Michael Crichton’s Method for Plotting Out a Story

Happy to welcome Dorothy Cora Moore today, author of Writing Made Easy: How to Develop a Tight Plot & Memorable Characters. Dorothy is both a novelist and screenwriter, and so has the advantage of understanding story and characters as they pertain to both books and screen. Many of you know I am a HUGE fan of learning from screenwriters, so when Dorothy contacted me wanting to share Mega Bestselling Author Michael Crichton’s methods which she discusses in her book, how could I say no?

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Writing made easySome of us come into this world predominantly right brained and, because of this, the telling of a story and dialogue comes more easily to us. However, the same cannot be said for plotting. I was warned of this when taking a career designation program at UCLA in motion picture arts and sciences.

One of my screenwriting instructors had won awards, and was a no-nonsense instructor. In fact, he could be cruel to some of my classmates. One evening before class he told me:

“Dottie, you are good at telling a story, as well as writing natural dialogue . . . but people like you always have a problem with plotting. If you cannot master this, you will have to write with a partner!”

Michael Crichton’s method for plotting out a story is what came to the rescue. After I learned his simple technique, I had to agonizingly throw away two-thirds of my original screenplay and start over.

As you may know, Michael Crichton was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1942, and passed away in Los Angeles, California in November of 2008. He was not only a successful author, selling over 200 million copies of his books worldwide, but he was also a successful film producer, film director, screenwriter, and television producer.

If there is one thing we all know, it is that Michael Crichton certainly was a master at working on more than one thing at the same time. He even had the unique distinction in 1994 of becoming the only person to have the number one book in sales, Disclosure, the number one television show, ER, and the number one film, Jurassic Park, all in the same year. That was quite an accomplishment.

Michael said he developed his 3″ x 5″ index-card method of plotting out a story while going to Harvard Medical School, and he did this before writing one word. He needed to supplement his income by writing books under a pseudonym, and this is how he did it.

The cards were easy to take with him every day to class, because they would fit effortlessly in his shirt pocket or in his lab coat. As ideas came to him, he would just jot them down on a card. If a long sequence with dialogue came all at once, he would merely staple those cards together.

At the end of the day, Michael would throw the cards he had used in a shoebox, and replace them with a fresh batch of blank cards for the next day.

Michael said that when the shoebox was full and nothing more came, he would take all the cards out of the box, lay them out on a large table, and rearrange his plot by shuffling the cards around into the order he wanted to tell the story.

Once he was satisfied he had a good plotting sequence, he would walk away and let the cards sit for a few days; going back to the table from time-to-time to reread his story’s plot. New cards would be created, and then slipped into the layout where he wanted to set something up that would happen later. Slowly he let the process work, and when nothing more came that day he would, once again, walk away.

After several days had passed without adding any more cards, Michael would carefully pick up the entire sequence, and place the stack in an index-card box. Mission accomplished. He had his plotting outline.

Now, whenever he had some extra time, he could sit down, pull out the first card in the box, and begin writing the first paragraph of his story. The hard part was over, and he could be creative. His plot was tight, and his story would not fail to hold a reader’s attention or go off in the wrong direction.

When a writer has a tight plot, he or she has what they call in the publishing industry a page turner.This is what we all want to create. If you have more than one story in your head you want to develop, all you need are two separate shoeboxes, with a working title stapled to each.

As you may already know, writing is 90% thinking and 10% getting your story onto the page, in that we are always thinking about our story. The most important thing is not to allow ideas to flitter away, because we did not take the time to write them down. So please save yourself the agony of losing a good story idea. Just get some cards and keep them with you.

We cannot all be as exceptionally gifted as Michael Crichton, however, we can certainly learn from him. Now we all know his method for keeping his projects separated and organized, and that is a great start. All we have to do is apply his technique.

Yes, I know it isn’t easy, but a great big door has just been opened for you. Now all you have to do is walk through it. Do you think you are ready to start plotting out your next story?

Great! Go get those cards.

Dorothy Moore(The above is an excerpt from the book Writing Made Easy: How to Develop a Tight Plot & Memorable Characters by epic novelist, screenwriter and creative writing instructor Dorothy Cora Moore.)

For more information about this great resource for writers, click on the link above!

Also by the author: The Atlanteans







This entry was posted in Guest Post, Plotting, Uncategorized, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

179 Responses to Michael Crichton’s Method for Plotting Out a Story

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  7. CMT Stibbe says:

    This is one of the most helpful comments I have seen on plots. And we all know how hard plots are. Keeping a file of index cards seems so ridiculously simple I can’t understand why I didn’t think of this myself. I now have a pile of cards on my desk and some in my purse.

    Thank you so much Dorothy for your insight and help. Really astounding!


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  9. Karen says:

    This is excellent! I just started using Scrivener and the “corkboard” is the ideal place to store these cards. Thanks for the article.

  10. Julie Musil says:

    Oh, this is awesome! I swear by index cards! I tried Scrivener for a bit, but I missed the portability of index cards. And I love the way you can lay the cards out on the table. When I do this, I can see if I need to move the inciting incident closer to the beginning, or move the climax around. It’s just a cool visual for me. I didn’t realize Crichton worked with cards.

    Fun post, thanks!

    • Hi Julie,

      Yes, you and Michael have done the exact same thing.

      It is such a simple way to plot that even children understand it and, once they learn the concept, they can apply it to homework when a teacher gives them a writing assignment. They fear no more.


  11. sarah beth says:

    I create short scenes, give them names.
    Then I take MS Excell, create an ad-hoc 7 x 10 matrix.
    I use this as a calendar and lay each scene in a day. I sequence each day.
    For sub plots, or major plot points, I use different colors. When the calendar of scenes flow, I am ready

  12. Dottie, wow, I read all the comments. What a glimpse into methods! Think you just rounded up one of the most compatible writing groups imaginable. Thank you!

    • Hi Morgyn,

      I think Angela and Becca’s group is extraordinary!

      I hope you will all help to spread the word about “Writing Made Easy.” I tried to make it very affordable, and hope it will help writers young and old.

      All of my students had the opportunity to critique the book before it went to two editors — one male and the other female — both research/reference librarians.

      I made many additions and clarifications, etc., so that everyone would be happy.

      If you, and other writers who visit this site, read the book please let me know your thoughts. I give out my email address at the end of “Writing Made Easy” when I say my “Farewell” in the last chapter.

      Writers can always contact me at: WritingMadeEasy@cableone.net.


  13. Bev Baird says:

    What an inspiring story! I do something similar, but not as detailed. Thanks for sharing it. Great giveaway by the way!

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  15. I am fairly new to writing fiction, but I could really use the index card method (maybe with post-its instead!). Currently I sit down to write and the characters just go wherever they want, whenever they want. I usually have no idea how the story will end or what will happen in between. I probably could use a little help!

    • Hi Laura,

      Becca posted that she likes to use post-its, and then arranges them on the back of a door so that her children don’t disturb them. Whatever works — as long as you have a system for plotting.

      In “Writing Made Easy” I actually give a step-by-step instruction of how to write your first chapter, etc., giving an example by a little story I wrote just for this purpose. It especially helps the inexperienced writer.

      If I ask you to always set the scene when you open a story, or move to a new location, I show you what I mean by this.

      Even when students come into my class and have finished work, after they read “Writing Made Easy,” they find themselves restructuring what they have written — especially with trying to get my seven essentials into their Chapter 1. It is never easy.

      I ask each student to make a copy of their original work . . . and leave it undisturbed, while they create a new Chapter 1 for the purposes of my class – including the 7 required fundamentals.

      So far, no one has reverted back to what they originally wrote. Along the way, they can see the benefits of a tight plot and the element of added structure to their writing.

      In the end it will save a writer heartbreaking rejections when their work, because Chapter 1 did not “grab” an editor, ends up on the dead pile.

      Good writing has good structure . . . something I say over and over again.

      I hope you will give Michael Crichton’s method a try — starting out with a tight plot puts each writer ahead of the pack. I want my students to be standouts, and at the very top of the heap. This takes many layers of writing, after you have your first draft.

      My very best to you,


  16. Ann says:

    I’m just starting to do serious writing. Using index cards is a great idea since I think better when writing with actual pen and paper, at least while planning my story.

  17. This sounds like a fabulous idea!! I am having trouble with the strict outline but I think I could do this, keep jotting my ideas down on index cards and then after I’m finished rearrange them to the order needed.

    • Hi Traci,

      If I am not mistaken Pulitzer Prize winning author James A Michener, who wrote 40 titles in his lifetime, would handwrite his first draft and then give it to his secretary to type.

      When word processors and computers came into being, he said his story would go through two more drafts before he could use either one.

      So . . . whatever works is exactly what you should do!


  18. Lauren says:

    I’m definitely going to be giving this index card method a try, it really sounds like something that might work for me!

  19. I used 3×5 or 4×6 cards for research in school and carried that over into plotting. Cards are so much easier to carry around than a notebook, and I find cards more efficient plus I think better when not restricted to a computer during the plotting stage.
    Another plus: the manual cards work so well when I start using Scrivener to actually write.

    • Hi Janet,

      I could not agree with you more — especially the ease one has in shuffling the plotting ideas around until you like the order that the story is going to be told.

      Foreshadowing on the first draft is also possible now.

      In addition, if you need a secondary character to do something two-thirds of the way through the story, you can introduce him or her briefly earlier on. Now, it makes more sense.


  20. I need to learn to focus on creating the plot. I usually create a character first and then that character leads the story instead of me consciously working on a plot.
    Good tips to try for my next manuscript.


    • Hi Kathryn,

      In “Writing Made Easy,” I share the teachings of master Hollywood creative writing instructor, Lajos Egri.

      Egri believed that developing your characters was even more important than your plot. He said it doesn’t matter how great your plot is, if the reader does not like your characters they won’t read the book, or watch the film, etc.

      There is a lot of truth in that!


  21. Janet Evans says:

    I am a discovery writer and I had a blast writing my first novel that won’t remain a drawer manuscript. I’m now going through its first revision and I am pulled between sitting down and writing note cards to plot out the novel and just referring to the brief summary chapters I wrote down. I’m not sure whether either approach would yield a tighter plot or whether these approaches are just “variations on a theme” and yield the same result.

    • Hi Janet,

      Yes, please don’t forget those manuscripts, or stories, you have pitched into a drawer . . . even if a decade or more has passed.

      I pulled “The Atlanteans” out of a drawer . . . after the turn of the century . . . updated it, and put a few more layers on the work. Right out of the box it received a 5-star clarion review from ForeWord Reviews. Sometimes we are just a little ahead of our time.

      With this said, you do need a very tight plot to get favorable reviews. In “Writing Made Easy,” Chapter 39 – Getting Your Book Reviewed, I tell how editors review books. I also gave out some of the information in another blog on this site.

      Good luck to you!


  22. Great post! I do the same kind of note-taking, but in a notebook that I can carry around in my purse. When the notebook is full or I have a clear idea about the plot, I start transcribing and putting the scenes in order. I also started using a note app on my phone, and sending typed notes to google drive to be included in my master file when I get a chance to sit at the computer. Being able to write anywhere and at any time is the key to not losing your ideas.

  23. Renee Yancy says:

    Yes! Writing is “90% thinking” – I’m so glad to see this in print. I’m going to try the index card method.

  24. Ellen says:

    Simple. Smart.

    I’m going to try this in lieu of all the modern technology and apps. I am very visual, and this is actually how I have my students plan stories and reports. Why am I not using this method?

    Thank you, Dorothy!


    • Hi Ellen,

      I actually used something similar to this when I was invited to talk to an English class at Prescott High in Prescott, AZ about my epic novel, “The Atlanteans.”

      Rather than talking about my own book, which I had already gifted to the school library, I decided to teach the class Michael Crichton’s card method by dissecting the first book in the Harry Potter series. I thought this would be a story they were all familiar with, in that it had been shown on television multiple times.

      I began by asking the students: “What happened to Harry Potter?

      It was very interactive, as I wrote what the students offered (printing large letters so everyone in the class could read it) on several large and long pieces of paper. Then I taped each suggestion onto the board.

      After about 25 suggestions, and with no one else having anything to offer, I told them that this was the “plot” of the story — first this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens to our main character, etc.

      Then I asked the students what came first . . . as I would take that piece of paper from one side of a white board, to another, now putting the cards in a specific order, one underneath the last.

      It was interesting how the students argued about the order of events.

      Finally, I just said that it did not matter in their case for they could tell a story many different ways — as long they remembered to plot the story out on cards first. They really got it.

      Good luck to you!


  25. I LOVE my index cards. I’m a good writer, but my storytelling was always kind of…meh. Then I started using index cards to organize my stories. GENIUS! When my kids came along and I couldn’t leave my story laying around for them to rearrange, I moved on to sticky notes—one scene per note. I put them up on the wall behind my door, where I could stare at them for long periods of time and rearrange at will.

    I also love this line: “writing is 90% thinking and 10% getting your story onto the page.” People who don’t write don’t get this, but it’s so true. My husband and I are contemplating a move in the future, and I’ve already put in a request for an office with a view, since I spend so much time staring out the window. Thanks for being here today, Dottie!

    • Hi Becca,

      First let me thank you for inviting me to your writing blog. What a smart group of writers you have coming to your site.

      My students have enjoyed using your, and Angela’s, book “Emotional Thesaurus.” Just yesterday I told my class about the other two books in your series and, hopefully, they will be ordering them soon.

      I did check locally, and Yavapai College has all three of your books. Our downtown library — one of the first Carnegie libraries in the west, with a new $3,000,000.00 addition — is putting in an order today for your trilogy through Ingram.

      I too enjoy using post-it notes, and I love your behind the door idea. Very clever of you!

      It reminds me of an episode from PBS’s Blechley Circle. One of the female World War II code breakers — trying to solve the mystery of who a serial killer is written about in the local paper — keeps all her notes and patterns to solve the crime . . . on the back of an oval dressing-table mirror that she rotate around when she is alone.

      Thank you again, Becca.


  26. Amy Vastine says:

    Great idea. I tend to write things on any scrap of paper I can find when the ideas start flowing. I should invest in some index cards to stay better organized!

  27. This sounds like a great way to keep the three stories I am trying to plot out straight. So far I have a sepreate notebook for each story I try to put all my thoughts, notes and characters in. This way makes a lot of sense and I think I’m going to try it.



    • Hi Sue,

      Please let me know how this works for you — it worked for Michael Crichton while working on a screenplay, television script, and a novel all at the same time.

      Personally, I admire writers like you — I am only capable of working on one thing at a time.


  28. I’ve had a bunch of story ideas in my head for what feels like forever. Every time I sit down to start writing, I get lost because I feel like I am missing a plot process. And I abandon the writing. I’ve tried many different techniques but nothing has fit yet. Can’t WAIT to give this a try (may try to establish an electronic version). Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Natalie,

      One thing nice about this card system, is that it is much like making a shopping list. Once the item is written down, your mind is free to think about something else.

      I hope this helps you!


  29. Jean says:

    I KNEW there was a reason why I held onto all of the 3×5 cards from school! I’m typically a nonfiction writer and using the 3×5 cards for fiction would help me be creative yet controlling at the same time – something I’ve struggled with in the past.

    • Hi Jean,

      This will work like a dream!


    • Hi Jean,

      Yes, you feel completely in control of your story’s plot when you use this card system.

      It empowers you to have all the ducks in a row, before you begin the dreamy process of being creative and just telling your story. All of a sudden you are in the scene watching your characters interact.

      In a way, it is like someone just opened all the windows in the house, and there is a beautiful breeze coming through.

      Something else that is helpful with the cards . . . is that when you pull the next card out of the index-card box, you sometimes find that you were going down a path leading away from you plot line. Now, all you have to do is cut a page or two, or write yourself back to where you really should be.


  30. Katy Mann says:

    I find I start with a moment, something interesting that catches me and needs to be illustrated. I work backwards towards a beginning, and after I get that down, I can work towards an ending.

    That’s how it usually goes.

    But sometimes an idea just hits and I start writing. I’ll get about half-way through before I have to really think about where I’m going to end up. Those tend to be more character driven. Once I get the ending worked out, I can go back in, beef up some of the earlier sections, and work towards the ending.

    • Hi Katy,

      We all have our way of working through the creative process, and there is no right or wrong way – there is just our way.

      With that said, however, Michael Crichton’s index-card method will help you develop a very tight plot. We need this in order to have our work stand out among others – especially when we start sending our manuscript out.

      Many writers don’t realize that when they try to get an agent, attract an acquisitions editor at a small press, or catch the eye of an editor, or movie producer — someone will be judging whether your whole book is worthy of their time by what is in the first chapter.

      In “Writing Made Easy” I break down what needs to be in Chapter 1 in seven main elements. I also gave this out in a post today.

      Good luck with your writing. I hope this helps.


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