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Doing the cards

Before I began writing short stories and novels, I studied screenwriting. Screenwriters are accustomed to laying out their stories using index cards (available in various sizes from stationery suppliers) and I use the technique in novel-writing. I claim no originality, but if you haven’t given it a try, I strongly recommend doing so – using real cards rather than software!

Buy two packs of 100 cards and a sharpie. Choose a piece of writing – the longer the better – and write a card for each scene. A scene is defined as action that takes place in a single location (or connected locations) and with no significant break in time. Don’t get too pedantic! Write a short description of what happens and where: “At Gene and Claudia’s home, Don gets advice on the Wife Questionnaire. On his balcony, Don reflects on his life.”

Ideally, do this for the whole story – a novel will (typically and very roughly) need around one card per two typed pages. Even if you just want to get a feel for the technique, do at least 25 cards. Lay them out on a table or the floor (or a pinboard if you’ve got one) and just look at them for a bit. The strength of this technique is to see the entire shape of your story in one piece.

Think about sequence. Move the cards to try alternatives. How should strands interweave? Flashbacks? Can the order of events change?

Look at each card individually. What does it contribute? Does it advance story? Character? If neither, what is its purpose? Is there conflict / drama?

Play with the technique to show key story elements visually. In my sequel to ‘The Rosie Project’ I was worried that there might be long sequences without Rosie. I used red cards for scenes that included her, and could then easily see the stretches where she was absent. Some shuffling fixed the problem.

Once you’re comfortable ‘doing the cards’, it’s a useful tool to have in your kit for planning, reviewing and problem solving.

About Graeme Simsion

Graeme Simsion is a writer of short stories, film scripts, technical non-fiction and a couple of short plays. His first novel, ‘The Rosie Project’, has been a bestseller around the world and Graeme has been retained by Sony Pictures to write the screenplay for a feature film. He is currently working on a sequel and has two further novels in the works.


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