Change the Order of Your Story



 Think of your scenes as cards in a deck.

I’m having a tough time with a chapter of the novel I’m writing these days. This chapter just won’t seem to coalesce; it feels disjointed, random, and repetitive. My character’s motivations aren’t clear, and the events that happen seem to be thrown in as an act of desperation. Basically, it’s just one of those weeks in the life of a writer; nothing’s going right in my fiction.

We’ve all had weeks like this, though; in fact, it’s worth a post all on its own as a subject. But today I want to write about what helped me improve the chapter. I realized that the chapter was fairly episodic, with discrete scenes that challenged the character in different ways. Because they were discrete, I stopped writing today and asked myself:

what if the scenes were in a different order? What if the events, themselves, happened in a different order?

The purpose of scene ordering

In a good chapter, each successive scene will build on the previous one, increasing the tension, enriching the characters, and nearing an important point of decision or climax. Sometimes, this means that the order will be out of order chronologically. It might serve your chapter or novel to begin with an unexplained murder — and then devote the novel to the events that led up to that murder. The careful ordering of scenes in a great novel is often what makes it feel so well-plotted, so suspenseful, and so satisfying.

Shaking Up Your Story’s Order

More often than not, however, we don’t devote enough attention to the order of scenes in a chapter or chapters in a novel; we write it as it comes, or write whichever section we’re in the mood for, and at the end we quickly push it into shape. What a wasted opportunity! Scenes that seem dull, repetitive, or forced in your final version could have seemed tight and emotionally resonant if they only appeared in the right place at the right time.

So why not take a serious look at your story’s scene or chapter ordering this week? In order to work with story order, there’s still no computer solution that works as well as paper. Print out your story and group the scenes together; then spread them out on a table or the floor and try to get a larger sense of their movement and direction. How should this chapter begin? What is the climax? How will it end? What is your most powerful image? What is the final image that you want to leave readers with? Maybe that obligatory scene where you show the character packing for the big trip isn’t necessary — just get her going on the journey. Maybe that fight scene should begin the chapter, and the rest could be a flashback explaining how the fight began.

Think like a movie maker

In this respect, filmmakers may actually have an artistic advantage over writers (hard to believe, I know); as artists who almost always film their stories out of order, they already know that their stories are like decks of cards that can be shuffled to serve the story most effectively. Editors have to move and shuffle every single cut in a movie; but we writers have the same degree of control, if only we realize it. We can pan and zoom around a room; we can visit a scene, then leave and come back later; we can withhold information, and reveal it just at the right point. Think of your story as a series of discrete, powerful, but interdependent images, and shuffle them wisely.


3 comments

  1. mary brady says:

    This is a really important aspect of writing & I’m glad you brought it up, BLH. I recall reading an author who adhered to the formula that EVERY chapter had to end with the main character just on the verge of falling off a cliff, being shot, getting knocked out & so on.

    This became so repetitious that I longed for a break, perhaps a chapter ending with the character sitting in an armchair reading a magazine.

    While this particular book involved an ‘action hero,’ any ‘formula’ used by a writer in how chapters begin, evolve & end gets equally boring if it is never varied. In artwork–painting, I mean–one is advised: ‘never make any two intervals the same.’ This applies to composition, edges, color combos, etc.

    It also applies to writing, I think. We have to move the story from point A to point B, but there is no reason we cannot start at C, jump to A, then bring in B if it keeps the story exciting.

    I like the trick of showing one event, switching to a second, then having some aspect of the first event appear in the second one–perhaps some overheard dialogue from the first event. Suddenly, the reader understands the events are simultaneous & connected somehow. You can do this with entire chapters, & it keeps a story from becoming predictable.

    You are correct–movies are a good way to see how stories can be told ‘out of order.’ Story-boarding is where it’s at.

    L&K, MaryB

  2. Amy says:

    This is a great strategy – thanks so much for sharing. I sometimes get so bogged down in “what happens next” that I forget to think about what happened yesterday, or last week or ten years ago, that is really much more insightful than what happens “next.”

  3. This is a great tip. In the novel that will be out in July, one of my writing buddies pointed out a reordering opportunity to me. I ended up with a far stronger, more interesting story as a result.

    Why hadn’t it occurred to me to reorder? I was stuck in thinking that the existing order *had to be* the order — one of those mental blindness things I find all to easy to fall into with my own work.

    And that’s one of the reasons why I believe the ‘shuffle the papers’ method, overwhelming as I find it to be, is so helpful:
    it works around my mental blinders.

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