Today’s article is written by J.P. Rieger, author of Clonk! (forthcoming from Apprentice House Press).
Except for elevators and vending machines, I like it when things are out of order.
I can explain. I’m a fiction writer, and I’ve found that a non-linear trajectory works for me. It can work for you, too.
If you write fiction, you typically begin with an outline of some sort. You are creating a journey with a beginning, middle, and end (or if there’s no end, welcome to your sequel). Conventional storytelling is a bus ride with a variety of scheduled stops along the way.
Does this sound like a thrill? Must we write that journey, that story of ours, stop by stop along the way?
We can turn that bus into a roller coaster. We can write “out of order.” And here’s how we do it.
Ditch the Outline
Fiction writers are pros at finding reasons not to write. Sitting down to knock out a story can feel like a daunting task. If you’re plagued with the pangs of boredom and writing isn’t fun any more, you might want to throw out that chapter outline.
I mean it. An outline is a noble invention, but it can be a real buzzkill.
For the last two novels I’ve written, I ditched the structured approach. It probably works well for me because I have an unusual method of outlining. I do not actually create a traditional alphanumeric outline – or anything close. I left those creatures behind. I’m a retired attorney and I already did my time putting together hundreds of boring outlines for legal seminars. I didn’t want to bring that into my fiction writing. Instead, I write down a list of essential “scenes” which appear in no particular order. I then go about getting those scenes down on the page.
Get Started at the End
I usually start writing in the morning after I’ve had my requisite three cups of coffee. Often, I have an idea of which scene I feel like working on. Other times, I just scan my list of scenes and pick one at random. Some writers are all about getting to that final scene, the denouement, but for me, writing the ending can also be a great way to start the process. If you’re feeling stuck, just get the ball rolling by writing the ending.
I also sometimes “save” a favorite scene to write last. When I was deep into my second novel, I had been looking forward to writing a bit of action that was particularly farcical and extremely important, occurring mid-way through the story. I rolled the scene over in my head the year or so it took me to complete the novel, and I felt confident I could nail it. I purposely postponed the gratification as an incentive, and it felt great to finally put it, at long last, down on paper!
Why Not Tell the Story “Out of Order” Too?
Diverting from the chronological path also keeps you, the writer, on your toes. You can not only write your story out of order but you may just see an opportunity to tell the story non-chronologically. Telling a story in a non-chronological way is a chance to create a powerhouse. By disorienting the reader, you’re dragging them out of their comfort zone and infusing the reading process with suspense.
Going non-linear lets your reader play an active role in putting the puzzle together, perhaps in a much different way than the narrator or characters would. When the reader lacks context, they will be exposed to information that may not make sense at the time, but will come in handy later.
This method can be a wonderful canvas for writing unique and unforgettable worlds and characters. William Faulkner pioneered this technique in 1929 with The Sound and the Fury. Critics at the time were not thrilled, but fast forward twenty years and we find Faulkner winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Ok, I just went non-linear).
Yes, stepping outside the boundaries of chronology may leave you with pages of jumbled up scenes. But, not to worry. You have written a novel. Congratulations! The rest is just good old-fashioned editing.
So, perhaps now is as good a time as any to display your “out of order” sign and take a writing risk? At least you will be writing!