Writing Out of Order

A lot of my writer friends look at me sideways when I say I write my books out of order. The horror on their faces only grows when I admit I even write scenes out of order, jumping around from time-point to time-point until it’s all filled in.

I never realized how odd this seemed to other people–I guess because I’ve always written this way. Way back when I first started writing stories as a pre-teen, a lot of it was fanfiction, and fanfiction is a marvelous medium for just writing the “juicy” parts of a story. In a lot of fanfiction, you don’t need to spend nearly as many words on things like setting up the characters, or the plot, because your readers already know the basics.

Want to write a one-shot about Katniss reminiscing about her and Prim growing up? No need to explain what the Hunger Games are, or why Katniss is worried about Prim’s safety, or what their world is like. You just dive right in to the “meat” of the story. The parts you really want to write.

Want to write about a romantic date Hermione and Ron sneak off to have in the middle of the search for the Horcruxes? No need to build up their relationship, or explain why they’re in danger, or any of that.

I haven’t written fanfic in ages, but I guess the same urge to “jump to the good bits” is still there. So I do. Those bits are often the easiest to write, anyway. And I often find that they’re the most fun for the reader to read, as well. After all, they tend to be the parts with the highest drama, or romance, or action and adventure. (Although, I also love writing quiet moments between characters, so there’s that!)

A number of my friends say they couldn’t write all these “fun” bits first, because the joy of writing them is what pulls them through the “not-so-fun” bits. It’s the carrot driving them forward, and the reward for getting through everything else. This makes total sense, but I’ve discovered that I personally tend to ramble in my writing when I don’t have a “goal” scene already written.

When I write out of order, I know “Okay, so I have Fun Scene A here and Fun Scene B here…now I just need to get my characters from Scene A to Scene B as quickly and efficiently as possible.” If the middle parts aren’t “Fun Scenes,” I should probably be either trying to get my readers through them as quickly as possible, or finding out some way to spice them up.

Of course, this method doesn’t always work. I write out of order much more commonly during early drafts, and stick to chronological writing during later drafts to make sure everything lines up correctly and makes sense. And there are shortfalls to my jumping around like this–a Fun Scene I wrote three weeks before I actually connect it to the rest of the story might end up needing to be heavily editing because Oops, Character B actually died three scenes back…

As with all writing techniques, there are pros and cons, and it certainly doesn’t work for everyone 🙂

Anyone else on the write-out-of-order bandwagon? Or are you strictly a chronological writer?

17 Responses to Writing Out of Order

  1. Chris Bailey Oct 27 2014 at 9:30 am #

    Out of order! I need to sketch the big picture before filling in details. Using the beginning and the climax to figure out what’s so crucial at the midpoint is fine. IMHO.

  2. Robert Polk Oct 27 2014 at 9:44 am #

    Aha! This is me, too! My neck is sore from nodding through your post. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Kat Zhang Oct 27 2014 at 11:39 am #

      Glad to find kindred spirits 🙂

  3. Abby Oct 27 2014 at 10:26 am #

    I’ve done both, and I guess it depends on how much I know about the story. If I have a decent idea of the major scenes and events, then I can jump around and write the “fun” stuff first, which often ignites my passion for other parts of the story. If I’m not quite sure where it’s headed, then I mainly write in chronological order, which helps me figure out what needs to come next.

    • Kat Zhang Oct 27 2014 at 11:40 am #

      Yes, I sometimes do both, as well. I love how you say writing the “fun” stuff ignites your passion for the other parts of the story. That’s so true!

  4. Jaime Loren Oct 27 2014 at 11:39 am #

    I write out of order! At least, I do NOW.

    Considering I have to allocate my time now with mum stuff and writing and all the things in between, I have to write whichever scene I’m in the mood to write on that given day in order to put my all into it. If that means writing out of order, then so be it.

    I didn’t do that with my first novel, and that’s exactly why my first draft was 175K! I definitely learned my lesson, and now try to get straight to the point. Like you, the best way for me to do that is to write the major, juicy scenes, then figure out the most efficient way to get from A to B. 🙂

    Diana Gabaldon writes like this, too, and recently did a post: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorDianaGabaldon/posts/796625107046994

    • Kat Zhang Oct 27 2014 at 11:41 am #

      Very cool, Jaime! Thanks for sharing that link. I’ll definitely go check it out 🙂

  5. Rochelle Oct 27 2014 at 12:13 pm #

    This is me, too! I need to get a broad sense of what’s happening, and rarely write subplots before I have a basic sketch of the main plot. My last book was an issue of “oh crap! I only have 40,000 words and the main story is done. I NEED SUBPLOTS!” and then I wrote those.

    I started writing Fanfiction, too, and I’ve noticed how much easier it is to write juicy scenes for Harry Potter. There’s no need to explain or show the intricate relationships between characters since they’re already known.

    I’ll be writing for NaNo starting Saturday, and starting with the best scenes is what will hopefully get the idea up and running.

  6. Idris Oct 27 2014 at 1:03 pm #

    I always write out of order because trying to write linearly leads to me not finishing things a lot of the time. Occasionally, I’ll be able to write a long-ish piece of work completely from beginning to end without skipping to write the fun part, but those are exceptions, not a rule.

  7. Lyn Oct 27 2014 at 7:53 pm #

    Oh I always write out of order. LOL it’s a bit like having an internal Scrivener cork board. You think of a good scene that won’t fit now, but will be brilliant further on. My current WIP is having the middle worked out right now. I have four days to finish it before Nano starts.

  8. acps927 Oct 27 2014 at 8:01 pm #

    I’m so glad to know I’m not the only one who writes out of order! I can’t help it! If an awesome scene pops into my head, it’s getting written before it can leave! I’ve been doing a little better about writing most of the story in order since I will never finish it otherwise, but I still keep a separate document handy for those scenes I HAVE to get down before I actually get to them!

  9. Eleni Oct 28 2014 at 1:29 pm #

    I used to abhor this practice, because when I tried to do this, it messed up earlier parts of the story and was a “pantster” not an “outliner.” But the more I write, the more I want to organize the story ahead of time so it’s better to read and has a more organized plot. The more I outline, the easier it is for me to skip around in the work to the “juicier” parts when actually writing these days. So, it’s something I’ve grown into and can do better as a writer, now.

  10. Rowenna Oct 29 2014 at 12:50 pm #

    I find that one of my fall-backs to avoiding burnout is writing out of order. When I feel like I’m spinning my wheels, I jump ahead to a spot that I’m just *itching* to write and dive in there. I usually get back to the sloggy spot refreshed–or with the new perspective that the scene I thought I needed wasn’t so necessary after all.

  11. Maya Prasad Oct 29 2014 at 3:17 pm #

    Yes! I did it a little in my last major project, but I’m doing it A LOT in my current project. All the high points first. I’ll fill in the how to get from A to B later. I just feel a lot better about my project if I’m making progress and this is what helps me make it. Glad I’m not the only one. 🙂

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  13. Aaron Sanders Nov 24 2020 at 9:13 am #

    I see this as a way to keep structure. What if each component was given to a team?

    Fanfiction would be a way for all contributors to give their all to just one scene, heck just one segue.

    Then it could be added up all together, and mixed up, linear, or non-linear.
    (Even edited by a Puppetmaster)

    The possibilities are endless. So much so, this may seem like ramble. I assure you, it is not.

    Thank you for highlighting a great way to write.

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