5 Reasons to Write Your Scenes in Order (and 3 Not to)

Should you ever write scenes out of order? Here you are, ready to start in on a new story, and you have one particular scene just begging to be written. Maybe it’s the scene that inspired the story, or maybe it’s just as easier scene than the one you’re currently faced with. If you go ahead and write that scene now, will it harm your overall story? Or, just maybe, will taking a non-linear storytelling approach offer untold benefits?

The answers to these questions aren’t absolute. Ultimately, your personality, writing style, and even each individual story will determine what works best for you. As a decidedly linear storyteller (and an outliner on top of it), I’ve only rarely written a scene out of order—and, even then, only when I’ve realized I needed to go back and insert a scene into previously written chapters.

Most writers follow that same path. Linear writing just makes sense. It creates a forward-moving expansion of time, just like our own lives. But some writers find writing scenes out of order actually frees their creativity.

So what should you do? Let’s explore some of the benefits to both linear and non-linear writing, so you can decide for yourself.

Five Reasons to Write Your Scenes in Order

1. You’ll be able to maintain natural evolution and continuity.

When we write stories in their natural order, we’re able to organically build their arcs. Each piece fits together, because each piece builds upon the previous one without any unnecessary finagling.

2. You won’t waste time on unnecessary scenes.

Sometimes those killer scenes we envision early on end up not working out like we think they will. We can save ourselves time (and the heartache of killing some darlings) if we can spot extraneous or incorrect scenes before we write them.

3. You won’t lose steam on the less interesting scenes.

If you run ahead of yourself and write all the juicy scenes, what are you going to have to look forward to as you slog through the necessary transitions that remain?

4. You’ll be able to better track your overall story.

If your scenes are all hither and yon, you’ll likely have a harder time keeping track of where they fit within the overall plan. But if you write them in order, you can watch your story arc build naturally—and better spot areas that aren’t quite working.

5. You can avoid ending up with a bunch of brilliant pieces that don’t fit together.

All those wonderful scenes you’re in hurry to write may indeed be brilliant in their own right. But, by the time you’re finished, they may not fit together quite as seamlessly as you were hoping.

Three Reasons Not to Write Your Scenes in Order

1. You’ll remember scene ideas.

Our memories can be slippery little devils. Sometimes the only way to make certain we’ll remember a scene in all its white-hot glory is to go ahead and write it down, even if it doesn’t yet fit into the linear scheme things.

2. You’ll be able to move past blocks.

Sometimes you’re stumped on a particular part of your story to the point that the whole book has stalled. You’re faced with either walking away from the story for a while, writing anyway and hoping you’ll strike gold, or moving on to a different scene. All three are viable options, but the latter offers the extra benefit of potentially giving you new insight into your story, which can then help you see around your block.

3. You’ll be able to work backwards to discover how best to build up to important scenes.

In Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, I suggest the technique of reverse outlining to help you understand the cause and effect between important scenes. The same technique can work just as well (if not quite as tidily) in your first draft. If you know where you need to go, sometimes it can then be easier to figure out what you need to do to get there.

Although most writers choose storytelling methods that are predominately linear or non-linear, this doesn’t have to be an either/or decision. No matter which method works best for you, you may find it worthwhile to occasionally experiment with different techniques, both to gain a new perspective on your work and to perhaps find a new tool for your writing workbag.

Tell me your opinion: Do you prefer to write scenes linearly or non-linearly? 

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Great post! I write my books both ways – I used to work primarily non-linearly, until someone told me that was the wrong way. Since I didn’t understand at that point that the writing process is different for everyone, I then wrote a book entirely linearly – and it was SO HARD. However, hard as it was, I did see many benefits (those listed above!). Now, I outline, then choose a handful of scenes that excite me, and write them. I find this helps me understand my characters better than just starting from the beginning, and helps me figure out how to work them and their plot/emotional arc for when I go back to the beginning. When I’m done picking my favorite scenes to write, I then go back to the beginning and work linearly, changing the already finished scenes where I see fit (often, the changes aren’t significant in the first draft). I love working this way. I feel so free to write where I need to, and don’t usually have blocks as I can work over them, and figure out what is wrong later.

  2. I tend to write in linear fashion, even when I was a pantster. But occasionally as you said a future scene will pop into my head and I’ll write it so I don’t lose it. That said, I can almost always insert an outline of a scene into my overall outline and usually as long as I have the basics down it works out fine – unless there’s dialogue involved. That usually can’t wait!

  3. Love this post because I always love hearing about how differently each writer approaches his/her work.

    I’m a non-linear writer and love it. Interestingly, a couple of the reasons you list to not write this way are some of the reasons I like it. While I get the idea that it might waste time to write a scene that later will not fit, it still gets me to explore more about my characters and how they act in different situations. Sometimes writing a scene that fits in later in the story keeps me grounded in my end game (which is also, of course, related to your #3 of non-linear writing). I confess that it can be harder, at times, to write the transition scenes, but when I do knit together 2 scenes that I wrote at different times, it is highly satisfying. Moving past blocks might be the best advantage of all for me for writing non-linearly – anything that keeps me writing and keeps me in forward motion.

    As a teacher, I highly respect the outline and linear-process and know of many who really cannot work any other way. Possibly it is the best way to learn, too, to ensure grasp of the big picture of writing. Since becoming a non-linear writer, however, I appreciate the freedom it grants me and the ability to understand how to help others who might work this way, too.

  4. I’ve done both, actually, and I can’t say I prefer one over the other.

  5. I must admit I’ve been dabbling in non-linear scene writing. Mostly because I’m afraid I’ll lose the intensity of it if I don’t do it right now. The other thing is that with historical fiction, I find you don’t always have all the facts you need up front and rather than waiting around for the information you need, I think it keeps the juices flowing to at least write scenes you know you will want in the manuscript. Make sense?

    But for the most part – I’m linear – at least in writing. 🙂

  6. @Marisa: Combining outlining with a non-linear approach is a great way to grab the best of both worlds. You know where you’re headed, so you can see the big picture, but you can still follow your gut and dive into whatever scene happens to feel right.

    @mshatch: Dialogue is one of the few things I’ll write out of order. You just can’t capture the essence of a good dialogue exchange if you don’t record it right away.

    @Janet: Interesting! What you say about using eventually cut scenes to discover character makes all kinds of sense. As my bulging delete folder will attest, I’m familiar with the benefits of those seemingly useless scenes.

    @Lorna: Leaves you more freedom to do whatever works in a particular situation!

  7. @Jan: When comes to a choice between interrupting creative flow and getting all the facts right the first time around, I definitely vote for the former – even though I’m usually too OCD to take my own advice!

  8. Great post. For the most part I write with a linear approach. Since I outline before I begin to write I am fairly sure how my story is going to progress. There are times when my mind jumps a head and I formulate an idea for a future scene and I have to write it. If I wait, I may lose it. I think it helps me continue with the story knowing I am working toward that scene. so far it has worked for me. Thanks again for the great post.

  9. For the most part, outlining lends itself to the linear approach. But I like what Janet said above about how outlining actually frees her to write in a non-linear way. The possibilities are endless!

  10. I tend to write out-of-order if the inspiration strikes. It doesn’t disappointment if the scene is never used, because it kept me writing and motivated. Great article!

  11. Anything that’s got you writing is a good thing. Even if it’s junk, it beats staring at the blinking cursor – or just flat-out procrastinating.

  12. It’s linear for me KM. Not easy for me to think outside a straight line when I’m writing. I don’t plot so each scene has to folloow the last, for me. But you offer up some good reasons why not to.

  13. As I said in the post, I’m a decidedly linear person as well. But I’ve done some non-linear writing during rewrites. Both techniques offer their own pros and cons.

  14. I think it depends on the story. My second novel, especially, was written out of order, as I had some powerful scenes in mind I didn’t want to lose. It’s all good and if some scenes end up on the cutting room floor it has all been good writing practice. Great post.

    Denise

  15. Definitely. Every story is different, and every story is usually very emphatic about the way it wants to be told. Every novel forces us to relearn the writing process in certain ways.

  16. My writing method involves mind maps, outlines, charts, graphs, spreadsheets, maps, diagrams, little toys I use to role play, etc. Once my journey is plotted — an outline firmly in hand — I begin the exhilarating part of the process: exploration as I write the story. I then experience revelations, twists, and develop a deeper understanding about the nature of my story, its world, and its characters, which requires re-planning and re-outlining.

    While most of the process is linear, I do hop around as my mind-minions inundate me with inspirations. Mostly I make notes of the ideas for use when the time comes or in the next draft, but occasionally I am compelled immediately to write a deeper draft of a scene. For example, in the current chapter, my mind-minions told me the Dragon says, “Food can be happy?” (No happy meal puns, please) I jumped to the end of the chapter, where the scene goes, to write it before returning to a more linear flow. Also, four years ago I wrote a scene about the breeze gently stirring the shadows. Not until the current chapter did I find where the scene goes.

    My experience in information technology informs my writing style. I programmed with an object oriented paradigm a generation before it came to be the thing to do. That object oriented approach applies to my writing. I design a story as I would a computer program: assembled from discreet objects that together create a single complex entity. The objects are each chapter, each scene, even each beat. Each has a function, a purpose, a job to do. An object has inputs: the events that lead to and feed it. An object has outputs: results that lead to and feed subsequent events and objects. Since I design the story as objects and I know the purpose of each object, I can jump around when necessary.

    The most significant issues come with revelations that bring sudden insights. In chapter 39, as I wrote a well planned scene, I realized the Dragon was afraid of swords. He used to think swords could never harm him, but in chapter 9 he was wounded by a “special” sword. Now he is afraid of every unfamiliar sword, just in case it is a “special” sword. I must revisit the intervening chapters to ensure I incorporate the fear.

    The nonlinear nature of ideas goes beyond the current book series. My next book series is also affected. I drafted a scene for it where the Dragon and his mate are confronted by someone with a sword. The mate still believes swords cannot harm her, but the Dragon fears the unfamiliar sword. To protect his mate, he jumps between her and the person with the sword. She does not understand why he is behaving this way.

    For me, designing a story is mostly linear and much of the creative work is done in order. Nevertheless, inspiration is not linear; therefore, I do write many scenes out of order. What is important, I think, is to do whatever it takes to craft the story one envisions. The end justifies the means.

  17. I’m turning into more of a plotter now, making scene cards instead of just general notes. I used to put a copy of my plot notes right in my ms doc and skip ahead if I’m inspired to write a scene. Most of the time, it worked for me–the scene merely needing a few tweaks when I got there and dovetail the parts together. A couple of times, though, it didn’t, and I had to either totally revise it or move it.

    The point you made about writing all the fun scenes first is a good one. Once has to leave something to look forward to, but I do like the idea of striking while the iron is hot. When lines are flowing from my brain faster than my hands can type and I know if I don’t write them down I’ll forget parts of it, it’s hard to ignore.

    Great post! 🙂

  18. @Lester: “Mind minions” – I like that. I use props when I’m planning as well. Swords and guns come in handy for choreographing battle scenes.

    @Melissa: Ideally, of course, all of our scenes should be so marvelous that we enjoy writing every single one of them. But as we all know, that’s not quite how it always works out!

  19. I like to write in order. It just seems more natural to me and I can plot out later scenes from before and realize as I go along what works, what doesn’t.

  20. And the great thing is that if you realize you need to go back and insert a new scene into what you’ve already written, you always have that ability.

  21. I like how you approach this article. It really does depend on the writer. My book coming out is very linear; however, I wrote all the scenes—and chapters—out of order and had none of the issues mentioned in this article…aside of the reasons TO write out of order. As a lateral thinker, ideas come at me from all directions, and oftentimes the ending will come first. Admittedly, this was a problem for me when I didn’t understand structure, and ALL the problems mentioned in this article happened to me! All of them! Once I learned how to plot a story, everything fell into place. In the end, it’s all about learning all you can about the craft of writing, especially structure.

    On a side note, I think if you’re an out-of-order type of writer, an outline is even more important as it will tether you to your story and further prevent the above issues from happening. And even after all that, you’ll still run into confusion. My current manuscript is in medias res, and I’ve been flipping scenes around the last few days like you wouldn’t believe. I can’t imagine what this would have been like before writing software!

  22. As I say, I’m a very linear writer. But, in a sense, I *do* write out of order, since I record ideas from everywhere in the story, whenever they come to me. The only difference is that I’m recording them into an outline instead of a first draft.

  23. great post, Katie 🙂
    where did you get that pic of the plant? It looks like Cannabis :)))

  24. So someone on Facebook told me. :p The pic came off iStockphoto.

  25. I personally agree with the fact that if you ALWAYS write in a nonlinear fashion, you’ll ultimately be stuck with a bunch of boring “in-betweens” that you won’t want to ever take care of.

    What I have found that works for me is to write the book/story in chronological order, but to write down NOTES when a particularly good scene comes to my mind. In the note, I’ll write down the gist of what happens, any good line my character will say, and highlight it in YELLOW in my Word.doc so as to keep it in mind as I progress through my story.

  26. I’m big on notes, period. I used to ascribe to the notion that if I couldn’t remember an idea, it probably wasn’t worth writing after all. But my memory is too wonky these days. If I don’t write myself notes, I don’t remember anything!

  27. I, like other commenters, have a tendency to write out-of-order for all the reasons you’ve stated. Plus, I’m able to get to the scenes that are swimming around in my head on paper faster while they’re fresh. If I’ve been thinking them over too much for too long, then when I finally write them, they feel stale.

    Although, when one writes out-of-order, he/she needs to have some kind of organization to it or needs to keep the order of the scenes in mind. It makes it easier to put the pieces together in the end. I failed to keep this in mind for my current WIP, so I had to spend an extra day figuring out how each piece was going to jive together. It was very frustrating but I felt accomplished when it was done.

  28. Wow, lots of non-linear writers out there! Creativity is almost always messy. We have to give ourselves the freedom to color outside the lines – and writing scenes out of order is part of that.

  29. Interesting post. I mix and match. (Well, I guess that makes me non-linear, then.) I always write my key scene near the end of the book early on. What I’ve dubbed the How Was Your Summer moment (NCIS reference, from the screenwriter that inspired the idea of starting with that scene) serves as my North Star while writing. I know where I’m going and that helps me get there without running aground. That said, it almost always needs major revisions. I just accept that going in because by the time I get back there, I know things will have evolved through the writing. Likewise when I jump ahead. Sometimes I have a scene I know it key and I’ll write it. What almost always happens is that elements in that scene give me ideas for things earlier in the book. Often it’s objects or events that I can then foreshadow in the initial draft of an earlier scene rather than going back. Those tend to also lead to better character development. But most of the time I start at the beginning and write through, and I almost always rewrite those advance scenes when I come back upon them, so I still consider myself more linear, though recursive is probably a more accurate description.

  30. Endings never quite turn out like we think they will when we begin a story. Once we actually can see the progression of the story, and how all the little pieces have led up to the climax, tweaks are inevitable. That’s one of the reasons I prefer not to write key scenes first, since I know I’ll inevitably have to rewrite them.

  31. I write in order, but if I have a scene that I haven’t gotten to that is fully formed in my mind, I write it down. Even if it never gets put in the finished story, at least it’s not jiggling around in my head begging me to write it 😀

  32. Ridiculous how demanding stories can sometimes be, isn’t it? :p

  33. I primarily work in a linear fashion, but sometimes a scene will pop into my head that I *know* needs to happen, but I’m not there yet in the linear plotline, so I’ll go ahead and at least jot down the basics and save it somewhere until I get there in my story, at which point I insert it into the main story, tweaking it as needed.

  34. I rarely write a full-blown future scene, but I leave myself copious notes in big red fonts. Always fun when I reach one of those!

  35. Good post. I’d expand that a benefot of writing future scenes as they come to you is that you might find it frees you to make the scene work as you imagined it. If you don’t write it till you get there you may find yourself subconsciously limiting the scene based on the logistics of the transition scene you thought you neded to write to get there. I’m a linear writer by the way and I sometimes realise I’ve done that then tell myself off!

  36. Good point – although that one can work both ways, since our original conception of the scene may not end up working once we’ve gone back and built up to it in the previous scenes.

  37. Being relatively new to fiction writing, I say I fit in both camps. I wrote the ending scene first, then imagined how the situation began, and then filled in the middle. Seemed to work great for me. Most of the scenes were written in linear order, once I knew where I wanted to go and how it should all start. Thanks for some great options to consider.

  38. Most of us are non-linear plotters, even if we don’t actually write our scenes out of order. Few of us come up with each scene in the order it’s actually going to appear in the book. Might be easier if it happened that way, but probably not as fun!

  39. I see what you’re saying but I absolutely have to do everything in order. I guess I’m far too structured to do anything else.

  40. Actually, I’m the same way. For better or worse, chronology is what works best for me. But it’s good to be aware of the options!

  41. Thanks for asking. As non-linear a guy as I am, this is one place where I’m absolutely linear. I’d go nuts writing out of order. I feel that due to your five reasons to write scenes in order, especially continuity & character growth/change.

  42. How interesting that you’re generally non-linear, but not when it comes to your writing. Takes all kinds! 🙂

  43. I am a linear writer. The truth is that I am often tempted to jump ahead to exciting scenes, but I find that if I write all my favorite scenes first, not only do they end up not fitting (due to the character development not flowing properly), but then it’s more difficult to force myself to go back and write the bridge from my previous scene to the one I just wrote.

    I do get lots of ideas for later scenes in the middle of writing something else, though, and I have to write it down immediately to ensure it does not slip my mind. Usually I just jot notes down, but sometimes it’s dialogue that comes to mind. I don’t let myself stay and write the whole scene yet, though – that’s my reward when I actually get that far!

  44. Your process sounds very similar to mine. I’ll let myself write dialogue snippets ahead of time, just so I don’t lose them, but that’s about it.

  45. I’m non linear writer. I can write a scene one week of no relevance then three weeks later it just slots in perfectly! The information for my stories come so quickly I have to write them down as they happen in my head. I quite often write more than one book at the same time too. I also find i write the end before the beginning, i guess it is just how my mind works..writing is a pleasure and therefore i do not put myself under pressure to ‘do it the right way’ because then i would be forcing myself to alter my thinking pattern and that just wouldn’t work!

  46. There’s a lot to be said for living on the wild side of creativity – for those of us brave enough to do it! I need the security linearity brings, but there have undoubtedly been moments when I’ve missed out on a little of that unexpected discovery.

  47. Oh, well, I do wish I could write my scenes in order! :S I wasn´t able to manage to do so on my WIP. Maybe the next time :O

  48. Every book is a new adventure. What works on one story won’t necessarily work on another. All we can do is keep learning, keep experimenting, and keep refining our processes.

  49. Montgomery Thompson says

    I get the whole story in my head including the feeling I want the reader to walk away with. Then I outline characters and names. Then I write the whole book in rough language, essentially making notes to nyself about the plot: ‘Bob goes upstairs and finds Bill. Jill is in basement disposing of Jane’s body but Bob doesn’t know.’ stuff like that. Then I go back and write the whole first draft.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s basically my approach as well. The “rough language” draft is my outline, which often fills up three notebooks before I’m finished.

  50. I write unimportant and normal life situations scenes occasionally, but haven’t much written a scene ahead of time.
    Once I did tried it, but it ended up in my trash pile, since it wasn’t working. I didn’t knew what pieces were floating around, and whom to tie together to make the end seem compelling.
    That makes me a linear writer.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It all depends on how your brain is wired. Once you understand that, you can optimize the process you’re probably already using.

  51. When I first started working on my novel a few years ago, I tried to write linear but everything just seemed rushed. If I try to write linear now, it’s a lot easier now that I understand my characters and how they think, but I still prefer to write in a non-linear fashion. It’s like a game of connect the dots. My family does make fun of me for “not having anything written in two years” because they believe novels to be written in a linear fashion however. The one good thing about writing non-linear, is that it’s much easier to foreshadow.

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