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

 

 

 

 

 

 

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Guest Post, Plotting, Uncategorized, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.
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Robin
Robin
10 months ago

As a novice writer, what I find utterly (apologies to all the pedants for the adverb!) exasperating, is that when people give advice in these ‘writing’ books, is, that they always need two hundred plus pages to do it?!

Haven’t these people ever heard of editing?! Or Will Strunk’s admonitions…omit needless words. Make every word tell. Apparently not!!!

Almost without exception, these ‘writing’ books could be reduced to less than thirty pages. Then we wouldn’t have to endure wading through all of the gruelling, tedious, claptrap to find out what the purpose of the book actually was.

Holy Crap!

Jimmy
Jimmy
10 months ago
Reply to  Robin

Bravo, Robin! A man after my own heart.

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[…] Michael Crichton, autor de clásicos como Parque Jurásico o Esfera, generaba la trama para sus novelas mediante fichas A7. […]

claudia cv
claudia cv
2 years ago

I´m a big fan of index cards, so this method has worked wonderfully for me, thanks for posting. But, my biggest problem is stringing the ideas together–knowing what should come first, what second and so on. Any ideas?

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[…] a pantser. If you’re a planner, you can create your entire outline before you start writing, Michael Crichton-style. But if you’d prefer not to have an outline before you start, you can create one as you go. […]

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[…] index cards to develop his stories. Angela Ackerman detailed his method last year in the blog Writers Helping Writers. In a nutshell, while in medical school (talk about multi-tasking), he always kept a stack of index […]

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[…] It’s a decent blog of short posts that introduce tips at the surface. Telling me “write your plot points on index cards,” is not the guidance I need about how to build the tension and know when to release it or […]

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[…] recently read a post from Writers Helping Writers— Michael Crighton’s Method of Plotting Out a Story, and was elated to discover that my all-time favorite author was a bit of a panster himself. Just to […]

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Why you must read Dorothy Cora Moore's Writing Made Easy | Indie Author LandIndie Author Land
6 years ago

[…] Recently I was invited to Writers Helping Writers, where I blogged about Michael Crichton’s technique for plotting. […]

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[…] Plot & Memorable Characters. Dorothy is both a novelist and screenwriter, – See more at: https://writershelpingwriters.net/2014/05/michael-crichtons-method-plotting-story/#sthash.HH9Y5X87.dp… Dorothy Cora Moore today, author of Writing Made Easy: How to Develop a Tight Plot & Memorable […]

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[…] See on writershelpingwriters.net […]

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[…] Michael Crichton used this method to develop detailed plots for his books, especially when time was limited and he had to increase his productivity. The following from WRITERS HELPING WRITERS: […]

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[…] Michael Crichton’s Method for Plotting Out a Story […]

CMT Stibbe
6 years ago

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!

Claire.

Karen
Karen
6 years ago

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

Dorothy Cora Moore
6 years ago
Reply to  Karen

Hi Karen,

I am so glad you are going to try this!

Dottie

Julie Musil
6 years ago

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!

Dorothy Cora Moore
6 years ago
Reply to  Julie Musil

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.

Dottie

sarah beth
sarah beth
6 years ago

hi!
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

sarah beth
sarah beth
6 years ago
Reply to  sarah beth

forgot to click on followup box

Dorothy Cora Moore
6 years ago
Reply to  sarah beth

Hi Sarah,

What a great and original idea!

Dottie

Morgyn Star (@MorgynStar)
Morgyn Star (@MorgynStar)
6 years ago

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!

Dorothy Cora Moore
6 years ago

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.

Dottie

Bev Baird
6 years ago

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

Dorothy Cora Moore
6 years ago
Reply to  Bev Baird

Hi Bev,

Please let me know if the system works for you!

Dottie

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Cynsational Information & Giveaways | TiaMart Blog
6 years ago

[…] Michael Criton’s Method for Plotting Out a Story by Dorothy Cora Moore from Writers Serving to Writers. Peek: “Michael stated he developed his three″ x 5″ index-card technique of plotting out a narrative whereas going to Harvard Medical Faculty, and he did this earlier than writing one phrase. He wanted to complement his revenue by writing books beneath a pseudonym, and that is how he did it.” […]

Laura Gross Smith
6 years ago

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!

Dorothy Cora Moore
6 years ago

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,

Dottie

Ann
Ann
6 years ago

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.

Traci Kenworth
6 years ago

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.

Dorothy Cora Moore
6 years ago
Reply to  Traci Kenworth

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!

Dottie

Lauren
Lauren
6 years ago

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

Dorothy Cora Moore
6 years ago
Reply to  Lauren

Hi Lauren,

Thanks for being open to trying something new . . . I think you will really like this.

Dottie

Janet Hartman
6 years ago

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.

Dorothy Cora Moore
6 years ago
Reply to  Janet Hartman

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.

Dottie

Kathryn Thornton
6 years ago

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.

http://katloveswriting.blogspot.com

Dorothy Cora Moore
6 years ago

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!

Dottie

Janet Evans
Janet Evans
6 years ago

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.

Dorothy Cora Moore
6 years ago
Reply to  Janet Evans

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!

Dottie