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Plotting Tip: FLASH CARDS!

So if you’re anything like me, you have a dangerous love for office supplies. You may not actually use them, but collecting them is just as good, right? Having a planner and page tabs and spiffy pens and whiteboards gives me the illusion of being a productive member of society even if I use exactly none of them on a daily basis.

BUT this month I want to talk about an office tool I am finally starting to make use of, and with great results: index cards. Specifically, colored ones employed for a very specific purpose.

My husband was actually the one who got me started on using index cards categorically. He’s been using them for months to prepare for his real estate classes, and there was something about seeing those neon flashcards covered in real estate jargon that got me thinking: CHARACTER FLASHCARDS!

Character flashcards, I am learning, are AWESOME. Rather than having to dig back through my novel during my limited writing time in the mornings to pin down character facts in order to move a scene forward, I start the card ahead of time and add relevant information to it as I go. That way, at a glance, I have core facts that I know need to stay consistent throughout the story.

Before I sat down to write the index cards for my NaNoWriMo 2018 novel, Wicked Slumber—a genderbent Sleeping Beauty retelling and the first in a five-book series—I thought about the kind of information I’d need to keep handy throughout the drafting process. Knowing I was sharing the narrative between three main characters—Jonathan, Charlie, and Hariasa—I had to keep details flowing smoothly and I need certain facts on hand for my sake.

With all that in mind, my flashcards looked like this:

  1. Name

  2. Age

  3. Occupation/Abilities

  4. Summary quote in their own words

  5. Goal/Ambition

  6. Obstacle

  7. Character Description

Names are important for obvious reasons—don’t want to forget those!

Ages are particularly crucial in this first installment of the series because Wicked Slumber starts off with a major time jump—sixteen years between the first and second chapters—so I needed to know Jonathan’s age before and after the time jump. This also helped me clarify a few things, like how old Jonathan was during the pre-series war that changed the monarchy to a republic and what his role during that time could’ve feasibly been based on that age.

I also needed to keep in mind what the characters are capable of based on their occupations: Charlie grew up on a farm, so how does that impact his endurance, his mentality toward work, and his capabilities in stressful situations? And because I also knew that Hariasa was very much a horse girl, this gave her and Charlie something to relate on when their pasts and personalities are in many other ways polar opposites. Thanks to these flashcards, I became aware of a solid point for character interaction and friendship growth.

The summary quote is probably my favorite thing about the flashcards. It allows me to get a feel for how the characters speak and also how they relate to themselves and the world around them. I don’t have to know where this line will plug into the actual narrative, but if I feel like I’m straying from their tone of voice or some of their core values, I have that dialogue in their own words to ground me.

Having the character’s goal – and the obstacles on the way to it – available at a glance is HUGE. It allows you to do a quick spot-check on “Is this fitting together? Am I moving in the right direction? Are character interactions, choices, and reactions fitting to this goal or do I need to do a reassessment?” Additionally, if you’re running into a sagging plot point or a scene that feels hollow, a quick refresher on character motivations and roadblocks can give you some great ideas to boost a scene’s significance by referencing one or the other.

Character description is just a given. If you’re like me, sometimes your characters change eye and hair color or they mysteriously lose scars, limps, or entire wounds. Having a cheat sheet for when you need to mention a trait in the heat of the moment is a lifesaver.

If you’re writing a series and want to get REALLY technical (like I always do!) you can even do color-coded flashcards based on book!

For my retellings, I have five books—the first four with new sets of characters each time that cross over here and there with familiar faces—and I have four stacks of cards. So each book gets a stack of one color and then the fifth book gets one of each color for each cast. This may seem unnecessarily organized but visuals are huge. With this system, I can see who connects with whom at a glance. If you’re visually inclined, don’t be afraid to get really technical with coding your flashcards!

Don’t be afraid to get as technical or fancy as you need to. Flashcards are helpful in so many ways, and it’s a method you can malleate to serve your needs as a writer. So go fearlessly to that office supply section of the store, go wild, and have fun getting all those details down!

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