Using Cards to Outline Your Story

Story Cards

When I am writing something, whether it is a novel, a series of novels, or a short story, I like to outline things first. Outlining is a way to organize your thoughts and theories and keep yourself motivated throughout the story. Outlining also helps you keep on topic and not go off on a tangent that does not contribute to the story as a whole. Sub-plots are ok, but can be cumbersome if they get away from you.

There are many ways to outline your story. Some people prefer the traditional method of roman numerals and indented numbers on a piece of paper. That works and is totally fine. I don’t use that method, myself, because if I want to move something around in my outline, it is difficult to do so with an outline written on paper. Another way to do your outlining is with cards. These can be index cards, cardstock you cut into pieces, or any other method you like. The idea is to write one idea on the card, just like you would for one line item in a paper outline. Once you have some ideas written down, put the cards in the order they would appear in the story.

For example, a very simple story outline in the traditional method might look like this:


I. Tommy decides to go to the store

A. Tommy gets his shoes on

1. Tommy can’t find his wallet

B. Tommy searches house for wallet

2. He finds a gun under his brother’s bed


And the outline could go on and on. But for demonstration purposes, I’ll stop there. As you can see, one major story idea is on each line. Now, with story cards, each of the lines above (except for the title, really) would go on its own card. Then I would arrange them in the order I want them to appear in the story, just like the order shown above with the traditional method.

Now let’s say as I work with the story, I decide that Tommy needs a reason to go to the store, so I want to add something to the top of my outline. If I have this all written down on a piece of paper in the traditional method, I now have to rewrite the outline, write my new idea below with arrows pointing to the top of the outline, or do some other awkward things on paper to indicate where I want the new idea to fit into the outline. Using story cards, I can just write the new idea on a card and insert it in the front of the cards where I want the new idea to appear in the story.

There are many outlining tools, books on outlining stories, and other resources available in the world. In fact, if you Google ‘story outlining tools’, you’re likely to find a big list of free resources, articles, and recommendations on the web. There are tons of technology applications created for writers that allow you to use a virtual method for outlining and story carding.

I use two tools that I absolutely love. Now, I’m a geek, so I prefer technological tools. (I do use pen and paper when I’m not around a computer.) I use the writing software Scrivener for most of my writing. Scrivener has a card tool that I love to use when outlining my stories. You can put ideas on cards, view the corkboard and drag them around to rearrange things, add or delete information from the cards if you like, color code the cards, and other functions. Here’s what the Scrivener story board might look like if I used it for the example above.

Scrivener Story Cards Demonstration

Scrivener is available for both Windows and Mac users. You can get more information about Scrivener on their website, here: Scrivener Website

The other tool I like to use is on my iPad. While Scrivener is a full-service tool that allows you to outline, write, export, print and organize your writing pieces, this tool is just for story carding or outlining. It’s called simply, Index Card and is available through iTunes. At the time I’m writing this article, the application is $4.99 USD. You can read about the features and purchase the app here: Index Card App

It’s excellent for outlining on the go. If you have Scrivener for the Mac, you can sync your Index Card work with your Scrivener app. You can print an outline from the Index Cards app, create a color coded visual outline document, and other cool features.  Here’s what a sample screen in the Index Card App looks like:

Index Card Sample


No matter which method or tool you use, outlining is an excellent way to keep you organized and motivated in your story.

Happy Writing!

~ Eileen 🙂

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