Elle Cosimano

Playing The Hand You're Dealt

One of the questions I’m constantly asked is whether or not I use an outline when I map out a story idea. It seems like there are two basic schools of thought on the “right” way to write… outline or fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants.

Anyone who knows me knows I am a textbook Type A personality. I’m an obsessive planner. I am organized and goal-oriented to a fault. So, yes, the obvious answer is I do use some form of an outline. I need a strong sense of the destination, and at least have a map denoting a few key landmarks along the way.

But traditional outlines frustrate me. I find myself scribbling and scratching out and scrapping and re-writing them to accommodate shifts in my thought process or changes in direction along the way. While writing my first book, I abandoned the traditional outline in favor of 3×5 cards. I color code them (because I am ridiculously anal-retentive that way). For instance, the white cards are scene cards. I write down the loose description and bullet points of each scene in the story and put them in order. The red or pink cards are my “hot” cards. These are the critical scenes (you know the ones, that replay over and over in your head and you would never, ever cut from a story because they are integral to the plot or climactic in some uncompromisable way). The blue cards are my character cards, and have tidbits of back story or physical details, which I can then pepper into the scene cards to avoid huge chunks of exposition or flashback. You get the basic idea.

I keep my cards in a small folio sorter… pictured below… which allows me to move them, mix them up, replace them, burn them, shred them, and create whole new ones as the story begins to unfold. It’s essentially an outline, but it’s a living outline. It moves and it bends. It adapts to the impulsive side of my imagination, and can continue to do so as the confines of my research, or restraints of my word count, change the direction of my work.


In my mind, this system of organization parallels the way I try to organize my life. I have a strong sense of where I’m going and what I want to accomplish, and I have my uncompromisable priorities duly noted, but I leave myself flexible to adapt, try new things, and write new scenes for myself along the way.

While at conference, a writerly friend noticed my folio and commented on it. I’d assumed lots of people probably worked this way and I’d never imagined that the question of an outline could be so black and white. But it appears, not everyone has a system that allows them to manipulate their hand mid-play, and still have a tangible plan for a predetermined outcome.

So here it is. My cards are on the table for everyone to see. My question to you… do you wing it or do you outline, or do you have your own kooky system in place?


17, 2011 |

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3 Responses to “Playing The Hand You're Dealt”

  1. Megan Benedict says:

    you can even make the subject of an outline interesting! i love reading what you write!!

  2. Christine says:

    Lindsey, I’ve learned so much from you…. I think this would work better for me than my current system. I have a 6 subject binder with folders. I’m terribly disorganized in it but each section has it’s place. I’m writing a memoir so, there are three sections of my life, two sections of my mom’s life and then an historical outline with events that took place, like hurricanes, political stuff and new events. This section, because I was a child, and because I’m not politically aware is crucial for me to clean up with facts. I like your color coding and thecharacter development. I also have a separate small notebook with character development paragraphs with my moms personalities and life events. I do need a clean up and organization with all this. Besides the emotional factor swirling my thoughts, I’ve always had trouble with instictuallyknowing how to organize….

  3. Hi Elle,

    I began to try the notecard method myself a couple of years ago, and I wish I could say that it’s working for me as well as it is for you! I have piles of cards, representing three unfinished novels, but maybe all I need is that very cool folio to stash them in. 🙂

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