Breaking a story can be a fun exercise in plotting, and it can be a way to experiment with your plot without having to throw out hundreds of pages of written work. In addition, by breaking out a story you can lay out and visually see more concretely your grand vision, and often times it will let you spot potential problems early on.
To actually break a story, there are a lot of tools you can use. Here’s 5. Note that every one of their tools has their own pros and cons. I’d say the best thing you can do is experiment and find the ones that you really like.
Trello is a tool I use at work all the time. It’s very flexible. You can customize labels, you can add cards, you can add comments for cards, and creating new lists and cards is very easy. It’s also extremely simple to add images, change backgrounds, and more. And did I mention it’s free? The one downside to Trello is that is isn’t designed specifically for story breaking (teams of programmers use it to track tasks at my day job), and it automatically timestamps every edit. That can lead to a bunch of logs you don’t need. There’s also not an easy way to export your work from Trello — some add ons can export it to Excel but even then that’s a little bit awkward.
Cost: Free. (You can pay to unlock additional enhancements, but most of those are for large scale developers).
2. Amazon Story Builder
Amazon Story builder is another very flexible tool. It’s similar to Trello – you have lists of cards, you can easily add more, but it’s designed specifically for breaking stories. As such they have built in templates of famous stories, and a surprisingly useful feature is a “drawer” you can throw extra cards into while you figure out where they go. You can also easily tag cards and use those tags to find things like subplots. There’s even a print friendly view that makes it easy to print out what you’ve done when you’re ready.
There are a couple of downsides. One is mostly philosophical – it’s pretty heavily embedded in Amazon’s ecosystem. You don’t just have an account, you have a “profile page”, the ability to submit scripts, etc etc. I just want to use a tool; I’m not thrilled about getting another social media platform in the process.
The second downside is practical – they in theory have options to color code certain cards. Being color blind, however, I find the hue differences so subtle as to be indistinguishable.
3. SuperNote Card
SuperNotecard is another interesting app that is designed for general use of index cards. Personally, I don’t find the interface nearly as intuitive as Trello or Amazon Storybuilder. How don’t create lists, you simply create cards and can then add “decks”, and then drag and drop new cards into those decks. You can then click on a specific deck and see the contents. That’s a lot of clicks to just edit the text of a card, but some people really love the sparse interface.
There is a free version for it if you sign up, though there are limits (I can’t find clearly stated what the limits are, but they say you can only have so many projects, cards, and references). Otherwise it is a $25 yearly subscription.
Cost: Free version (with limits), otherwise $25 per year.
This is an app that’s only for Mac, so I cannot say I personally have any experience with it. However, there are multiple rave reviews for it like here and here, and by far the biggest selling point is that it can export directly into Scrivener files. I can’t speak to it much more than that, but if you work on Mac’s it is definitely an option to explore.
It’s really easy to go down the rabbit of hunting for apps, trying and exploring different ones, but I also wanted to explicitly shout out the power of good old fashioned analog. I did most of the planning for the related Youtube video on my kitchen table. It’s flexible, it’s portable, and you have a flexibility in visualization that even the best apps can’t easily provide (short of having HUGE monitors – which, I admit, can mitigate some of that problem for apps). You also can trunk them pretty easily and refine a project over years without worrying about compatibility issues (or worse, returning to an app after a year to discover it’s been unsupported).
That being said, there ARE some downsides. First, space: at my kitchen table I can lay out cards as spread out as I want and leave them there. If I’m working in a coffee shop? That’s not nearly as easy. People with kids might find it even harder to keep index cards out, and not everyone can just hang up a giant cork-board somewhere out of the way.
In addition, collaboration is difficult. I can’t easily share my hand-written index cards with someone 2000 miles away. While most of my projects are just me, for those who do work with another writer this is a serious snag.
Another downside is that you can’t easily incorporate research. In the digital versions, it’s very easy to add links to research, add pictures, and you never have to worry about being constrained by how much you write. In analog, you can always add more cards, but adding that additional media isn’t possible.
Lastly, you have the benefits of analog storage – you can keep it in a box for 30 years without losing anything – but you have downsides as well. Namely, if you lose part of your stack of index cards, they get lost in a box under your bed, or you spill your coffee on them, you’re sunk. Particularly for larger projects, digital might actually be easier to organize.
Cost: 500 3’x5′ cards cost about $6.00. Colored cards are slightly more expensive but we’re still talking < $5.00 for hundreds. If you can to get your own cork-board, for reference a 3’x2′ cork-board costs about $34.00 at Office Supply stores, and that’s a plenty reasonable size to work on.
There’s a lot of useful tools out there for planning your novel. Try different ones, see what you like, and if they are helpful, great! Don’t get so caught up in trying different tools that you wander away from your primary goal though – getting a story written.