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:

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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.

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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.

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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!

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How to create an awesome plot outline! A step by step guide

After you’ve figured out the rough plot of your novel (I used the first 4 steps of Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method), it may help you to outline it.

An outline can be viewed as a basic ‘wire-frame’ of your plot which you can refer to throughout the first draft stage. Although it isn’t for everyone (some may find it too prescriptive), it can be helpful in ensuring that you don’t forget any of the major plot points or stages of character development. Your outline can also help you to figure out when to incorporate subplots and to identify elements of your novel which don’t fit in with the overall storyline.

This method assumes that you have plotted your novel using the three act structure, and that you have a rough idea of your storyline. You can read more about planning your novel and using the three act structure here.  

This method gets you to think carefully about the beginning, middle and end of:

  • Your novel as a whole
  • Each of your three acts
  • The chapters and scenes within the acts

By doing this, you will (hopefully) end up with a detailed plan which summarises your novel in three varying degrees of detail.

You should end up with something that follows the below structure. (Click the image to enlarge). Please note that the image is just an example. Your plan might omit the romantic subplot and you may choose to plan your novel using scenes instead of chapters.

Plot planning teal

I have also included this second image (my actual, much uglier outline), to further illustrate this.

Plot outline examples

You can create your own outline by following the following steps.

  1. Start off by writing a summary for each of your three acts. What happens in each?
  2. Plot the beginning, middle and end of each of your three acts.
    What needs to logically happen in each act so that the protagonist can get from the beginning of the act to the end? As you plan each act, you will begin to see scenes and chapters forming.
  3. Once you start breaking the acts up into smaller chunks (either scenes or chapters), ensure that each of these also have meaningful beginnings, middles and ends. Each scene/chapter should be relevant to the plot and should propel the protagonist towards the chosen story goal. I chose to plan my novel using chapters, but this is just a personal preference. 
  4. Continue to plan out each scene or chapter this way until you have reached the conclusion of your novel. Don’t worry if you have yet to decide on a specific ending to your novel – you can always leave this blank for now and write the ending after you know more about your characters and plot. You should, however, have a rough idea as to whether or not your protagonist achieves their goal.
  5. Once you have outlined the main plot, you can begin to think about subplots such as inner character conflict and romance story-lines. Separate these out into main ‘signposts’ and ‘turning points’ and intersperse them within your overall plot where you see necessary. You can have as many signposts as you see fit, but ensure that the events are reflective of, and add to, the main plot. The subplot points can appear wherever you wish and needn’t follow the below plan. As each novel will vary considerably, it is impossible to suggest where each of these points should be, hence you should use your own judgement when deciding where to include these.

Once you have figured out all of the above, grab a large piece of paper (bigger than A4 would be best!) and use the above to create a visual plot outline that follows the above plan. You can do this on Word (using the table feature) if you prefer. I created my plan in Adobe InDesign. 

And VOILA! You now have a plot outline, which I hope will help you tackle the mountain that is the first draft! I know I found it incredibly helpful, and hopefully you will too!

What next?

There are several things you may want to do once you have finished your outline:

  • You can use it as a point of referral as you begin the drafting stage of your novel.
  • You can use it to analyse your plot structure in great detail before you move onto the next stage of the novel writing process.
  • You can use it to help you write a chapter by chapter synopsis. After I had completed my plot outline, I had planned to use it as such as I felt that a synopsis would help me write the first draft. This might be a helpful thing for you to do, if you like to plan in even greater detail before you begin the drafting stage. Personally though, I got to chapter three before I decided to stop writing the synopsis and just get on with writing the dreaded first draft!

Any questions, feel free to comment below!