full of crazy, not-organic stuff, that a writer just makes up to fill her damn index cards.

I need what happens next to come from the choices and actions my characters take before.  And I just don’t know how to do that with index cards.  It doesn’t work that way, for me.

What works for me is a notebook. A big, fat notebook with lots of pages.  Where I will just write scenes down all over.  Make outlines. Draw conflict boxes. Write letters from my characters.

Does anyone need any index cards?


  1. I’m similar to you in that I don’t know everything when I get started. I have the main plot points I have to hit and a handful or two of scenes that came to me during brainstorming. I do use index cards (and like them) but I don’t try to fill them all in the beginning. I fill the blanks in as I write and learn more about my story, and just in doing that, I always have at least the next 5 scenes outline all the way through to the end.

    Maybe index cards would work better for you at the rewrite stage?

  2. Author

    That may be true (the rewrite stage). Part of my problem, and this is all me, is I’m so obsessive that it bothers me to not have ALL the cards. When I write in my notebook, I’ve got room to blather on. When I’m planning, it’s heavy on dialogue and index cards just don’t give me room.

    I’d love to know what you include on the index cards when you use them. Just a quick summary or more?

  3. Yes, mostly just a summary. Sometimes a line of dialogue or a thought. Whatever sparked the scene for me, really. You know how that goes! Lol!

    Have you checked out Scrivener yet?

  4. I want index cards to work for me too, just because I love stationery. I don’t think they will, though. Got Scrivener on my laptop now, so maybe that’ll work. I have done Julie Cohen’s post-it plotting and found it helpful just to see the structure of my novel so far, but not used it actually for plotting ahead IYSWIM.
    And I have a lovely notebook that I hand-wrote my first draft in the first two thirds of. The last third is being given over to jotting down notes about characters, brainstorms etc.

  5. Author

    Like you, I do a lot of writing by hand. But, unlike index cards (which make me feel boxed in creatively), the notebook frees me up. Also helpful, especially when looking back on structure, is a huge whiteboard. It allows me the freedom of freewriting, but the space to see the structure as a whole.

    Thanks for commenting.

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