Using notecards to evaluate novel structure

Up until a month ago, I was happily muddling through my second draft. Although I knew there were problems with it, it wasn’t until I was about half-way through, that I thought it would be helpful to sit down and reassess the structure and elements of my story as a whole.

After many hours of brainstorming, I concluded, in short, that:

  • My main character was boring – her arc was weak and she was, let’s just say, forgettable.
  • The subplots weren’t adding to the story.
  • There were many plot holes.
  • There were also several unnecessary scenes that I had become attached to (because I had spent SO many hours working on them, I couldn’t bear to get rid of them).

I thought about several methods that I could use to remedy the above issues. I started off by researching character development, how to write good subplots and finally decided that the extra scenes I loved so much had to go.

Although I had made progress doing this, I felt overwhelmed. I wanted to see all of the elements of my novel plotted out – I wanted to see how the character arc linked with the relationship subplot, how the character arc impacted the main plot and how my character changed over time. If I could physically see all of these elements in play, I felt that it would be easier for me to weave them together in a coherent order. I started off by doing this on my laptop, in a table that looked something like this:

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.06.31

This was helpful for a time, but sometimes you just need something physical to wrap your brain around. Cue, the notecards:


You have probably heard about using flash cards to outline a novel. There are many good articles online that explain exactly how to do this (try this and this). These methods are mainly to help you when you first start planning your novel, but they can also help if you just want to see your novel as a whole, in order to move bits around and assess whether or not the structure you have currently is working.

Although the above methods suggest only using about 60 cards, I decided to break this down further. I ended up with well over 150 cards, and not enough floor space to lay them out on!

What I did

I had four colours of card:

  • Blue
  • Green
  • Yellow
  • Pink

I dedicated each colour to a certain element of the novel:

Green – Main plot events
Pink – Character relationships and subplots
Yellow – Character arc
Blue – Other

To further explain:

On the GREEN cards I wrote (among other elements):

  • Each element of my three act structure
  • Opening scenes
  • The inciting event
  • Each of the three disasters
  • Character introductions
  • Character reactions to the main events.
  • Character reflections on the main events.
  • Main scenes.

On the PINK cards, I wrote any events and interactions that happen between the main characters.

For example, my novel has four main characters, each of whom have varied relationships with each other. Two of the females in my novel end up falling out – so on a few of the pink cards, I have made a note to include:

  • ‘The rising tension between X and X’.

Finally, towards the end of act two, these rising tension cards make way for the:

  • ‘X & X have a huge argument over X.’

That way, the argument doesn’t come out of nowhere.

You can also include:

  • Any elements of a romantic subplot
  • Scenes that show the changing dynamics within relationships and friendships.
  • If two characters are falling in love, you can include the increasing romantic tension between them.

On the YELLOW cards I detailed my character arc:

  • How the character is at the beginning of the novel.
  • Various actions showing how the character acts at the beginning of the novel.
  • Introducing any fears the character has.
  • Introducing any coping mechanisms that character employs.
  • Events where the character has to face her fear, preferably varying in seriousness. Say she is scared of spiders, have her face the fear several times, and in varying degrees of ‘scariness’, until she finally faces the entire fear head-on.
  • Anything that will affect the character arc – the impact character for example.
  • How the character is at the end of the novel.
  • The character’s epiphany.
  • The character’s choice in the climax.
  • Elements of characterisation for the main character.
  • You get the idea….

And finally, on the BLUE cards, I detailed any other event that I thought was important and didn’t want to forget.

  • Anything that needs foreshadowing – so if the protagonist is going to use a bow and arrow in the climax, it must be introduced, preferably a couple of times, near the beginning of the novel. So I would take a blue card, cut it into however many pieces, and write ‘introduce bow and arrow’ or ‘protagonist uses bow and arrow here.’
  • Any element of scene setting.
  • Backstory and flashbacks that are relevant to the plot and character building.
  • Elements of characterisation.
  • Resolutions to the subplots or resolutions to any of the character relationships. For this reason, a lot of these cards will come at the end of our plotting.

What now?

You can either create the cards as you go along (this is what I did), or you can create your cards and then arrange them. The beauty of this method is that you can move things around, take bits out and alter elements, without having to try and wrap your head around pages and pages of on-screen text.


Once you are happy with the layout, you can then take a photo of the layout, or do what I did and re-type it into a word document, which you can then follow when you write your drafts. The only slightly annoying thing about using the notecards is, unless you have a large surface or floor that you can leave them on, you will spend a lot of time tidying away and re-laying the cards (unless you figure out your structure in one sitting). To ensure that I didn’t ruin the order of the cards, I collected them up chapter by chapter and bull-dog clipped them together.


Of course, bear in mind that each novel is extremely different, so use the above steps merely as guidance!

Happy writing! Let me know if you find this method useful at all!

8 Comments on “Using notecards to evaluate novel structure”

  1. Kevin Cyr says:

    I find methods differ for all writers. It’s really nice to see someone else’s planning process. I can tell you’re a really meticulous person!

    Thanks for the post. I’l be back for more 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree – Becca and I use differing methods, even though we are very similar. Each to their own! And yes, I am very meticulous when it comes to planning, although I do tend to improvise when I’m actually writing!

      Thanks for the comment and glad you enjoyed the post!



  2. […] So I had this burning desire to write the next part of the story and every time I sat down to do it I totally froze up. My inner writer was refuses to let me go any farther until I paid attention to it. Which is why I took the time to print out all the books, spent the last five days not writing so I could reassess the elements and structure of my stories, and making any structural changes. I got the idea for this from Twin Creatives. […]

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] So I had this burning desire to write the next part of the story and every time I sat down to do it I totally froze up. My inner writer was refuses to let me go any farther until I paid attention to it. Which is why I took the time to print out all the books, spent the last five days not writing so I could reassess the elements and structure of my stories, and making any structural changes. I got the idea for this from Twin Creatives. […]


  4. lucillette says:

    I find this method extremely useful for me. I know i would get stuck and start overthinking without a clear outline made beforehand. Personally, I have received a huge corkboard from my parents when I moved in my current apartment – 200x90cm – and i did the same thing, pinning the cards to the corkboard, leaving it on the wall until i was finished with the project. I also wrote their list down in my laptop to have on me when i wrote outside of the apartment. I also fell in love with the very process of creating and organizing the notecards and I just came across this article in time before starting a new project.

    I do feel like you have a more nuanced system of what goes under which color and I will definitely be adopting it! Thank you for posting this!


    • Ooh, I love the corkboard idea. I had nowhere to put mine, so I had to keep on collecting them up while trying not to ruin the order!

      And yes, there’s something nice about creating and having the physical notecards…I also found that leaving the computer and working on something with my hands made a nice change – us writers spend so much time sat looking at screens that it’s nice to do something different from time to time.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I’m sure your process works just as well – I just love a colour code!

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, I love to hear about other people’s processes. Happy writing! 🙂


  5. lucillette says:

    I find that this is the best way of outlining my plot before I dive into wirting a new project – without a clear outline, I tend to overthink and stall from writing the next scene.

    I did the same thing about a year back and I know I will stick to it in the future. Personally, I have a huge corkboard that I used to organize the notecards and I could keep them pinned there for the entire time while I wrote, but like you, I still wrote it down in my laptop for when I couldn’t just handily take a look at it at any point.

    I have to say, though, your system is more nuanced in which aspects of the story go under which color and I appreciate you publishing it, I took some notes and will definitely use them to improve my plotting system!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. […] on for a bit, before I stopping to re-evaluate the whole thing using the notecard method. There’s a whole blog post devoted to that which you can read here. It is one of my more popular blog posts, so hopefully, you will find it […]


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