Index Cards: Outlining a Novel

I’ve written a few novels in the past. This November, I’m going to participate in Nanowrimo, you know–that goofy attempt to write a novel in one month. I’ve done it before and it’s a lot of fun.

My buddy Gus Sanchez of the funny and thought provoking blog Out Where the Busses Don’t Run has been talking to me recently about doing some outlining work, so I took his nudge and decided to do some of my own.

What the fak.

This time around, I thought that I would outline my project because that’s not something that I have done expansively. This time, I figured … EXPLANSIVE would be a good idea. Because of all the below reasons

  1. This is a novelization of my life at 23 years old
  2. It’s got characters that are based off real people, with names changed
  3. It’s got events based off real things, just some info smudged
  4.  the idea struck me just the other day and I don’t wanna lose track of the semblance of the strange plotting.
  5. I don’t wanna mix up truth and exaggeration while I’m writing. I wanna keep things straight in my narrative for myself while writing and of course, the reader later.

So here is my process for the outline. In case you were wondering.

First, I wrote out a sentence about the entire plot of the novel. From start to finish. Each line of the paper was just an event. If the events got boring, then I knew there’d be a problem with the novel.

Boring outline=Boring novel.

When I had start to finish and that pesky ‘middle’ taken care of; I took a loose leaf sheet of 8X10 paper and I folded it in half vertically and then twice horizontally. This made 8 boxes on the front, 8 boxes on the back. I filled these boxes with interesting traits about the characters.

  • Note: Making the “sentence event sheet” led to more characters appearing than I originally panned.
  • Making the “character boxes sheet” made more plot appear than I had planned.

When all of that was done … I started making these … index cards, each index card is a 1200 word approx. scene.


I like to write novels that are broken up into scenes. I’ve decided to do a great heap of that in this new book partly because I have had so much success with my short stories lately. My book ‘Or Something Like That’ has been getting some great reviews. I’ve noticed something that the reviewers are picking up on in my short stories, and that’s that a lot of things are “tied” together, like Seinfeld, Like the Marvel Universe … so I’d like to keep that going with my next release.

I have 40 of these scene Index cards.

It has the scene number (chapter number) on it and some general notes on what happens in each scene. My goal with this novel is to make each of these 40 scenes stand on it’s own as a short story. I love to writes ‘shorts’ and in this project, I want to marry the idea of short stories with the novel.

This entire outlining process took me about 4 hours of work, but I think  it’ll be well worth it, because now I have a complete map of the story, it’s characters and the conflicts and sub-conflicts that arise.

Should be a good time.

Now, for the rest of October, I’ll be completing edits on a novel I wrote this April … almost done.

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8 Replies to “Index Cards: Outlining a Novel”

  1. I’ve seen the index cards idea used before, but not in the way you’re doing it. I think I’ll try it when I’ve writing scenes. I’ve been using my notebooks and Scrivener to keep track of all those pesky little things like characters and ideas and subplots. But I do like the index card idea quite a lot.

    1. Yeah. So basically this novel right now is 30 short stories approximately 1600 words. With 10 vignette scenes describing either a person, a place of an object of importance at 500 words.

      I know it sounds calculated but its not, just a frame work for some adventure.

    1. Having the cards set up like this also makes it easier. When the scene is written you mark it with a red mark, when its revised you mark that with a blue marker … It makes the ‘task’ of the novel in 30 days an achievable thing.

      Look … Today, here’s my scene.
      Tomorrow, there’s the scene for tomorrow … So on.

  2. I do so like your way of outlining via arts and crafts! This has given me hope that maybe, just maybe, I too may be able to outline one day.

    Also, I DoNoWrimo, but am endlessly jealous of the brilliant thing you’re going to come up with in 30 damn days. Showoff.

    –Julie

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