Revision Tool - the Index Card

Katherine Longshore 8 Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Last year, in an effort to be more of a plotter than a pantser, I read SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder.  This book is intended for screenwriters, but with a little imagination and a bit of adaptation, can be used by novel writers, as well.

Except for me.

I'm a pantser by nature, and wasn't able to escape it with Book 2. no matter how hard I tried to follow Snyder's formula.  But one thing his book did teach me was this:  I was on the right track as far as revision goes.

I've been using Snyder's system of writing each scene on an index card for a while.  It gives me a solid and specific reason to break my entire novel down into scenes -- and analyze them -- as well as a tactile and visual layout of how the plot progresses.  And from there, anything can happen.

This is what each index card looks like:

  • Each card must contain one scene and one scene only.  And it will be easier to find within your manuscript if you have the page number at the top!
  • List every character in the scene.  I like to use a different color for each character, so when it comes time to lay out the cards in my story board, I have an immediate visual reference of where every character is.
  • A short summary of the scene as a reference for the writer only.  No one else needs to know what you're talking about as long as you know.
  • Every scene should have a conflict or source of tension.  If it doesn't, flag it, so you can add one. Or delete it entirely.  Ouch.
Once I have an index card allocated for every scene in the novel, I lay them out on a story board (thanks, Mr. Snyder, for the term!) according to the three-act structure.  Talia has a fantastic summation of the three-act structure in her Sequences and Setpieces post.

My story board will then look something like this:

Notice the gaping hole in the second half of Act Two.  This is because I pantsed my way through my first draft and jumped directly to the climax from the crisis.  Having the story board to help me visualize this proved to be invaluable.  By using this tool, I was able to move scenes around, figure out where to add new ones, and discover which characters went missing for chapters at a time.  I may not be able to plot in my first drafts, but I can certainly work through it in a revision.

I hope this helps!  If you need more information on story boards, the three act structure or turning points, be sure to read Snyder's book, but also take a look at THE WRITER'S JOURNEY by Christopher Vogler and PLOT AND STRUCTURE by James Scott Bell.

And thank you all who came to the Revision Toolbox panel at the SCBWI North/Central California Spring Spirit Conference on Saturday!  It was wonderful to meet you, to share ideas and answer questions, and best of all, to soak up the spirit of creativity.  Best of luck in your revision!


I love this-- I wrote my very first manu as a total pantser. Of course, at the time-I didn't even know what the term meant. That one is in the archives-(back of the drawer).

I learned a lot, though. And reading posts like this help sooo much with we natural pantsers. Giving us a way to organize is so helpful! Thank you!

Oh! and PS-- I know what I'm asking for-for my b-day! A Ginormous Cork Board!

Weeeeellllll (tr. well), I own index cards now. As soon as I drop my son off at school tomorrow, I'm attacking the index cards (or will they attack me?). Am trying all revision tools as I move towards Novel-In-Action-Dammit-! status. So good to meet you. The Muses panel was (and I'm still recovering from periods of intense lengthy driving, so forgive me) Da Bomb.

This was so inspiring to me on Saturday that I went out and bought index cards and colored pens! I am so excited to try this with my current wip. Thank you so much for sharing this idea, and your wonderful presentation!

Good luck, ladies! If nothing else, index cards and colored pens are a great way to procrastinate for a few days.

Katie and PB, I'm so glad the presentation was helpful on Saturday, and thanks so much for saying hello!

And Janet, I hope you get your birthday wish - I LOVE my ginormous corkboard.

I have to second what Katie N. said!

Your presentation on Saturday was so helpful. I've been so inspired ever since then. And I've had so much fun using my colored pens and index cards!

Thank you so much!

By the way, I'm excited to read Gilt when it comes out next month!

Thank you, Stephanie! I'm glad we were able to provide some revision inspiration. And good luck!

I had no idea what a pantser was until I read this post and had to google the word. It's great to read/see how published authors get so caught up in the action/climax of the story that they have to then go back and fill in the gaps, as you mentioned.

It's always really interesting to see how a writer plans out their scenes and if they spent more time on this scene, but that scene made me cry! and then I was so angry while I wrote this scene, and etc. :)

Thanks for sharing!

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