Sequence of Writing - In Order or Not?

This is a common question that most writers ask. Does it really matter what order you write your novel? What works and what doesn’t work?
The answer is simple – there is no right or wrong. There’s no rule that says we have to write a story in order. Both approaches work. It depends on the kind of writer you are. It’s down to the writer how they want to write their novel, but it’s also down to the writer to bring it all together to make it work effectively so the reader will enjoy the story.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each one. It’s up to the writer to work with the method that works for them.
Linear Writing
Writing the story in sequence is known as linear writing. In other words, it’s written chronologically, in order as the reader reads it, chapter by chapter, from first chapter to last. This tends to be how plotters and planners like to write. They plan each chapter, they do chapter outlines and story arcs and they follow the story as they write. This keeps them focused and avoids confusion over sequencing/or sequence of events.
The advantage of this approach means that story threads and subplots occur logically (rather than an afterthought because it occurred to the writer while writing out of sequence). Plot points are addressed in order. Characters develop because the story is written in order and so they grow, act and react to each situation as it happens. The POV in linear writing is also consistent and more fluid. Also, the continuity of the story is maintained by this method.
Also, with sequential writing, it’s easy to see plot flaws. It also highlights errors within the narrative or description, or with tone, mood, tension or atmosphere.
Sequential writing can be restrictive to some writers who love the freedom of writing in any order that comes to them. And there is nothing wrong with this. But for most writers, this kind of writing is a much easier process to manage.
Non-Linear Writing
Writing out of sequence is known as non-linear writing. In other words, writers write scenes that are not in any logical order.  They write in any order they want.
For many writers, this is a better way of writing their novel. They feel more comfortable writing the scenes that they’re most excited about, the ones that they want to write about. It’s about writing any scene in whatever order, which can be more productive for some writers who are naturally ‘scene writers’. This works because many writers usually have fully formed scenes in their heads as soon as they get an idea for a story, and they focus on writing those scenes.
There’s more creative freedom with writing scenes, or snippets of scenes and dialogue, that are out of sequence. They don’t feel restricted by the rigidness of the need to write everything in order.
This type of approach can work even if the writer has done a brief outline or plan. That’s because scenes are still relevant to the story, whatever sequence they were written, since the writer has already ‘mapped’ out what might happen in the outline. That means you can write a scene that can be slipped into any chapter.
There are disadvantages of course – story threads and subplots are not written in logical sequence and are often added afterward, which could lead to some elements being less cohesive. Plot points are not always addressed in order because the writer is jumping back and forth from sections in the middle, at the beginning or at the end.
It’s also hard for characters to develop organically because scenes and chapters have been written out of sequence and therefore the jumping between parts of the story doesn’t allow the characters to develop as well as they would in linear writing. Careful attention to POVs is needed in order to keep them consistent, otherwise they might appear scattered in the finished story.
The most important thing to consider, however, is that non-linear writing could cause problems with the continuity of the overall story arc. It’s important that ‘scene’ writers keep focused on the plot and don’t lose sight of the story.
The other downside is that, in addition to editing, the writer has to stitch all the out of sequence scenes together, and do so effectively that makes the entire story arc linear.
Every writer is different, so how you write is less important than the finished product at the end of the process. You can write your novel in any order you want – just keep an eye on all the elements that make the whole story.

Next week: Narrative or dialogue - which is the most dynamic?


  1. While I might write notes for a scene later on, I do write linear, and you've described my way of working exactly.

    I outline each chapter, but will be flexible enough to go with something in one chapter occurring in a different chapter if that's how the story is developing.


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