NaNoWriMo Prep: Plotting Your WIP with Index Cards

Posted by October 19th, 2015

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, hundreds of thousands of writers from around the world get together to cheer each other on as they write 50,000 words in just 30 days.

As someone who’s attempted NaNoWriMo for the last two years, but never quite made it to that 50K finish line, I am learning that to succeed at Nano, you’ve got to do at least a little prep work.

Here’s an idea for NaNoWriMo prep, inspired by an outlining idea I saw on a Book Country discussion thread called “How do you break out of writer’s block?”

Member and screenwriter Bret Plate offered up a strategy for outlining scenes ahead of time, so that you won’t get stuck when you want (or need!) to keep writing:

“As a screenwriter for many years, I was trained to plot everything out very carefully on 3X5 cards before I started writing.  It’s a way of making sure you don’t go down a rabbit hole and end up in China when your story is set in Kansas.  For a script, it’s (approximately) [120] cards — 30 cards/scenes for ACT I;  60 cards/scenes for ACT II;  30 for ACT III.”

I later learned that this is a famous screenwriters’ trick, borrowed from the classic screenwriting guide SAVE THE CAT! by Blake Snyder.

I particularly loved this idea because while it’s common sense that a screenwriter would plan scene-by-scene, it’s hard to remember to do that in fiction. We think in terms of chapters, or the overall events of a story, and what information we need to convey when. But if we outline a list of ~90 scenes, it encourages us to write in scene rather than in summary (i.e. “Show not tell”). And that’s a great place to start, because we’ll be thinking in specifics, using sensory detail, and really be focusing on helping the reader to be there in the action of the story with us.

Also, this method allows for the writer to avoid getting stuck, because if a scene isn’t working, you can just grab another card and starting writing a different scene. When word count is your main goal, having a way to move on quickly is key.

I’m too shy to show you the index cards I made using Bret’s SAVE THE CAT! method for my own WIP, but I did put together a set of example cards using the book EMMA by Jane Austen (since I’ve taught this book in a Creative Writing Workshop, I know it well enough to be able to parse it scene by scene pretty easily).

Bret’s advice was to start with a basic description of the scene, then fill in notes about anything else you know about it. I organized my cards for EMMA by describing the scene, making a list of some details about the setting or what’s happening, then a list of “objectives”–the things I want to make sure are clear by the end of the scene.

green nanoprep cardsyellow nanoprep cards

I liked Bret’s idea of organizing my cards into three “acts.” To keep track of which scene belongs to each act, I used different colored cards.

3 colors nanoprep cardsBret goes on in his post to tell us how he actually does this method using a Word template (head over to the post to read how his template is designed), but I wanted to make mine with real cards, in florescent colors. That way, if I find myself struggling with writer’s block in the early morning hours, trying to complete my Nano word count for the day before I head to work, I can just grab for my deck of cards and be jolted back into the zone.

Do you have other ideas for NaNoWriMo Prep? Share them here!

This is an update of a post originally posted for NaNoWriMo 2013.


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