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








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, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Guest Post, Plotting, Uncategorized, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. Robin says:

    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!

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  3. claudia cv says:

    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?

    • Personally what I found helpful was the book, Save the Cat. It helped me better understand the key moments in storytelling and figure out the order of events to create a well-structured story line.

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  16. 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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  18. 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.

  19. 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.


  20. 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

  21. Morgyn Star (@MorgynStar) says:

    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.


  22. 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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  24. 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,


  25. 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.

  26. 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!


  27. 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!

  28. 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.


  29. 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!


  30. 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!


  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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!


  34. 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.


  35. 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!

  36. 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.


  37. 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!


  38. 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.


  39. 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.


  40. Awesome tip! I’m thinking I’d need to put a big sign over the table that read: KIDS, DO NOT TOUCH!

  41. This is a very helpful post. I think I will give this method a try. Thanks for posting this.

  42. Judith Ring says:

    I finished my first novel, only to discover that it had too little conflict. Now I’m taking a plotting workshop and rewriting the story from scratch. Hard lesson to learn, but even I wasn’t satisfied with the first one.

    I would love a copy of this book to add to the workshop. It’s so much easier when you have something concrete to refer to.

    • Hi Judith,

      Conflict comes in many forms. However, it is usually driven by the pivotal character in a story on behalf of the antagonist.

      For example, if your character has lost his job, and then his car, and now his home is being foreclosed upon, etc., the pivotal character is the one who calls him every day demanding he vacate his residence, or make a payment on his credit card. The demands are unrelenting. The lender and/or the credit card company would be the antagonist.

      By the end of Act 1, your main character realizes he or she cannot solve the dilemma they are in alone. Everything they have attempted has failed. Yet, they are stronger and the shock has worn off — they find they are able to fight the good fight. It is only now that they ask for help, and go on the attack.

      Here is another example of building tension and conflict:

      I remember when I first began writing “The Atlanteans,” I was told to put my main character in more danger. I finally figured out what they meant — it is putting your character in a constant stream of dangerous events that never let up . . . until the end of the story.

      In “Writing Made Easy” I have a chapter that gives an example of unrelenting events befalling a character when one of her twin sons is murdered. It is a true story, and it is in Chapter 19 — Building Tension.

      Don’t get discouraged, Judith, we have all gone through this . . . or something very similar.


  43. Dawn Malone says:

    I have yet to settle on one method. I’ve written three novels, and used a different process for each one. After reading Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT, I started the index card method, and am still in the process of sorting out the cards. We’ll see if it’s any easier than the first two methods.

    • Hi Dawn,

      Someone else today suggested putting the cards up on a cork board with a removable tack so you can move them around. You can actually make a cork bulletin board on your wall where you write.

      I thought that this was a great idea, and solved the problem of space.

      In the end, I think you will like the index-card method of plotting.


  44. Janel @ Creating Tasty Stories says:

    I used the same index card method on my last book. Love it! Set up a huge memo board in my bedroom to tack up all of the cards. It worked wonderfully.

  45. Julie Glover says:

    I typically make an overall plot outline and then pants away. This last novel I’ve been working on, however, is requiring far more planning. I’m in the midst of reworking it again and finally decided I need to go with the scene-by-scene approach this time. I’m curious about Michael Crighton’s method and, of course, Dorothy’s book. I could use some plotting wisdom right about now!

  46. Jean Wilund says:

    I’m excited to try out this method. I think this may very well be the solution to my problem in my current project! I just attended a conference where I learned some valuable tools from a screen writer for creating a page turning novel. This extra tool for plotting will make all the difference in getting my story to keep moving and stay on track.

    I’m particularly excited about setting the cards out and looking at them over several days — and having friends and family give them a look over to see if the plot grabs them — and if not, where I lost them.

    Thank you for sharing!

  47. Mgon says:

    I started off using notebooks, writing in blocks of text that were the equivalent of how one would use the Index Card Technique. But that got very messy. Years later I heard about using index cards, and I purchased a bunch of them, but before I could actually start using them, writing software started incorporating this technique: the very familiar Corkboard found in so many writing programs. I recently switched to Scrivener, which is the best writing software that I’ve come across. It has an excellent Corkboard feature. However, I’m starting to feel a need to use traditional index cards in combination with Scrivener. I still have a love for paper and pens :o)

    • Hi Mgon,

      Why not do both — keep cards with you, and also “print” the cards from Scrivener. Two of my students have done this. One even pasted the Scrivener card/notes onto index cards.

      There is something very nice about being able to move the cards around and see them all at once.


  48. Lisa says:

    The thing I struggle with most in my writing is plot.

    In my heart I am a “panster” but find I have great difficulty progressing without an outline, so I compromise. I give myself just enough of an outline to be able to stay on track penning something like “protagonist steals candy from store,” and then simply develop each chapter from there.

    This book sounds like a “keeper,” one to really learn from, and one I would appreciate having in my library. Thank you for the information on Mr. Crichton and for the opportunity to win this book.

    • Hi Lisa,

      You are very welcome.

      What I would like to say to everyone . . . is that if you do not win a book today, and if you also cannot afford to purchase another book right now, please ask your local reference librarian to order “Writing Made Easy” for your local library.

      This way you, and many others, can still enjoy a free book.

      All my best,


  49. Heidi says:

    I start with my characters, doing a GMC and a character arc. Then I take a plot board and plot out turning points for internal and external for each character, and add in the romance plot.

  50. R. E. Hunter says:

    Sounds really interesting. I haven’t settled on a definite outlining technique yet, but I know I need one. I’m comfortable pantsing my way through short stories, but I don’t believe this will work for a novel.

    I really like Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering ideas, and a key part of that is making sure the major plot points are clearly mapped out before starting to write. He talks a lot about story beats too, which I gather are a screen writing technique, but I don’t really understand it yet.

    • Hi R. E.,

      I am not sure what “story beats” are. I did take a look inside of Larry’s book on Amazon.com, and it appears to be very thorough. He might use this term in place of plot points.

      If there is one thing I do know, it is that we learn different things from different teachers — the more exposure you get, the better.

      What I teach in my book is not just technique — I also share some of the secrets I learned along the way. I bet Larry Brooks is doing the same thing.


  51. :Donna Marie says:

    What a silly question, Angela! OF COURSE I’d like a copy of Dorothy’s book! lol And it just so happens Michael Crichton is my son’s favorite author. He’s read most, if not all of his books 🙂 and it probably goes without saying, we are all familiar with his other works!

    Anyway, I don’t have a true plotting method just yet, but over the years have read about many. Once I’m able to sit down and focus on this, specifically, for my novels, I’ll be working that out. At one point I bought index cards, and chose multi-colored ones, for this purpose. I know others have used cards to be able to shuffle plot points, etc. around easily. I figured I’d keep the different points on different colors whether it was plot, subplot, character-related and so on. I haven’t executed any of it yet, but do like Michael’s method. I may very well give it a try!

    Thanks, ladies! 😀

    • Hi Donna,

      One of my students purchased the colored index cards, and she said it helped her with her plotting. If I am not mistaken they come in yellow, pink and blue.

      She used one color for Act 1 (the set up), a second color for Act 2 (the telling of the story), and a third color for Act 3 (climax and resolution).

      Maura was a Hollywood stills artist, and I think that colors help organize things in her head. Whatever works! 🙂


  52. virginia mckenna says:

    Such a great way to plot out one’s story. I surely could use such advice and would be so happy to receive a copy of Writing Made Easy!! I really need some help in plotting my story! Thanks, Virginia

  53. Tyra says:

    Wow! Thank you for sharing such an inspiring post, I’m definitely picking up some index cards when I go shopping today. 🙂
    My plotting process is a little different with each story I work on, but generally the inspiration for the story comes first -a picture, a quote, a dream, or even something as elusive as a scent or sound. Once the inspiration is triggered and I have that tug of, “Oh! That could go in a story…” I frantically write down that slippery thought and, in a very untidy way, jot down any and everything that makes me think of that story.
    This usually results in a great mess strewn across whatever had been available at that time, from tissue paper to my hand, or (when I have them!) index cards. And though I didn’t think of using a shoebox, these little snippets would then be stashed in my antique writing desk until a great conglomeration formed, usually of more than one story.
    They would stew for a while and when I was ready to pick a new project, I pulled all the pieces out and sorted the notes and ideas into little piles pertaining to the general story idea they were written for. I’d read through all the pieces and whichever concept struck me with the most inspiration at the time I’d choose, and all the other story pieces go back into the desk.
    At this point my path for plotting one story usually deviates from the next, but generally they keep to the theme of me writing down several different possibilities for routes the story could take.
    This step usually goes through many rewrites. One idea will jump out at me, but after some “what if”s and “how about”s, I’ll be back to the drawing board with what will or won’t work. Even if the idea won’t work I’ll still write it down because I may find it later, knowing more about the story, and see that it would, indeed, work after all.
    Once I get a rough course for the story charted I work on my hook. I’ve found that if I can get excited about the inciting incident and worry for my characters I have a much easier time plotting and writing the rest of the story because I am excited to see what happens next!
    After this point I continue to flesh out the rest of the scenes, attempting to start out with a semblance with order. Usually, though, my mind works in a more scattered fashion, and I’ll usually fill in different points of the story OUT of order, later connecting them.
    Once I have several sequences of plot cohesive with one another, I’ll usually wet my feet and begin writing those while fleshing out the story -not a lot, but just to give myself a taste of the story’s flavor and my character’s voice.
    For my most recent work, once I had a fairly good idea of the plot sequence I worked my way through Martha Alderson’s Plot Whisperer Workbook, and was amazed how many things still continued to be fleshed out. I also drew a diagram of the plot to see the rising and falling action of the story’s major points and then again with all the intricacies worked in-between.
    After that, I began writing in earnest, giving myself a sort of NANOWRIMO in whatever month I happen to reach this step in, free-writing my way through the majority of the plot points and re-plotting when I discover a hole in my plot.

  54. Mart Ramirez says:

    I would LOVE to win a copy! This sounds great!!!

  55. Sarah Lilliendahl says:

    I love this post! I’m always looking for new insight into plotting because I find myself, in these early stages of pursuing my writing seriously, going back and forth between plotting and “pantsing.” I’ll definitely have to give Michael Crichton’s method a try – I’ve been a fan of his books since I was in middle school 🙂 I hope I win a copy of Dorthy’s book!

    • Hi Sarah,

      If you are in the early stages of writing . . . please remember that Chapter 1 is the most important chapter to develop.

      In “Writing Made Easy” I have an entire chapter devoted to this — including examples of how to do it correctly.

      I have found in teaching that it is one thing to “tell” someone how to do it, and a completely different experience if I “show” them. In my book I actually give examples of how to do everything throughout.

      For Chapter 1, there are seven important essentials: (1) Setting the Scene; (2) Introducing the Protagonist; (3) Setting the Mood: (4) Introducing Important Secondary Characters; (5) Introducing the Antagonist; (6) Introducing the Pivotal Character (drives the conflict); and (7) Setting up a Crisis.

      This might sound impossible, but we are doing this only “briefly” at first. Chapter 1 should be a simple and clear introduction to our important characters, and why we are telling the story. In addition, I always ask my students to open with their main character.

      Despite the heavy credentials, and advanced degrees, of many of my community education students, it was a 16-year-old honors student who was the only one who ever nailed this on her first try . . . in 3-1/2 pages. It is doable.

      Everyone in class just sat there with their mouths open. There was no critique. What she had done was perfect! After accomplishing the seven steps, she just expanded Chapter 1 by writing layer upon layer. Grace is a legend now.

      So, I know you can do this too.

      I hope this helps. 🙂


  56. Judith Schiller says:

    This is such a great idea. I am always thinking about my story wherever I am…and have to write my thoughts down as soon as they pop up. I have written stuff on napkins at restaurants, have torn the subscription cards out of magazines while at the salon, and even taken a couple towels from a restroom. I hate to even admit, that once while camping, a great scene of dialogue popped into my head, and I unraveled a stream of toilet paper while inside the outhouse. Unfortunately, most of it ripped. Having these cards would be perfect for someone like me, when the immediacy of my thoughts sometimes trumps my good behavior!

  57. Tim McCanna says:

    I’m a “pantser” and that didn’t hurt for the first 3/4 of my first book. However, the more I write of the series, the more difficulty I have in moving forward. I now have close to 2/3 of book two, half of book three and book four is stuck in novella length.
    I now see that I need to plot out my ideas to reach completion.
    I have used A Novel Idea on the iPad to capture character information and story ideas.

    • Hi Tim,

      How wonderful that you are writing a series. Two of my students are also doing this for a young adult (YA) audience (14-18 year of age). Once you develop memorable characters the possibilities are endless.

      With this said, tight plotting is quite important and will save you a lot of time. The index cards truly are very simple to use. Moreover, you can add any unused cards to the next story in your series, if need be.

      As you may already know, it is important today to write your story as visually as possible, with a good balance of dialogue . . . just in case a Hollywood producer picks up your book. You want them to see right away that your book would make a great film. This is where you will really make some money.

      My epic novel, “The Atlanteans,” began as an original screenplay and then, together with its sequel, was novelized. It has the potential of becoming a series for television, as the story continues on.

      In a screenplay you have 30 pages to open your story (Act 1), 60 pages to tell the story (Act 2), and 30 pages to close (Act 3) — with plot points along the way. Because of this, a tight plot is crucial. By the way, one page of script equals 1 minute of film, so a 120 page screenplay is a 2 hour film.

      Good luck with your project!


  58. I do love and miss Michael Crichton. Some of the best books I’ve ever read.

    I’m not a plotter but now that I’m writing my 4th story I find carrying a notebook around to jot ideas down is really helping me. Similar, but I’m betting his method is much better.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing.


    • Hi Heather,

      I think we all miss Michael Crichton.

      His ability to give us cutting-edge science, while telling a story, also puts him at the very top. What a treasure he was.


  59. Angela Brown says:

    Being a plotser (pantser and a plotter sandwiched into one brain), I can definitely admit that plotting can come in handy when the story wants to derail. This index card system sounds like it would be right up my alley to use. Great tip!

    • Hi Angela,

      One other thing that is in “Writing Made Easy,” that might help you is what highly analytical Lajos Egri taught about what is found in every great work.

      He believed that there are “twelve parts of a story” that are as indispensable in writing, as are the vital organs to the body. They are:

      1. A Premise

      • This is the seed from which the story grows. It is the moral of the story.

      2. A Main Character – Protagonist

      • The touchstone of great writing is to know your main character and expose him or her in as many angles as possible.

      3. A Pivotal Character

      • The pivotal character is the motivating power. Who or what is going to force your main character into action?

      4. Three-Dimensional Characters

      • Each character you create must have three dimensions.

      They are:

      – Physiology (physical health/appearance);

      – Sociology (social relations, friends, schooling, earning power, home life, parents, job, etc.); and

      – Psychology (behavior, ambitions, frustrations, temperament, attitudes and complexes).

      5. The Antagonist

      • The Antagonist must not only be exactly opposite your main character in the story, but he or she is our character’s enemy.

      6. Growth

      • In order to have growth, with feed the story with conflict.

      7. Orchestration of Characters and Unity of Opposites

      • Orchestration is matching different types of people against one another. This means casting opposite types in your story

      8. Point of Attack

      • Open your story with a crisis. A decision must be imminent, and your main character must be ready to take action, as he or she attempts to solve the crisis.

      9. Conflict

      There are four types of conflict – two that are useful, and two to avoid. They are:

      • Good Use of Conflict:

      1. Foreshadowing conflict (this appears in the beginning of the story). Crisis is the hint, or promise, of future conflict. Future events, or conflicts, must be foreshadowed in the beginning. You want this; and

      2. Slowly rising conflict (gradually building tension between characters) is the way to go.

      • Bad use of Conflict:

      3. Static conflict (arguments and quarrels) – avoid doing this; and

      4. Jumping conflict (the characters jump from one emotional plane to another) – avoid doing this too.

      10. Transition

      • The main characters must change gradually as they move through the story.

      11. Crisis

      • A story, from beginning to end is a series of crises, climaxes, and resolutions. The crisis is a turning point, and the story builds up from there.

      Each succeeding crisis needs to rise on an ascending scale, or the conflict becomes static.

      12. Climax and Resolution

      • The story reaches its major climax at a culmination of events.

      • This is the final turning point in the story where we seek a resolution.

      I hope this helps.


  60. Janet B says:

    I use a notebook and use a different page for each turning point and try to come up with ideas.

    • Hi Janet,

      Anything a writer can do to get organized — after they have a story in their head — is a step in the right direction.

      My motto is “Good writing has good structure.”


  61. Tamara Meyers says:

    Dialogue is as natural as talking for me, but plotting is closer to plodding. I get ideas at the worst possible times and used to think I’d remember them but always forget.

    After logging a phone call on one of those carbonless ‘while you were out’ notepads I got an idea to have a special two-part NCR notebook made. Now I can tear off the top part for organizing and plotting, but still have the ‘carbon copies’ safe and secure in the notebook – I tend to misplace loose pieces of paper.

    This method has been a major blessing and I no longer get frustrated over those amazing, sure-to-be-award-winning ideas that sink beneath the stream of constant chatter in my brain.

  62. Fantastic – thanks for sharing! Plotting is the bit I have most trouble with and thought it was because I’m too much of a pantster, but I’m definitely going to try this with a new genre I’ve started!

  63. Even if we always do something one way, it can be good to shake things up and try something else. At the core, we’re creative beings, and our minds come alive when we take the scenic route! Thanks for sharing Crichton’s technique, Dorothy. I will have to give this a try! 🙂

  64. Judy Roberts says:

    I plan my plot in a spiral notebook, but I always go back and add new things as i write. The index card thing might be a better plan for me.

    • Hi Judy,

      Please let me know how this works for you.

      I also teach a creative writing course in community education at a local college. One of my students, an attorney, likes to use Scrivener in that it allows him the ability to fill out a card system within the program. However, I still like the index cards.

      Other students have also tried this method. The attorney ended up printing the cards, and then cutting them up so that they could be shuffled around — but at least they were typed and easier to read. 🙂

      Scrivener also has a free trial period, and there is one version for Windows and another for Mac. This is the Windows link:

      See: http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php?platform=win


      • :Donna Marie says:

        Dottie, I purchased Obelisk Liquid Binder (haven’t used it yet) but I’m now wondering if I can type up the cards into that and print them out for the same reason since my handwriting is worse than ever and I could capitalize/bold the “title” of each card. Loving these tips! Thank you 🙂

  65. Staci Troilo says:

    I tend to keep all my notes on my phone, which I have with me everywhere. Even on my nightstand, so if I have an epiphany in the middle of the night, I can just type it in without waking my husband and not forget about it by morning. When I’m at my computer, I transfer all my notes to a master file, which I eventually transfer to a working outline for my manuscript. It’s not exactly 3×5 cards, but the concept is similar.

    • Hi Staci,

      This is a great idea!

      Let me caution everyone though about how vulnerable our electronics are — we keep getting warnings these days about coronal mass ejections (CME’s) from the Sun. We have not suffered a direct hit yet, but very close. Further, the magnetic field of our planet has weakened, which usually protects us.

      We have been warned that a direct hit by a CME could knock out our grid system in North America and elsewhere around the world (this has occurred before).

      If this happens, we will lose all data stored in electronic devices and computers. Even backup technologies, like Cloud, will lose all its stored data.

      I suggest to my students to print what they have stored every so often so they have a hard copy handy. To lose one’s manuscript, or outline, can be devastating.


  66. I have a similar method only I use the stickies on my Mac desktop and the dictation feature on my iPhone. (This saves me a ton of paper.) I then compile everything into an outline. If the story feels mundane, I try to search out a movie with a similar plot, watch it, and come up with twists that no one would expect. Before I know it, my plot looks completely different and I’m on to something.

  67. Devon says:

    I was very encouraged by this post, because I am a natural writer, but I am also constantly working on my plotting. Nice to know I am in good company.

    I keep a small notebook with me at all times, and if I get an idea while out, I jot it there. Later on, I transfer the note to a computer file, one for each book idea I have. Then, when I finally get to write that book, I have a whole file of notes. But then–and now I feel freer to do this, thanks to your post–comes the organizing part. I put everything in order, think through a lot of things, flesh out ideas, and put things in order again (using cutting and pasting, mostly). Then I write, sometimes adding more details to the later plans as I go. It’s sort of what you explain in this post, but done in a computer file instead of on the kitchen table.

    • Hi Devon,

      Cutting and pasting an outline can be a nightmare.

      If you use the index cards you are writing a card only once, and then you have it to shuffle around to your heart’s content. I print a title at the top of each card to aid in my sorting.

      For multiple projects, Michael would just keep a shoebox for each story he was working on with a working title stapled to each.


  68. Ruby says:

    Plotting is never easy, but it certainly gives the writer a roadmap for a book. No more writing myself into a corner with a method like this. Thanks for such a meaningful post on “how-to”. Please put my name in the pot for a chance at this book.

    • Hi Ruby,

      Another way Michael Crichton’s plotting method works is when we are having trouble with a chapter.

      I always teach my students that each chapter should deal with one main theme. If there is more than one theme, I suggest they break what they have into more than one chapter.

      In addition, each chapter should have a beginning, a middle and an end — an end with a bit of a hook, so that the reader will want to read the next chapter.

      If this doesn’t solve the problem, then I ask them to print the chapter and then cut out each paragraph, just like it was an index card, and then shuffle the paragraphs around into a better plotting sequence.

      Anything left over can go into a pending folder to use at a later time.

      In screenwriting each scene has to move the plot along, and be greater than the last. This is also true in novel writing.

      In my book “Writing Made Easy” I also teach techniques I learned from master Hollywood creative writing instructor, Lajos Egri. Egri would say that:

      “You need to formulate a premise and start your story at a crisis, which will be the turning point in your main character’s life.”

      Please let me know if Michael Crichton’s method for plotting works for you.


  69. DEB OSORIO says:

    I typically do the index card thing with plotting, and then about halfway through, I ditch them all and wing it anyway. And while I’m winging it, in the back of my mind, I ‘see’ those index cards I started off with, to keep myself on track. Sort of.

    • Hi Deb,

      A very tight plot is essential not only in a screenplay, but also in writing any story — including epic novels. We all want favorable reviews.

      In “Writing Made Easy” I also tell the writer how editors at “ForeWord Reviews” judge a book. Here is the magazine’s criterion:


      • Quality of the story and potential reading satisfaction;

      • Overall quality of the writing;

      • Plot and pace, character development, and dialogue;

      • Grammar, punctuation, syntax; and

      • Cover design and back cover copy – the quality and usefulness.


      • Did the author accomplish what he or she set out to do?

      • Originality of the ideas, clarity of the thesis, depth of research;

      • Section/chapter organization, usefulness of information and materials (graphs, sidebars, etc.) and interior design;

      • Quality of the writing: grammar, punctuation, syntax; and

      • Cover design and back cover copy, the quality and usefulness.

      Children’s Picture Books:

      • Originality of the idea, did the author accomplish what he or she set out to do?

      • Quality of the illustrations: computer generated vs. original; repetition, relevance to the story;

      • Amount of text on the page, organization, usefulness of information, and overall interior design;

      • Quality of the writing: accessibility/readability, grammar, punctuation, syntax; and

      • Cover design and back cover copy, the quality and usefulness.

  70. Interesting way to plot a book. I’m not sure it would work for me, but I might give it a try sometime.

  71. Jade says:

    Thanks for the article! It was very timely – I was just talking with a friend about novel plotting methods. I’ve read about his method before, and had a writing instructor who used a similar one – main difference being when the cards were done, she pinned them all up on a giant corkboard so she had a visual representation, a kind of map, of her novel in front of her as she got ready to write each morning.

    • Hi Jade,

      This is a great idea — especially for those who live in small quarters.

      I had an engineer in my class who preferred using a white board on the wall with an easy-erase feature. One day when someone visited his office, they kept leaning against the board while carrying on a conversation — taking with them a portion of his plotting sequence.

      Your idea is much better.

      I especially like that a writer with a dedicated space could actually put a cork system right on the wall.



  72. Christina Li says:

    I would LOVE a copy of your book! This plotting idea is really interesting. I’ve been using Larry Brooks, Story Engineering for my plotting structure, i.e. hook, first plot point, mid-point, climax, conclusion. I like this method though. I think I might try it! 🙂

  73. Diane J. says:

    My plotting method right now consists of a half-baked outline and much head thwacking. Or, I should say, that’s how I had been doing it. For the past month I’ve been pulling every book I have on writing and filling a notebook full of questions and ideas.

    However, the whole index card plotting appeals to me. I’ve heard of it before and I love the idea of the visual you can get when you lay out the cards. In my mind I had to have an order before doing the cards. Never considered just writing parts out and going for it that way.

    • Hi Diane,

      This method really worked for me.

      My first screenplay, also “The Atlanteans,” took me 2-1/2 years to write. After applying Michael Chrichton’s technique for plotting, it took me 6 months to write the sequel.

      With working full time during the day in law firms, taking classes at UCLA at night in a career designation program in motion picture arts and sciences, and then writing when I had free time . . . well, this method was the answer to my prayers.


  74. C. Lee McKenzie says:

    The simplest systems are always the best, but it takes a sharp mind to come up with them. Crichton was among the sharpest!

    Truly enjoyed reading this post today. Thanks.

  75. Really interesting! And I’m surprised that it isn’t that far off from my own method. I also keep a set of cards and jot down ideas, characters, whatever as they come and pile them up. Then (when I have a huge pile) I grab my roll of Scotch tape and stick them onto the wall until it looks somewhat like a odd shaped tree. I let it stand a few days. Then tear off ‘leaves and branches’ or add new ones or replace as wanted. Then it stands awhile again, and the whole process is repeated until I feel the tree is complete. My writing tree.

  76. Missy Frye says:

    Plotting doesn’t come easy for me. I’m good at writing story and dialogue, but arranging scenes to highlight cause and effect isn’t always evident to me. I’ve tried using index cards before, but not the way Crichton’s suggests. I’ll have to give it a try.

  77. christine Monson says:

    I usually fill pages of journals, scan, and cut up to move them about to create a story around. I like the index card method. I’m going to try the index card method with my next book which I’ve already began taking notes. I always have them around for bookmarks and outlining anyway.

  78. Tammy Archambeau says:

    I think this method will help me out tremendously. Thanks for the information.

  79. Paula Cappa says:

    Hi Dorothy. I’m not an index card user but I’ve heard writers say how well it works for them. My plot (action and developments) emerges from the characters as they speak, and think, and interact on the pages. The story is more of a discovery for me than actually directing the story scene by scene. I don’t know how I’d use cards because that sounds so disconnected to me and a bit jumbled. I think I need that rolling page to stream out before me to ‘get it all.’ Do you know what I mean? Intuitive creativity is part of my writing process and the story builds on what comes first, second, etc. It’s fairly orderly for the most part. In the rewrites I do change some things around, but by then I have the whole picture of the story and it’s more like tightened the flow. Your thoughts?

    • Hi Paula,

      The index card method assures you a tight plot, which helps you get favorable reviews.

      I have a very organized and highly analytical mind, so I like structure. For me, the cards come first.

      Then I do a bit of what you do as I am writing each paragraph. I allow my intuitive thoughts to flow freely, letting my mind stream ideas to me as I type them on the page.

      However, after I get that all out of my head and onto the page I find I need to reorganize my writing. I move things around, cut things, add things, etc., before I move on to the next chapter.

      My book, “The Atlanteans,” probably had about 250 layers of writing before it was published. It had a 600-plus page manuscript, and every time I got to the end . . . and thought I would read it through one more time to catch any typos, etc., I found myself rewriting the entire story once again as more ideas came into my mind.

      I am never satisfied with my work in that I always think I can make it better. As I say in my book . . . better this than falling in love with your writing to the point you cannot edit it.

      In the end, we must all do whatever works best for us.

      Dottie 🙂

  80. Karen Danylak says:

    I’m definitely going to try this method. I’m one of those people who ‘always have a problem with plotting’. Great post!

  81. Barbara A Kee says:

    I have always been a write by the seat of my pants. Plotting has never been an easy thing for me. The shoe box method might work for me and I’m willing to give it a try.
    Thanks for the article. It was concise and clear and even I could see clearly the method for brainstorming and organizing my random thoughts about my characters.

  82. I hope I win Writing Made Easy….today! I am in the midst of a second novel. You will like the characters and possibly the writing, but you will ask, “Stepheny, where are you going with this?” Because I don’t plot as Michael Critchton does, or anyone else for that matter, I admit I NEED Ms. Moore’s book because I don’t know where I am going. Perhaps I am now convinced that 3×5 cards are in order. Something is.

    • Hi Stepheny,

      I could not believe myself what an aid this was.

      Once I had my tight plot, I really enjoyed the creative process. All my worries and frustrations were gone, and I found myself to be a much better writer.

      Sometimes I would pull the next card out of the box and realize I had gone off tract, and I would have to write myself back to where I needed to be — or cut a page or two.

      I became more disciplined as I went, thanks to Michael Crichton.


  83. Sara L. says:

    Wonderful article, Dorothy! Thanks for sharing with us. I’d never heard of Michael Crichton’s shoebox method before, so that was interesting to discover.

    About my plotting method: To be honest, the plot for my WIP popped into my head and kept percolating until I typed up an outline so I wouldn’t forget anything. The outline lists both external and internal plot points – “external” being the events and actions that carried the physical part of the story, and “internal” being the points that are most important to the protagonist and her growth. Now I refer to this outline each time I work on the story, with the confidence that I reminded myself to be organized about the process. It’s not a groundbreaking method by any means, but it’s worked for me so far.

  84. Cheryl says:

    Hi, Dottie: As soon as I started to read your post, I sooooo related — I’m almost a lopsided-brained writer… my right hemisphere easily ka-pows the left. Dialogue, story and humor (wit) are easier for me. Plotting seems to be elusive, certainly plotting logic. Part of my challenge is that I am extremely attention deficit. That’s helpful in terms of creativity, but a challenge when it comes to plotting and finishing a novel. I am learning to use Scrivener and find the ‘corkboard’ feature helpful. I’ve tried using 3×5 cards but lose the dang things! (LOL) (Shoebox, remember the shoebox!) Anyway, I really admired Michael Crichton and appreciate you providing these insights. Best of luck to you.

    • Hi Cheryl,

      If you have the gift of wit and humor . . . well, you are way ahead of the pack. We all love that friend or character that makes us laugh or smile.

      I have a chapter on humor in “Writing Made Easy.”

      A librarian in my class found some index cards on a circular ring. I think she found them at Staples or OfficeMax. She just kept them on the ring in her purse. As she took her parents and grandchildren around for their doctor appointments, etc., she would just pull the ring out and work on her plotting.

      She said it helped save her sanity. 🙂


  85. Adriana Carlson says:

    Thanks for the post! I plan to buy a stack of index cards today! 🙂 a helpful tool for me with plotting is Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. He’s a screenwriter too, and his Save the Cat line of books helped me immensely when I was in was tightening up my first story. Now I use his technique on every story I write.

  86. I’ve tried cards in a huge circle on my large dining room table. I’ve tried mapping it out on large rolls of freezer paper. But I’ve never tried this method. Looks like something I might try for my next book! Please enter my name for the giveaway. Thanks.

  87. Samantha Sidelinger says:

    Great ideas! Thank you so much for sharing.

  88. What a timely post. My current work in progress is historical fiction and the timeline lends itself to a natural plot structure. My next one, however, does not and I’m completely stuck. Thank you!!!

  89. Interesting. I’m an organic writer (I prefer that over “pantser”), but this shoebox method is one I could see myself at least trying. Thanks for sharing!

  90. Excellent, thank you for sharing!

    I am very happy that I’m doing much of this ‘Crichton-esq’ thing already! Only this week I was adding to my 3 x 5 cards …

    Then I transfer them into Scrivener, with each card’s text typed into the ‘Synopsis’ section. I then compile the manuscript (to Word) to include each synopsis, and any relevant metadata (keywords, notes, plot point). These are pretty much rough scenes by now.

    Today I was annotating by hand each scene to flesh out the goal-conflict-disaster etc, which might sound very cold and mechanical, but it’s actually delightful, as the movie in my head just gets richer (and sometimes snippets of full text or dialog slip out), and soon, I can’t wait to start the actual first draft.

    I’m looking forward to learning what others do … (I’m a plotter and outliner, obviously!)

    • Hi Robert,

      You sound just like one of the attorneys in my class who introduced Scrivener to all of us a while back.

      When ideas and dialogue come at the same time, just remember to staple those cards together — on Scrivener you can have 1(a), 1(b), etc., to show they go together, and to keep them together.


      • Thanks Dottie – your post certainly inspired an avalanche of methods, and made for very interesting reading! (Only just caught up)

        Thanks for sharing more content from your book too (in your other replies) – it looks great!

  91. Raquel says:

    I don’t outline, which could be some of my problem. The other is too many ideas bouncing around in my head LOL.

  92. Heather Raglin says:

    I’ve been a pantser for years, but recently discovered I need to do more planning. This index card idea is a good place to start. Thanks!

  93. The initial idea is scribbled in a small spiral binder which I carry around with me at all times. From there I use my Scrivener program which has a index card/corkboard mode. I title each card and give an explanation of what will happen. I look at the flow…sometimes I make sub-folders. The first draft is written in Scrivener. From there I copy the whole thing to Word (because I like seeing it in one big flow) and edit/revise as many times as needed, saving copies of each revision as Title 1, Title 2, etc. That’s how I roll!

  94. Michael Crichton’s method is an interesting one, but I don’t think it would work well for me. I prefer to keep everything on the computer, and when I think of new ideas, to insert them right into the correct spot. My favorite plotting tool is Marg McAllister’s book The Busy Writer’s One-Hour Plot. She actually recommends index cards, too, but I’ve created a computerized version that goes with her method. Highly recommended!

  95. Laura says:

    I usually have an idea and the climax (i.e. where I want my story to end up). I write chronologically, but sometimes I will write a chapter out of order and piece it together in a way similar to the index card plotting method and figure out where it goes in the story. I will have to try this!

    • Hi Laura,

      I have often asked my students, when they get stuck writing a chapter, if they know how that chapter ends?

      They usually say yes.

      Then I tell them to just get busy writing the ending of the sequence, while their subconscious mind goes to work on solving the problem . . . while they are distracted. This always works.

      I find it interesting that you do this for the entire story.


  96. Christina Kit. says:

    LOVE this idea! It takes away all the stress of sitting down and plotting it all out in one sitting. It’s a wonderful way of incorporating ideas that come at you out of nowhere, and it’s so much easier to rearrange cards at the end!

    Will definitely do this!!

    Thank you so very much 🙂

    ccfioriole at gmail dot com

  97. Ann Marie Wraight says:

    A really marvellous idea although certainly needs a few test drives first! I’ll definitely try it!
    I always have a voice recorder with me so if an idea flutters around my head I can catch it as soon as possible.

  98. Dorothy Cora Moore,
    I’m writing a memoir, which is something I have never done before. As ideas come to me, I jot them down. Later, I type them onto my computer. Each is on a separate word document. I am still trying to decide how I want to organize them; meanwhile I keep adding entries. Maybe I’ll print my pages and glue them on notecards. Moving cards about would help me sequence the story. Thanks for helping me to see that my plan can be worked.

    Your book sounds terrific. Please enter my name in the drawing. Thanks!

    • Hi Linda,

      Memoirs are tricky — especially if you are writing something private, or personal, to another person in your life.

      It helps that you already know the timeline.

      Oftentimes students ponder over what stories they want to tell. It is here that the cards come in handy. I would put an approximate date each event happened, on each card though, so you tell the story chronologically — this will help you with the initial sort.

      Some of my students are writing their memoirs as stories of fiction – third person omniscient style. When we write characters that we really know, they come alive on the page.

      I have a chapter on this in “Writing Made Easy.”

      Good luck to you,


  99. I spend too much time pantsing my stories, leaving too many unfinished. I think I’ll give this method a try to breathe life into them and finally finish. Great post.

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