Writing out of sequence – The best way to write

There are essentially two ways in which you can draft a longer work of fiction:

You can draft it linearly, in the same way a reader would read it, writing chapters in their logical order.

Or you can draft it out of sequence, jumping forward and back, to:

  • write all chapters related to a specific sub-plot in their logical sequence,
  • write all chapters (or scenes) from a certain character’s POV (to keep their voice consistent more easily),
  • write all chapters that happen in a specific setting separately, so as to keep the mood & feel of that setting consistent more easily,
  • write all battle scenes while you’re in a battling mood; then write only romance scenes on another day, etc.

There are a lot of advantages to writing out of sequence. This is hands-down the BEST THING I discovered while I drafted The Prime Rift, and I’m eager to share it with you guys.

Before moving on to the advantages, there are a few caveats.

This method of drafting might not work so well (or work differently) for pantsers, depending on how much they know about their story beforehand. The whole appeal of pantsing a story is usually that the writer doesn’t know what’s going to happen later on. So they won’t be able to jump back and forth very far. But it’s still a method worth considering, if only because by jumping forward even just a little bit (say, to the next scene), you can get a much better feel for what you need to nail right now to make the story stronger. It’s sort of like drafting and revising in the same run.

Which is why it can become problematic for some plotters, as well. Some people love separating drafting from editing & revising, and prefer to burn through the first draft without stopping or looking back (or even looking left and right). These are usually writers who make dozens of notes for later, and just keep drafting. Their method of writing is super fast, focused, and… something I can’t sustain over longer periods of time.

That’s where writing out of sequence — with its many advantages — comes into play.

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1. No more writer’s block

No more getting stuck on hard days, or before difficult story segments.

Just visualize your novel like a landscape. Your plot is the road you’re taking to explore this landscape at its fullest. If it’s an amazing landscape, it will have all a traveler’s heart desires: curves and bends, hills and valleys, rivers, forests, and mountains. But this makes your road a lot more difficult to walk on. Some days you’ll end up in front of a rocky mountain and have no energy to climb it.

If you’re a linear writer, your best choice is to try and motivate (or push, or cajole) yourself into doing it anyway. But you already know you won’t enjoy it, and that makes this part of your trip a potentially dangerous one, prone to mistakes and twisted ankles. Your other choice is to set up camp, and wait for a better day when you feel like climbing mountains. Sounds like writer’s block for outliners.

Writer’s block is usually understood be caused by not knowing what comes next, or not having the energy to face it. So if you could skip it for now, and move on to something you can see coming, or have the energy to write, you’re essentially kicking writer’s block in the balls.

If you write out of sequence, you can just skip the mountain on those slow days and go sail down a river instead. Or traipse through the tulips. And when you one day wake up and are like “Yeah, I can do this, bring it on!” you go back to that mountain and take a helluva hike up its rockface, feeling glorious. Writing out of sequence helps you do that.

And you can take it even a step further.

2. You can always make progress

Maybe on some days you just can’t concentrate. Or you only have tiny windows of time when you can write, because life happens. If you write out of sequence, you can just write a single paragraph on an easier scene. Then, if you can, jump to write just the first sentence of another scene. Next little window of time (or energy) you can carve out, go and add a few more lines of dialog in the middle of another scene. Maybe add more description to that third chapter. Or introduce a new character later on. And so on.

This way you can make progress even on days which you would have normally scratched off. You can still work on your draft even when you can’t get a specific block of writing time in one piece. By writing out of sequence, those 5 minutes here and there will effectively increase your wordcount, all without you having to “get in the mood” of a specific scene.

3. You get increased story coherence

This is a big advantage for me. I have this insufferable thing where I can’t move on with the story — especially after I change something compared to the initial outline — before I go back and fix the logical points leading up to this change.

I usually start out a new draft by writing in a straight line, until I reach a point where I re-plot something. Before I can continue, I just have to go back and insert (or change) things in the part of the draft I’ve already written, to make the plot feel consistent.

I could technically do this in revision (the second draft), but I just can’t. I can’t think straight if I’ve got a chunk of draft behind me with huge holes in it. So I’m forced, at one point, to write out of sequence. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t go back and edit what I’ve written. I go back and insert extra chapters or scenes, or delete some and move whole chunks around. Landscape architecture at its dirtiest.

It’s entirely possible to just make a note of the things you need to change, and go implement those changes when the whole draft is done. But I find that it’s not the optimal way. First of all, you might not entirely remember all the tiny nuances of the needed change by the time you get around to it. Second, if you make the change now, you might discover a new aspect that will require you to adapt something further up ahead. If you only make this change after the draft is done, you’ll have a lot more work on your hands (and a tendency to avoid it and thus shortcut your way out). And third, when your draft is done, your editing to do list will be a lot slimmer & more manageable. I’ve yet to hear a writer complain they only have to do minor edits on the second draft. 😉

What also happens (to me, at least) is that sometimes there are scenes further up ahead that I just itch to write. Holly Lisle calls them “candy bar scenes,” and they really do feel like treats you just can’t help salivating over, even while you’re still eating your veggies. So when I find that the buzz of a future scene becomes really distracting, and I’m rushing through the current scene (or story part) to get there faster, I stop, jump forward, and write that candy bar scene. Get it out of my system. Have a blast! Then go back and continue where I left off with a clear head and more care and attention.

 

As you see, writing out of sequence has a wealth of benefits. And it can be quite fun, too. It really makes you feel like you’re the God of your story, able to do as you please, go wherever you want and explore whatever you feel like when you feel like it. I’m certainly not the only writer loving it (just check out this little gem of writing advice: “Writing Faster FTW” by L.A.Witt; she swears by out-of-sequence writing to overcome procrastination).

How about you?

Have you ever written out of sequence? What benefits (or drawbacks) does it have for you? And if you haven’t already, are you willing to give it a try?

15 Replies to “Writing out of sequence – The best way to write”

  1. Over the last few years I’ve done several writing methods, but this one always trips me up.

    I work best when I zerg a project get the 1st draft done ignore for a month or so before read though and edit.

    I did recently find a book that helped me with scene building recommended to me by another writer. How to Blueprint Your Bestseller.

    It is helping me fix some of plot flow issues in my high fantasy series.

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    1. I know several writers who are very prolific and only write linearly. They’re usually the ones that don’t edit as they go, but draft the whole novel first. If that works for you, then it’s great! There’s no one method that fits everyone. 🙂

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  2. For many years, I thought writing linearly was how it was done–there was no other way. I never finished a single work, as my characters would get bogged down in the minutia of life, stuck in the bathroom styling their hair or something when they should have been out the door long ago!

    Then I began viewing scenes in a story like scenes in a movie–and I realized that directors didn’t shoot movie scenes in sequence–they got the actors involved and the sets involved together at one time and did everything related to those scenes at one time before moving onto another. Brilliant! Once I recognized this was okay, I began writing all my stories this way.

    The only time it catches me up is when I’m working with new characters in a new setting. Sometimes I don’t know my characters well enough to jump around until I get a better handle on who they are and where they’re headed. 🙂

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    1. Yes, it’s a method of writing that, if it clicks with you, works wonders! I’m right with you when it comes to new characters, though. Or completely new sub-plots (the ones that usually pop up when I had other plans). The jumping around works best when you know where you’re going, with whom, and what you want to do once you get there. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting & sharing, Sarah!

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  3. Excellent observations and advices. I have been facing the same issues, starting, replotting, liniar writing, for then to find out of order as a way to work as well. Over time from writing 10+ pages, for then 100+ with way more complexity the method has changed.

    It is very much a learning process 🙂

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  4. Hmm, I’m definitely a pantser because just reading this article made me feel nervous! I’m already winging it so much with my story that I’m not sure on a first draft at least, that I could write out of sequence and end up with anything remotely coherent. BUT, I see how it could be an awesome way to handle a second draft. The story is already down and I could play around with parts of it that I know aren’t quite working. Jump to my candy bar scenes too. My first draft is really my outline – in A LOT of detail – if I think about it!

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    1. “My first draft is really my outline – in A LOT of detail”

      That’s exactly it! 😀 That’s the difference between pantsers and outliners: the first explore their story in prose form, the others in bullet points. But they both do essentially the same thing. And no good novel out there is ever perfect and complete on a first draft or outline!

      For pantsers it makes indeed most sense to try RE-writing (or editing) out of sequence. Especially if there is more than one POV character.

      Good luck with your novel, Danielle! And thanks for commenting.

      Like

  5. I refuse to call myself a “pantser,” but I do minimal preplanning when I write. However, I still write out of sequence sometimes.

    If I write something that feels like it might foreshadow something to come later, a lot of times I’ll jump ahead and write the thing I’m trying to foreshadow.

    Also, I sometimes write scenes in reverse order. I start at the end and work my way back to the beginning. That can produce an interesting first draft too.

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    1. I can’t “pants” a novel for the life of me. 😉

      I do the same with foreshadowing. If I hint at something juicy or intriguing, I have to jump right in. I can’t tease myself, it won’t let me work on other parts that need to get done in between.

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  6. I love the idea of jumping ahead, but sometimes feel guilty for it, like I’m taking the easy route by leaving chapters that don’t interest me today behind. It might be a good time to observe why I get the urge to skip those chapters. Maybe they’re too light on action or drama. Maybe coming back to them later will help me to see the weakness and fix it. That’s the hope anyway.

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    1. It’s actually a very good indicator, when you’re avoiding to write certain scenes, that there’s something wrong with them. If you can’t get excited enough about them, then you definitely need to take a closer look and check if you can’t cut them out or replace them.

      But if you’re skipping scenes because they don’t fit your current pace or energy, and are able to return to them — and get excited about them at another time — then you’re probably just fine. 🙂

      Good luck with your writing, Kim! Thanks for stopping by to comment.

      Like

  7. I like the idea of writing out of sequence if the plot interweaves several story lines that (hopefully) eventually meet up. As a reader, it can be a fun read (the Dirk Gently books from Douglas Adams spring to mind here) and if it keeps you more motivated as a writer then so much the better.

    There’s no right or wrong way to write – linear may be the best approach for some novels or some writers, out of sequence may be better at other times.

    I think the tricks are to write (d’oh!) and to follow the path that you feel most comfortable doing and that gets your creative juices flowing best.

    Thanks for the prompt to give this a try!

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    1. Thanks Trevor, I’m glad you found the post useful. 🙂

      I found it incredibly liberating to see that a MS can be written this way too. Or at least, that difficult days or passages can be processed more easily if you skip around and return when the muse has settled again.

      Like

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