Order! Order in the Manuscript!

By Katie Lewis

I will have order!

Recently, my little sister asked for my advice about a novel she’s been planning for a while. As a person with ADHD, she struggles to complete tasks in general, especially when they must be done in a specific order. Knowing this, my first and most vital suggestion was that she not attempt to write her first draft chronologically.

I told her to skip around, write whatever scenes she loved first, and worry about filling in any potential gaps later. I’ve written stories both in and out of chronological order. While both have pros and cons, ditching the chronological order can make writing easier.

Focusing on What You Love About Your Story

One of the big reasons I advocate for writing out of order is simply because that’s not how I plan stories in the first place. I’ve talked before about how I almost always write to music because I plan to music. Walking, driving, doing the dishes, and taking a shower are always when I throw on a playlist and let my mind drift. More often than not, at least one song will become the soundtrack to a scene in whatever project I happen to be working on.

As a result, those scenes are often the ones I’m most excited to type out. However, they are very rarely the first scenes in the story. Instead, I’ve set music to something. In that case, it’s usually somewhere well into things when we already know who all the characters are and what they’re about.

At that point, there’s a choice of whether to write the scene immediately or work my way up to it chronologically (and hope I remember everything necessary when I finally get there).

While it may not feel like the best idea, writing the scene out is better. I’m already pumped about it, it’s fresh in my mind, and it won’t feel like a chore to write it out. That goes for any part of your story you’re incredibly excited about. If you’re obsessed with the ending, write that first.

Or you’ve got a handful of essential character interactions you can’t wait to get to. So don’t wait. Writing this way helps avoid burnout and the feeling of writing becoming just another task because you get to do all the fun stuff first.

Disorder and Disorganized are Not the Same Thing

That said, it’s still a good idea to have an outline before diving in. Even if it’s a loose one. Even if you’re still determining where these scenes you’re writing will ultimately fit, you need a bare-bones plan. The first draft of any story is a mess, but if the narrative is disjointed, the issues are more significant.

Worse, it will complicate the editing/second draft phase as you try to bridge the gaps you’ve left. That’s not to say jumping around isn’t impossible, though.

How to stay organized while writing out of chronological order

The first is simply the outline. Yes, write an outline. Even if it’s just the beginning, the end, and one or two major plot points. I avoided outlining for years, but all it did was make things harder on myself. I need an outline if I write anything longer than a 5,000-word short story.

The thing to remember is that outlines aren’t set in stone. Just because you wrote one doesn’t mean you must stick to it. My favorite ways to outline are either as bullet points or as a web because both allow for easy reorganization. A bulleted list can always be added to or reordered as necessary. There are all kinds of graphic organizers out there that can accommodate different thinking styles.

A thought web is even more abstract, allowing for multiple ideas to spring from a single point and allowing you to decide what order those ideas best go in while avoiding the risk of forgetting to include any of them.

I’ve also used note cards (both physical and digital), so I could play around more easily with changing their order of major plot points.

Secondly, keep your scenes separated once you’ve decided on an outline. There are a couple ways to do this. The one that’s easiest for me involves using the Scrivener program. That writing program is a godsend for writing out of order. Instead of compiling everything into a single text document, Scrivener allows you to create a new folder for every chapter and keep separate text documents for every scene with that chapter folder. Not only does that let you watch your story take shape, but it also lends itself to easy reordering of said documents.

The same effect can be replicated manually in your favorite writing program. Instead of creating a document for your first draft, create a folder. Then, within that folder, open a new document every time you have a scene you have to write right now. As with Scrivener, this helps you organize and gives you a visual of how many scenes you’ve got to work with. When it comes time to assemble the first draft, I recommend copying and pasting each pre-written scene as you reach them.

I’ve also done something similar by hand to significant effect. Sometimes it feels better to get a new pen and journal. I like to write dozens of scenes out of order, sometimes even knowing that the scene I’m working on would be sequel material because it’s too deep into the story to ever fit into a first novel. Of course, writing by hand means typing it later, but this method has its own perks.

Sometimes I feel more creative writing things out by hand like I can channel my muse better. Additionally, when I do go to type the scene out, it allows for some on-the-spot editing that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Write How You Want to Write

Ultimately, you have to write in whatever order works best for you. Maybe you’ve felt stuck for a while now and never considered you were “allowed” to write out of order, in which case, go forth and write with my blessing. This entire post has set your teeth on edge because you can’t stand adding that much chaos to the first draft. Both feelings are valid.

As I said at the top, I’ve written both in and out of chronological order and don’t have a strong preference either way.

Happy writing!

10 Reasons to Write Out of Order

The Art of Skipping Around

Writing Out of Order

Published by Writing Heights Writing Bug

A blog by writers for everyone interested in books, reading, writing, and just about everything in between.

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