Mailbag: Changing the Order, Assembling Story Puzzles

And we’re back with the weekly mailbag, readers! This is my regular post in which I respond to some of your thoughtful comments on past posts and we keep the discussion and debate going. This week I’m responding to comments on two posts with a similar theme: changing up the order of your story, and assembling your story like a jigsaw puzzle. Let’s get to the comments!

On changing up the order of your story, Amy said:

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.”

Good point, Amy — we’re so anxious about following our momentum and keeping something boiling in the pot the next day and the next that we forget to look at the time sense of our writing in a larger way, adjusting weeks, using flashbacks, etc. This problem of changing the order is a necessary part of thinking about your story on the “macro” level once in a while.

Mary said:

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.

Nice connection to something I hadn’t heard before about painting, Mary — I think your point about varying intervals is highly relevant to writing. If you have the same transition over and over between scenes — such as the character waking up from a dream in a cold sweat, or getting ready for the day in the same way — the story will seem repetitive and dull. Changing the order makes readers feel more confident that they are in the hands of a lively, fresh story.

Margaret said:

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.

Great point, Margaret. We often get married to the order of the story the way we originally wrote it — it just settles in that way, and we are afraid of the effort it would take to re-shuffle. But the story only came out in that order because of what mood you were in or what scene you felt like writing — it is not inherently the best order. We need to be thoughtful and critical about every aspect of our stories, including the order.

On my post about assembling your story like a jigsaw puzzle, Tina wrote:

To write, I need an emotion. Sometimes it is a bit of a jigsaw when I feel several emotions hit me at once and most times it is difficult to sort them out. I usually feel like I am at the edge and ready to work my way inward if I feel like I must write about something, but more often than not I am just starting the journey and have no idea how to proceed. I have years and years and years of writing to look back upon, but nothing ever as concrete as the front of the box of a jigsaw puzzle in which to find the end of the puzzlement. Now wouldn’t that be nice if it could be wrapped up so neatly?

Good point, Tina — I also wish that for our novels, we could just peek at the picture on the box and get a glimpse of the whole glorious completed image! As you say, though, it’s emotion that can motivate us to start working inward from the edges. We can assemble story structures and scaffolds all we want, but without emotional connection, they’re just hollow frames, stories pretending to be stories.

Margaret said:

The key decisions, for me, are the context of the story — where and when it takes place, whose story is it, and the beginning and the end. Once I have those, I can begin filling in the details of the plot: the inciting incident, major plot points.

It’s interesting to see how everyone’s particular framework or scaffolding differs. As Margaret writes, one way to get that backbone down is to have a concrete sense of place, time, and ending. I agree that I need a strong sense of place, and I need a direction, whether it’s the ending or not. Those can form the borders of the puzzle, or the context in which everything else is contained.

Thanks, commenters — keep responding, and I’ll keep responding too. See you next week!

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