Writing 101: Index Card Plotting

Today I will go over one way you can plot and organize your novel. This is what I’m currently doing.

Materials: Index cards (white and multi-color), index card box (I use the more expensive ones that have the metal siding, they look best and are more durable than the plastic ones), and the plastic tabbed sorts that are made for these kinds of boxes (I use to separate the chapters).

To start off with, I cut each index card in half. Using only one sentence per card seems a waste, so I do this to have more materials to write on. If you have an idea for a scene, go ahead and write down the idea in one sentence on a card half. Do this for as many scenes as you can, because you may find you get more ideas as you write them down. For the different story elements that make up the story, I use a different colored card. Below is an idea of how I color code them.

Main Story: for the main story, I use the white index cards because they are the easiest to find and they come in a pack of their own color.

Subplots: If you’d like you can use a different color for each subplot. I use one color for all of them. To keep them separated, I simply assign each subplot a number and write it in the upper corner of the card. This also helps keep track of them in the story, if multiple subplots are used in one chapter.

Worldbuilding: This category is self-explanatory I think. If your world uses magic, creatures, or something more normal like a type of gun, this color is what you’d use for the scene sentence. This way, you know at a glance that you need to include it into the chapter so that your readers will know it’s something important to the characters and their everyday life.

POV Change: This may not apply to everyone’s stories, but mine includes a different character’s point of view (POV) each chapter. I add these cards to each grouping of cards to remind myself of which character’s voice is needed.

Relationships: I use two colors of cards for my current story. One color for my main character (MC) and his father, another color for the MC and his love interest.

These are the five categories I currently have. With the index cards, I can shuffle them around and figure out the paths each chapter needs to go in to be able to advance the story. After I decide what goes into each chapter, I can group them together and place them behind a card separator. Using these, I can lay them out in the order I want them to appear in the chapter to keep myself on point as I write. Depending on what I come up with on the spot as I write each chapter, I can add those elements into later chapters to create more to the story.

If you decide to try this way of plotting, I hope it goes well for you. Are there any story elements I may have not included that you use? Comment below to tell me what it is and how well it works for you!

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Story Building 101: Creating A Series

This goes a little hand in hand with a previous post, about reading reviews of other people’s work, to see what complaints readers have about the story. In this post, I’ll talk about producing a series of books within the same story universe.

Many readers of a book series complain that the author is trying to make the most money by writing a series of books (you know, part one, part two, ect.) and that each book continues the story from the cliffhanger in the previous book. There is nothing wrong with doing this, exactly. It is the execution that many readers seem to have an issue with, and I agree.

You do not want readers to lose faith in your work by underhanded tactics to receive more sales. That is what the review feature is for, after all. If a potential customer sees that your novel has a lot of one and two star reviews for the story within the novel being too short, and that it is continued within another installment, the potential customer will probably pass your novel up, losing you a possible dedicated reader.

Here is my suggestion, but feel free to ignore it if you wish, that’s your decision after all. I do hope that everybody who reads this post and writes will at least think about this suggestion for a little while. My suggestion is this…if you decide to create a series of books…at least make each one a stand-alone. You can still tell the main story that you want to tell, but allow each book in the series become a stepping stone, if you will, each with their own stories, until you wrap the main story up within the final book of the series.

The Harry Potter series is the perfect example of this. I’ve only read the final book, however, I did watch most (not all, I haven’t seen the final three films) of the movies.  Speaking for the movies, as those are what I have experience with, each movie has their own challenges and story. At the end, the journey of Harry and his friends culminate to the final showdown with Voldemort in the final story. All of their challenges up to the final battle allows the characters to grow in power as well as with their different abilities. Their challenges also prepared the main characters to learn how to work together in difficult situations and rely on the other’s unique skillset.

If you were to go this route with your series, you could have a hit with your customers and those they recommend your work to by word of mouth.

Another way to do a series is reminiscent of The Walking Dead. It features a group of strangers coming together to survive in their new world. Some of them are lost as the series continues, while other characters come in and change the dynamic of the group and the story as a whole. This type of series would be tricky, as you’ll need to have a final goal for at least one of your characters, such as maybe finding a community. Once that happens, you can create a new story arc about life inside the community and what new challenges await the characters who had survived up to this point. I think the biggest challenge is to create likeable characters that your audience would like to read about. Character driven storytelling would need to be balanced with the action and horror (or suspense, depending on what genre and tone the story is in). You can even have a story arc based in another location with all new characters. The new The Walking Dead series Fear the Walking Dead is a great example of this. Another great example is the Fear Street, and the Shannara series of novels. The Fear Street novels go a step further with story arcs set in different time periods, including the beginning of the town the novels are set in. The one link to all of these stories is the family curse of the Fiers (later Fears) running rampant in the town and affecting everybody in some way.

One last type of series that I can think of at this time would be the classic sleuth-type stories. James Bond would also be considered this type of story. There is often a villain behind all the trouble in all the stories, though they are usually manipulating the crimes/murders within each individual novel. The main character has to solve the crime in each story, which gives them new clues about who is behind everything. So, the main character has the clues within the novel to help them solve the crime at the end, and recieve new clues to add to their collection about who the villain is. The next novel will have their own clues about the crime involved in that book, while adding in more clues for their collection for the main villain. If the main character is ever killed off, it usually turns to the sidekick to continue their partner’s investigation while going on their own journey for self-discovery.

If I think of any more types of series that would work, I’ll either edit this post to include them, or create a part 2. Have fun!

Story Building 101: Revealing Secrets and Character Reactions

Many stories have secrets that certain characters keep from others. The reveal of these secrets to other characters often drive many scenes afterwards as well as the interplay between those that the secret affects the most. The most important aspect is how the secret is revealed. I’ll use the British soap Eastenders as an example. This storyline is perfect for this discussion, because there are many layers to the secret of this family. The writers did something right if this storyline is still widely viewed and talked about ten years later. It is a favorite of many people, myself included.

The Slater family will be used for this example. Those who watch the show might know which secret I’m referencing here. The youngest child in the household, Zoe Slater, believed that she was the youngest sister to the other Slater girls. Soon after the family’s introduction, we begin to see the character, Kat Slater, act differently towards Zoe. At first, the audience watching the storyline unfold, thought that Kat was being overprotective over Zoe because Zoe was the youngest. Then, at Zoe’s birthday, the audience learns that Kat is Zoe’s birth mother. Kat was speaking to her father in her bedroom and she begins to lose it, saying that Zoe was her baby. Certain things begin to make sense now. I’m sure many viewers were shocked at the revelation.

The storyline continues on, with the audience at the edge of their seats each time Kat and Zoe interacted, especially their arguments. The viewers knew the truth, however, Zoe and other family members didn’t. Certain things begin to escalate between the two of them and their newly arrived Uncle Harry. Kat really hates the man, but the audience doesn’t know why. Kat was civil to him whenever other family members were around, but acted angry with him when they were alone. Uncle Harry tried to make nice with Kat, though she wouldn’t have any of it. Of course, the audience is confused with this development, though I’m sure some were beginning to figure things out.

Uncle Harry and Zoe were talking about Zoe moving to Spain with him, so Zoe could help Uncle Harry with his pub. This secret was revealed during the bachelorette party of Kat’s older sister. She didn’t see that coming and she became livid, immediately forbidding Zoe from going to Spain. An argument erupted between the two before they both stormed out. Kat continues to yell at Zoe, telling her that she couldn’t go to Spain with Uncle Harry. This was the moment when many were once again on the edge of their seats. Zoe turns and screams at Kat that she wasn’t her mother. The moment of truth. Kat screams back, “Yes I am!” The secret is revealed, and the some watching admitted that they began to cheer! Take note, a major was revealed that immediately changed the dynamic between these two characters. But were the secrets over? Not by a long shot! The best was about to come.

The next episode was all about these two characters and the emotional rollercoaster was amazing! The two actresses playing these two did an awesome job with this storyline, it’s my favorite to date. You could see the anger at this secret being kept from Zoe, the bitterness from Kat having to keep this secret from Zoe, the pain from the loss of innocence do to a rape. This storyline became even more complicated when Zoe told Kat that going to Spain is perfect because she could have time to think about things. Kat forbade it once more. More anger from Zoe. The next major secret was revealed. Uncle Harry raped Kat when she was thirteen and Uncle Harry was Zoe’s father. Another shock for Zoe. 

Zoe tells Kat’s father everything, revealing who her real father was. Uncle Harry, his brother, was responsible for Kat becoming pregnant at such a young age. The brothers had a falling out, and that was the last we see of Uncle Harry, hearing in a later episode that he had died in Spain. The othr sisters were shocked and outrage of this secret being kept from them. Kat’s father learned that his wife knew about the whole ordeal, which made him think less of her. Kat takes a bottle of pills and drinks a bottle of alchohol to try and commit suicide, which begins another storyline within the original.

From this point on, Kat and Zoe’s great relationship began to deteriorate to the point where Zoe runs away from home and began living on the streets of London. Kat tries desperately to find Zoe, with no luck until much later while a female pimp is trying to prostitute Zoe out to older men. Kat finally finds Zoe, only to later run away from everything and ended up in prison.

This storyline has many elements of revealing secrets to the audience (in an author’s world, to their readers). Even one major secret needs to have complex layers that affects everybody involved in some way. The more difficult thing for any author is deciding how to reveal the secret to the reader. Will the reader learn the secret before the characters? If you decide for the reader to learn the secret at the same time as the characters, there should be subtle hints leading up to the reveal. This makes sure the story doesn’t lose its believability for the reader.

If you’re interested in see how the story of Kat and Zoe Slater plays out, Youtube has many videos dedicated to these characters that includes all of the best parts mentioned above as well as others. I hope this has helped you learn more about how secrets can be handled. After the episode dedicated to Kat and Zoe aired, it was followed by a hotline number for those who have gone through similar experiences as the character of Kat. The lines exploded, which allowed more awareness and conversation about the subject of incestual rape/rape in general. Although you might not care enough to “preach” about a subject in your fiction, it certainly doesn’t hurt if it is done well enough to get people talking about your work and recommending it to others.

Story Building 101: The Rope

In today’s post, I am going to give a metaphor that will hopefully help you weave your story so that it flows organically. As the title suggests, the metaphor is going to be a braid. Imagine a braid of rope. If you have a real rope, grab it so that you can see how well this metaphor works.

The main storyline is going to be the biggest part of the rope. Each subplot is another string of the rope. As you imagine wrapping the subplots around the main story, ask yourself what can be done in the story to tighten it. The goal is to have a resolution to each of the main and subplots by the last word of your story, unless there is going to be a thread of that rope used in a sequel, in which case, that would become the main plot for that story.

The easiest way to bring ideas to the strings of rope is to have each planned character arc (main, secondary and villainous characters) act as a string within that metaphoric rope. How can each story arc weave within the main plot? What can the story do to create a tightened rope?

Another way to create the rope is to take each chapter, and depending on the character arc scenes shown in that chapter, create a smaller rope that will eventually weave and make the whole story.

Character Building 101: A Character’s Goals

Here is a quick post. I hope you all enjoy!

No matter how many main and secondary characters your story has, write down three ‘wants’ that each character dreams of having or achieving. This will determine what happens throughout your story. Next, according to what your characters want, ask if any of the ‘wants’ can become ‘needs’. If this is the case, the obstacles could become even more severe or troublesome. Ask yourself what obstacles could be a result of trying to achieve the character’s wants and needs. How can your character(s) overcome the obstacles to achieve their goals? This is where the “villain” of the story comes in. The villain doesn’t even have to be a sentient being! A buggy or virus-filled computer could be the villain. A dangerous road could be a villain. I think you get the idea. Think of as many obstacles as you can for each goal and start with the least severe obstacle. As your story progresses, you want the obstacles to get a little more severe each time. The most severe out of your list could become the climax of that character’s story arc, before everything resolve themselves.

Character Building 101: Reactions

Frustration. This is the word which drives any story. Frustration is a result of conflict and can be the cause of future scenes in your story. The important thing to remember is to make sure that each character is reacting to something appropriately. A usually quiet, timid person wouldn’t all of a sudden rage and scream at others when they are frustrated. It can work, but only if you subtly show signs of this reaction in previous scenes any other time the character is frustrated. This could work by showing the character trying to calm themself down, for example.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when you need to show a frustrated (or any other emotion) character. What type of personality type is the character? What reactions does the character show in other, less stressful situations? What is their boiling point limit? How do others react to this character’s outburst? What does the character’s reaction say about them and their personality? Is there anybody in the story who could calm down the frustrated character? If so, who, and how would they calm the character down? How can the character’s reaction move the story forward? What type of scenes could there be as a result of the event and the character’s reaction?

Working out these questions will help you create a more realistic story that people will like, if not love. Also, remember to be consistant with how you portray the reactions of your characters, with a few subtle hints here and there if your character will react in a way that is normally uncharacteristic of them. The following writing exercise will help you imagine how your characters react in any given situation.

Writing 101: Organizing Your Scenes

This post is going to paraphrase an idea mentioned in the book worlds of Wonder by David Gerrold, which was published in 2001. This idea is using index cards as a way of outlining your novel or story. Grab a pack of index cards and write a one line synopsis about the scenes that you think of which could be used in your story. Write down one scene per card, whenever you think of them.

They do not have to be in order, because that will be a task for later. Simply think of as many scenes for the main plot as you can. After you finish this, take another stack of index cards to plot out a secondary storyline that will also be featured in your novel. This is usually another plotline that runs parallel to the main story, or a completely separate plotline. The second plotline often merges with the first in some way. Have more story to tell? Add in a third or even a fourth plotline. Don’t worry, after you run out of ideas, you can edit the scenes if you feel there are too many of them. One thing I’d like to recommend is to have different colored index cards to keep the plotlines from getting mixed up (for now).

Once you are finished, read through each card and begin to put them into your desired order flat on a hard surface, that way, you’ll have a view of them all at once. Going from top to bottom is the easiest way, since we will be doing the same thing to any other plotlines you came up with. Each plotline will be separate for now, that way, you can make a choice that is logical to you in how you want the story to flow.

Once you are finished, you can arrange the plotline cards to where any other plotlines will converge on the main plotline. Would a scene from a secondary plot work within a certain timeframe of the main story? Add it to the main plot. Would a scene from a fourth plotline work in the main plot near the beginning of the story? Add the card in. Once you finish, you might begin to see the story take shape easier in your mind. The cards are simply a tool to organize the scenes in your mind so that you can get them down on paper or computer screen.

One thing to note as you’re organizing the information is that you might see similar scenes or two or more scenes that could be combined into one. If this is the case, use paper clips or a stapler to keep the cards linked together for later. Once you’re satisfied with how the story is shaping up, you can store the cards in an index card box or even on a corkboard for further use.

If you don’t think the cards would work, I have read where people do this on either Microsoft Excel and Scrivener, however I’m not really familiar enough on how these techniques work within the programs to really comment on it. If you have experience, feel free to share in the comments below. Have fun!

UPDATE January 31, 2015: I’m working on this system right now and I’m quite pleased with it. I found that it is a waste of index cards using one card for each sentence. Instead, I have cut the cards in half and wrote a scene on each half. I also bought a large pack of 300 index cards, which included green, orange, pink and yellow cards for only 75 cents at Wal-Mart. I got three packs, so that ended up being $2.25 for 900 cards. Can’t really beat that! If each of them were cut inhalf, that’s 2,700 cards! Can you imagine how many novels and stories that could be?

I also bought a pack of highlighters which included blue, green, orange and yellow. All the same colors of the index cards. I couldn’t find the blue index cards, so I simply outlined a white card with the blue highlighter to differentiate between the main plot line and the other. One a whole card, wrote down “Main Plot”, “Secondary Plot”, ect until I got to the “Sixth Plot”. On another index card, I assigned each of the different plots to my story to a card color and used the highlighters to mark off which story went with index card color. These will be kept at the front of the index card box for easy reference.

One more thing I did was take a small stack of white index cards. Cut them in the middle to create two halves, and cut each of the halves in half to create four small cards. In the middle of these, I wrote “Chapter 1”, “Chapter 2”, ect. until I had 40 chapter cards. Now, as I arrange the scene cards around, I can assign them to chapters and use a small rubber band to keep the cards together. This should help with knowing what comes next and how to set the next chapters and scenes up.