Once, a while back, I tried to use notecards when noveling to organize and develop my novel. The idea (a fairly common one, I believe) was that each scene is noted on a notecard, and you can then visually order them and add/remove scenes; it creates a high-level overview that helps with pacing and flow, and finding superfluous scenes to cut or holes that need an added scene.

I liked the idea, but I couldn't make it work in practice. About halfway through the novel I had a stack of less-than-useful cards, that didn't seem to add any value to the noveling process. So, I abandoned it.

Lately I started using Scrivener - which has a notecard feature - so I want to give it another shot. I think my problem may have been what I put on the cards. Some had lots of detail, others quite sketchy, and generally what I put on each would seem important at the time but later had me wondering what I meant.

So, What should be put on scene notecards to make them useful? Especially, what are the set of things that should be on all notecards to make them useful as a whole as well as individually?

  • Some examples of cards you've made might help, do you have any that are typical? Apr 3, 2012 at 5:23
  • @NeilFein no, not offhand. This was several years ago, so they're buried somewhere in a box or something. I'll have a look, but I don't know if I'll find them. Basically though, what I'm looking for is toward the Best Practices end of things for the next novel, not trying to salvage that one (it needs a total, ground up rewrite to even think of being good :-) )
    – Patches
    Apr 5, 2012 at 6:39
  • I guess what could help is if your novel has several threads, get a color for each thread and make sure they are evenly distributed. A thread that resurfaces ten chapters after being seen last is bad pacing.
    – SF.
    Dec 25, 2012 at 0:38

3 Answers 3


For each scene, I like to note:

  • The POV character
  • Goal: What the POV character wants in this scene.
  • Obstacle: Who or what gets in the way of the POV character's goal.
  • Result: Whether or not the POV character achieves the goal.

If the character has a significant dilemma (more than a paragraph) in response to something that happens in the scene, I'll note:

  • Reaction: The character's reaction (emotional, thoughtful, or both) to what happened.
  • Dilemma: The options that the character weighs, and the problems that lead the character to discard most of them.
  • Decision: Which option the character chooses and commits to.

Those are the basics. I often note a few details or complications about some of those things.

And I might note my goals in the scene (demonstrate something about the character, set up or foreshadow some later event, reveal new information, hide some detail in plain sight, and so on).

  • +1 for "note my goals...". That plays well with the direction nathan lawrence's answer just sent my mind in.
    – Patches
    Apr 5, 2012 at 7:02

It all depends on what you want on those cards. Since I tend to worry about the details of a scenario when I'm writing it specifically, I tend to be pretty rough when I plan like this, but I recommend four basic elements be on all of your notecards:

  1. What characters are there.
  2. Why they're there.
  3. What happens to them.
  4. How this affects the characters and the story.

With these guidelines, you shouldn't have any problems knowing where a scene is going when you actually sit down to write it.

  • 2
    "How this affects the characters and the story"-->Take that to mean "Why do we even have this scene? What does it add? What is its purpose as part of the greater story?" If you can't answer this for a scene, then the scene is probably just filler, either because you didn't realize it was unnecessary or because you didn't pull it off correctly. Make sure it's achieving its potential. This is a good opportunity to ask yourself "How can I remold this scene into a superior shape?" Apr 4, 2012 at 2:58
  • I'm really intrigued by your #3, "Why they're there" and #4, "How this affects the characters and the story" (and @Aerovistae 's excellent expansion on it). I'd usually have #1 & #3, but really, that's just factual information I already know... making myself explain why the scene's there and how it plays in the story arc may be just what I was missing. I think I'll go do some navel gazing on it and try couple of test cards on my current story.
    – Patches
    Apr 5, 2012 at 6:57
  • It seems like a stupid step, but I really find that adding that information -- as if I were writing a play or screenplay -- really keeps me on track when I'm looking for characters' "motivations" in a given scene. Dec 25, 2012 at 0:29

I use an extensive array of index cards. The core thing I learned about index cards is make sure you know what information you want to put on them before use and ask yourself before pulling out a fresh index card will a new card help to better organize my work, or will it obfuscate my process and clutter up my desk?

Don't take clutter lightly. To much of a good thing can be bad. The important thing is to use a tool, in this case index cards, only when your sure you need it.

I generally plot out five or six key scenes, and then as I write, I get ideas for scenes, and create a few index cards to fill some of unknown region between key scenes, revising these cards as I write and improving my grasp of the narrative.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.