Plot Development: 3×5 Style

Most of us begin writing with a general idea of where we want to go. We know the beginning, we might even know the end, but very few of us know every step in the middle. Plus, even those of us who do have outlines for the middle often find that those steps flex and change as we go.

Added to this general potential for road blocks is that fact that any plan we do create is always subject to the destructive whims of unplanned inspiration.  When you find the perfect scene to convey your character’s motivation, you then have to find out how to work it into what you’ve already got going on.

Then there’s the matter of recording all of those bits of plot or data! A great idea for chapter twenty will probably be lost if it isn’t written down, especially if you’re still in the middle of writing chapter three.

So how can you answer the call of plot development, new inspiration, and changing needs?

The answer, my friends, is simple.

Meet your friendly neighborhood 3X5 card.

It may look unassuming, but trust me. You’ll never have a better friend for plotting out your story, term paper or epic novel.

You see, 3X5 cards have two amazing super powers that can aid you in your process.

  • They are plentiful
  • They are mobile

By jotting down a single scene, dialogue exchange, or even character moment per card, you can build up a veritable flip-book for your story. Start out as broadly as you need with the notion of a general scene, and then fill in the gaps as they occur to you. The “there is a battle” card can become “Bob runs the villain through”, “the villain explains there is a shadow government and dies”, and “the buildings explode.”

Plus — get this. Let’s say you’re flipping through these cards and you realize that the tension is a whole lot greater if the buildings explode while the villain is giving the information about the shadow government.

I did mention that you can move the cards around, right?

Include snippets of dialogue, too. If you know that your hero is a cynical man who would clash with the resident authority figure and that conversation is burning in your mind, hash it out. Even if you don’t know where it fits in the story right away, you can move its card around to see where it has the most impact in the overall framework.

And we won’t even go into the help that this sort of living outline can give you when it comes to motivation to write. When you know what comes next and can feel its impact in the rest of the story, believe me, you get a kick in the pants to go further.

So try it out! Even if you never use it for a novel, go ahead and use it for your next term paper. Every bit of data you find in research can be easily grouped and segmented if you have them on cards. Plus, you can see the points that need more bolstering before your professor does.

Either way you put it to work, you’re golden.


About Jaime McCall

Jaime McCall is a Knowledge Base writer who develops blog posts, help articles, and product documentation for Constant Contact.

Posted on December 7, 2012, in Plot, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Yep. Works for term papers too!

  2. Thanks for the tip…it is something I need to try!

  3. It’s funny, I just decided to do this for my novel I’m writing right now–I’m about 80% done, and I want to see things in a 3D sort of way. So I have a wall, and I’m writing out the 3×5 scene cards. Well done.

  4. CarrieLynn, I’m glad to hear it! Let us know how that works out for you.
    And Brentondickieson, that’s an interesting take on it. I usually have mine in my “brick o’plot” so I can carry it around in my purse and stuff. But splayed out on a wall might provide some interesting visuals.

    Good writing to both of you! 🙂

  5. While I’ve never liked using 3×5 cards, having something constantly on hand to write ideas down in is a very useful practice. I have used mini composition notebooks for this, and written hundreds of little notes and diagrams in them at the grocery store, at school, or anywhere I’ve been inspired. A stack of cards wouldn’t fit in my back pocket comfortably, otherwise I’d take your advice!

    • I think the important thing is to have something. Finding what works for you personally is the challenge.
      I will say this though – there’s a reason I don’t wear skinny jeans (well, several reasons, but…). My 3×5 deck fits quite nicely in my back pocket!

      • So, this post is about carrying a purse and not wearing skinny jeans. I’m glad to say I’m partway there! Someone suggested one of those little dollar store booklets. That might work.

        • Purse, Merce…. Messenger Bag of Holding… again – all about personal choice! 🙂
          But yeah – I think that Erik’s mini-composition notebooks is a good indicator that one of the dollar store booklets would work as well.
          Though now I’m thinking… could skinny jeans be used a literary convention to indicate a universe subtly yet profoundly separated from a moral direction or redemption…?
          Hmmm 😉

          • That, or the simple truth that skinny jeans are evil…
            I wonder about those overly subtle hints that are huge for character: pleats in pants, outdoor shoes on a gym floor, the peek of a tattoo beneath a collar, an untied shoelace. Perhaps skinny jeans are one–or trying to jam a stack of 3×5 cards into the pocket, anyway.

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