Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Dancing Out of Tune: Writing Scenes Out of Sequence to Enliven—and Maybe Even Finish—Your Novel

By Bonnie Randall

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Bonnie Randall has always baffled the structure gal in me, because she writes--gasp--out of order! I've no idea how she does it, but it works for her. I've met other writers who also write out of order, who are always relived to hear they're not alone. So if you're one of those writers, here are some tips on not following along.

Take it away Bonnie...

“I could never write the way you do.” I hear this. And— “How do you ever make sense of your story?” I used to feel ashamed when asked that. As a scene writer I’ve never taken a linear approach to my projects. I am middle, forward, back, and between when it comes to writing and I’ve learned to be unapologetic—because in analyzing this method I’ve come to understand why it works for me—and why it might work for you too.

1. You Stay in Love With Your Story

Crafting individual scenes for my books allows me to stay immersed in the high octane moments of the story— the scary parts, sad parts, the sexy stuff, all the high emotion, peril, and conflict. Now, without question this is a self-indulgent approach ( a little like eating dessert first) but I find that by writing first the hot sex in the middle, or the dramatic kill scene at the end, I stay energized and hooked by my own story—as opposed to being stymied by the (dreaded, awful, straight-from-The Devil) transitions that pedantically demand I walk a straight line into the next scene.

2. You Capture The Moment

Every writer hates the question "Where do you get your ideas?" because we know that inspiration lives everywhere and can strike at any time. I suggest that when it does you obey that muse, follow it, and write the scene while you’re feeling it—even if it doesn’t fit into your novel yet.

Example—in my current WIP my protagonist needs to come clean about a body he once found hanging in the forest. Well, one afternoon while I was out for a run in the trees I wasn’t even thinking about that scene and yet found myself keenly aware of the smell of the spruce trees. Attuned to the shock of branches snapping under my feet. In that instance I was my protagonist, I was living his experience.

So I bolted home and immediately wrote the body-discovering scene (which won’t occur until the Second Act of the novel, and by design I’m still in the First) because in that instance the scents were still in my nostrils, the sounds still echoing under my feet. I wrote it, in other words, because it was as authentic as it could possibly be. Now, could it have been just as vivid had I tabled it, wrote it as the plot demanded it? Perhaps. But I’ve no guarantees it would have the same power and presence and I’m no risk-taker. If it’s ‘there’ it’s going into my scribbler, sequential or not.

3. You Become Un-Stuck

We’ve all been there, cruising along, writing in a straight line, thinking we know where we’re going when …uh-oh. Did someone glue my pen to the page? Stuck. The words won’t come. The next, logical step in the plot loses luster. We panic. We doubt our story. We doubt ourselves. Our momentum is trashed and we run the awful risk of giving up. Don’t.

Instead try skipping ahead. After all, you know your plot. Your story map may already even have a directive jotted down like this: “X needs to have discourse with Y about AB&C”. So…hop ahead. Write that scene. Don’t get all frantic about wondering where it will go (or, worse, believe you’re now married to it). Just write it and let the words come. You may be shocked at the elements that emerge that you can then take back to the place where you’re stuck and extract yourself. Or by the plot lines that the skipping-ahead scene may open for the story. Or by the sub-themes (or deep themes) that rise to the surface. Try it next time you’re staring at the blank page. I guarantee it will evoke something.

4. You Create Consistency

This sounds bass-ackwards and will certainly rock the worlds of those who criticize scene writing for precisely the opposite reason—believing it will generate inconsistencies because by hopping around you ‘forget ‘ things. Allow me to respectfully disagree and suggest that, rather than forget things, you’ll instead realize what to include right from the beginning, elements that will make your story seamless.

For example, the first scene I wrote for my paranormal thriller, Divinity & The Python, was when Cameron shows up at the old morgue for the first time, anxious for a Tarot reading. Here we have this hockey jock, who by all accounts should be a superficial, skirt-chasing meathead but aha! He’s superstitious. Knows a thing or two about New Age. Hmm….From that I was able to retreat to the beginning and plant small clues about his superstitious nature right from the start (ie: when he orders drinks in The Python he is adamant that he always gets two—whether he drinks them both or not is irrelevant, he just needs two).

So when my heroine, Shaynie, is initially shocked that he really does want a Tarot reading, that he is not, in fact, playing her, she realizes she should not be surprised at all because she knew about the quirky twos from the start. Ba-boom. Consistency. (Incidentally, the non-linear approach is, I find, extremely helpful when crafting a mystery; for if you work your way from middle to front or from back to front you will actually find it easier to drop the little clues, nuances, and nuggets you need to reflect at the start).

5. You Deepen Characters

This one should probably be called 4(b) but …. Similar to creating consistency, writing out of sequence can allow you to deepen your character—his emotion, his goals, his drive, his personality…

Let’s pick on Cameron and his twos again because it led to another scene that coughed itself up out of order: When Shaynie, all alone, has occasion to visit Cameron’s bedroom in his spartan condo. What she sees there, in an otherwise dismal abode (no pictures, no mementos), is a mystical mural on the ceiling above his bed—a stylized number ‘22’.

Suddenly the twos that started out as a quirk in The Python, then morphed into superstition during his Tarot reading, now appeared to be some sort of deeply meaningful touchstone for him, and Shaynie, New Age-y and spiritual herself, begins to fall for this guy who is certainly more than he seems. *Sigh*

And to think it all started because he ordered two drinks in the bar. Ha! Not exactly; it all started because the first scene I wrote for him revealed him as a superstitious dude and from that I knew both his foreground and future scenes needed to build on that superstition, take it from silly to spiritual, and along the way give the reader a deep glimpse into how and why Cameron is who he is.

6. You Write Out of Sequence Because You Know That Transitions Are From The Devil

I know, I know—I already said The Devil part. But Lordy, it bears repeating ’cause if you are anything like me and loathe the pedantic nature of crafting transitions then please pull yourself out of tedium by writing a scene you are jazzed about—and guess what might happen? That transition you’ve been dreading, doing laundry instead of, bathing the cat instead of … you might just find yourself jazzed to write it, too. Why? Because it’s the link that will connect your story to that hot scene you just wrote— because that scene really is that cool.

So there you have it! See? Writing out of sequence isn’t crazy. (Um…did I mention that I wrote the first draft of this article with Crayola?) Seriously, it can enliven your story and open doors you didn’t even know were stuck shut. Bail you out of boring, create opportunities to go deep with your character(s) or remain true to the consistency of your plot. Stay organized, though: color-code your scenes (use index cards, highlighters, post-its…), have a general acquaintance with your plot (the Three Act Structure, Mayer’s Conflict Box, or the like are all excellent methods by which to story-map) so you know, roughly, where your scenes will go and, most of all, stay in the moment and have fun with your prose!

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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About Divinity & The Python

Divinity - Where deception and desire both hide in the dark...

The Cards Forecast Work

Shaynie Gavin is so much more than the sexy siren who mixes cocktails at The Python. A carpenter with a business plan, Shaynie is trying to amass enough funds to launch her own dream - Divinity, a place where up-cycled furniture from the past is sold alongside Tarot readings forecasting the future - and all in a setting that could not be more perfect: a former funeral parlor. Shaynie's belief that Divinity is attuned with the passions, the loves, and even the lies of its departed souls, allow her to feel satisfied when the cards she draws there reveal Wands, the Tarot's symbol for work. And yet...Shaynie would be so grateful if the Tarot would also, just once, illuminate a Hellnight from her past. A lost evening whose scars still slither over her skin, Hellnight haunts Shaynie. Yet when she calls the question of that chilling evening into her deck...

The Cards Forecast Love

...and love appears in the form of pro hockey star Cameron Weste. Weste is haunted by scars and superstitions of his own, and he wants Shaynie's Tarot to answer far deeper questions than she first guesses this sexy Lothario to be capable of. Who knew Weste was this intense? The Tarot, apparently. And yet...

The Cards Forecast The Devil

When Cameron Weste lands in her life, a stalker surfaces too, dropping clues to a connection between Shaynie, Cameron, and her lost, brutal Hellnight. Suddenly every card warns of deception, and nowhere feels safe. Shaynie and Cameron have to fight for their love - and their lives - as The Devil, their stalker, is determined to turn the Death Card for them both.


  1. Bonnie!!! Thank you!! This is exactly the kick in the pants I needed! I've always been a linear start-at-the-beginning-stop-at-the-end writer, but for my latest WIP, I tried jumping around. I wound up with a lot of scenes I won't use, a clear idea of my story, and a hero I'm jazzed about. When I joined my writing group, I switched to linear to make it easier on my poor fellow writers. (Apparently, having to figure out where we are in the story gets tricky if you're not in my head.)

    I've been stuck for six months.

    I have rewritten that opening four times, and I've actually got it to a good point, between my crit group and Janice, but it hasn't gone past that point. And I know what comes just after this hump. After this post, I'm WRITING what comes after this hump!

  2. Yes! You know I *still* get caught from time to time (in my current WIP it was Chapter 4 that had me in a chokehold) and then have to remind myself not to panic, that I'm not truly stuck; I know what comes next. And then I do what you're planning to - write what comes 'after the hump'. It'll pull you back into your story, extract the right 'stuff' for your opening (or in my case my Chapter 4) that you need to create the coherent plot you'll have once you're done. Oh and I *so* hear you about making your crit group crazy with your scenes out of sequence; I'm sure mine has fantasized about running me before a firing squad....

  3. Thank you for this! I always assumed writing my stories out of order was the sign of a poor attention span. (Instead of concentrating on the scene I `should' be working on, I'm off playing with the lead in for the climax. Or the heroes meeting. Or whatever seems interesting.) It's nice to be reminded of the perks, even if you do have to stitch the whole crazy-quilt together afterwards. :) (Oh, and I agree about transitions. They should be staked, beheaded, mouths stuffed with garlic, and set on fire. But at least if you have the two scenes that need linked, you're halfway through the transition already.)

  4. Chicory, just yesterday I had two written scenes that I was finally in the position to weld together and I was like 'Boo-yah! Take *that* Transition HellDog!' (love the idea of pelting it with garlic though...Hmm. Note to self: put cloves on the shopping list)
    And don't let anyone (especially yourself) tell you what scene you *should* be writing. Next time that happens merely say: 'Haven't I been should on long enough?' and carry on.

  5. Hi Bonnie,
    Thanks so much for this-- just what I needed in the 3rd book of my "mother and me" mystery series. I'm one-third of the way through-- but need a real push at this point. so writing whatever scenes come to me-- even if they're not linear (horrors to a writer who's OCD....)-- is a great idea!
    sandy gardner

  6. Loved this. I'm rewriting my book by jumping around. I work on certain sections when I feel like it. I use Scrivener to keep track of everything. Really, I'm so grateful I found Scrivener, since I jump around so much!

  7. Thank you - so glad this has been provocative and helpful. As for me I *wish* I had an organizational method that looked a little less like a recycling depot that just barfed up a whole lotta post-its (but they're so colourful!)

  8. Bonnie, thank you for this. I respect plotters and planners but this isn't always my M.O. Thanks for the reminder that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

    I have some ideas in mind for my current WIP. I feel much better now. 😊

  9. I jump around a lot, too. I tend towards plotter rather than pantser, and all these scenes are in my head from every point in the story. Why should I hold off on writing this bit from Act III just because I haven't completed all the scenes in Act I? It's in my head now!

  10. Excellent advice, and very timely for me. Maybe I should reach for a Crayola, too!

  11. You're all so welcome and Yvonne I am totally with you - Carpe Diem with that idea that's in your head right now! ('cause who knows where it'll be tomorrow? Maybe leaves on the breeze...).
    Beth, I always have Crayolas at the ready lest anyone think that I don't already *know* I'm nuts ;)

  12. Another thought on this matter—writing scenes out of sequence allows for a few, if not several, versions of the same scene to be ‘tried on’ by the time its proper spot comes in the plot. Allow explanation—right now I am miles ahead of where I ‘should be’ in my story; crafting the sexual crescendo for my protagonists. Now this is an additional conversation between their body parts—additional because I already have one version that’s elegant and tender, another that’s starving and wild, a he-initiated, a she-initiated….the point is I’m not *there* yet as far as linear plot goes, but when I *am* there I will now have a smorgasbord of versions of my characters’ intimacy that have already been trotted through a dress rehearsal on paper, and, once ready for show-time, will be a lot like hanging pictures on a wall: ‘Ooh—that one looks good, but… *wow* that one is even better. WAIT! *that one* stops my heart.’

  13. Different versions is a good point! I have two of a conversation: one in which my MC admits to his shady past, one in which he lies about it.

  14. Isn't it cool to have two? And a lie and the truth...oooh. There is so much fodder that could come from either of those. The versions of these love scenes I have (of course I could never be so noble as to use an example of a truth and a lie - it's gotta be sex. Gawd) could drive the hero(ine)'s journey in two very distinct ways: one allows my heroine to be completely self-actualized, while the other lets my hero be physically conquered-both experiences crucial to each respective character's arc. Hmm...decisions, decisions

  15. Wow great advice! I can't wait to try this. I often get stuck on transition scenes. Seeing them as a link between two action scenes is a really helpful way to look at it!
    This reminds me of a concept you learn in Game Theory (economics). Many Game Theory problems are solved using Backwards Induction- in other words, solving the problem from end to beginning! Game Theory is based on the actions of "players" (hence its name) in interactions (which may be business interactions or the classic Prisoners Dilemma or just about anything else!). So Game Theory suggests that by knowing the result the player WANTS to get (the optimal result) we can surmise what they will do in the second-to-last stage, third-to-last stage, etc. all the way back to the beginning. That's why I totally get what you say about your method resulting in consistency! If we know where our characters end up, we can trace them back to where they should begin.
    Thanks so much for this article! Great food for thought!

  16. Thanks for this post. It is really freeing. I've been forcing myself to write in order and NOT write the scene I really want. My writing has slowed down. I need to do x, but didn't know how to bridge it. If I just wrote the scene I was passionate about, I'd probably have figured out the rest by now.

  17. Bless you for the validation. I did not begin a sequential scene writing process until my first revision, undertaken when I began struggling with the final third of the novel.

    I'm now in a second revision, still working toward the elusive end. I know the ending, it's just the final handful of scenes leading to climax-denouement-resolution that I'm wrestling to the mat. I'm doing some writing from the back forward, as well-those final scenes-trusting I'll meet up with myself along the way.

    In some ways, I rue my pansting process as it's caused me to fall into numerous plot holes and perhaps slowed me down. In other ways, I'm astonished to find my scenes are nearly all there, it's just a matter of plugging them into the right place (the Gods be praised for Scrivener). It feels far more organic and true to the story my characters want to tell. I just move the set pieces around and try to stay out of their way.

    I think writing out of sequence is what kept me writing day after day, between 4 and 5 a.m. while working full-time. Now that I have more time to devote to my writing life, I have the luxury of butt-in-chair, grinding through scene after sequential scene, working out the bugs. It's still a joy, but doesn't have the free-wheeling wonder of abandoning myself to the whims of my imagination on a particular day.

  18. That is really great advice. I feel like I am cheating when I do this, especially because I am not much of a plotter typically, so I don't always know what my characters are going to do. But sometimes the scene is just there, asking to be written, and it's more work not to write it than it is to get it down and go back to where you were!

  19. D you have some tips on writing out of order? Or just tying everything up?

  20. I am a linear writer, starting at go and ending at stop (I don't collect the $200 though until later). However, I am very non-linear when it comes to fleshing out my story and working on the outline. Like Bonnie mentioned, when I am playing with my outline, I'll write out scenes as the come to me, snippets of dialogue, actions sequences, character attributes, anything that sparks the desire to write more, go further, get deeper into the story. I think it gives me the freedom to explore the story before I really start the rough draft. Once that structure is in place, then I feel like I can flow from start to finish. I might try writing out of order though. Seems scary to me, I will admit. New things often are.
    Cheers from the city of the current Cup champs!

    1. A big hello to one if my hockey heroes, Sidney Crosby (please pass it on) ;)

  21. I learned a similar lesson from James Scott Bell's Knockout Novel, on Hiveword. When I pre-planned according to his method, I found myself putting together a basic outline and then moving on to writing what I felt sure about. The results are momentum and a sense of security. The written (or even just sketched crucial scenes are sign posts on the path of the process.

  22. I have a WiP that I need to do this in. I just need to sit down and reread the earlier stories in the series, first. :)

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  24. Your post makes me think I should change my process and write what excites me first. Then think of ways to make whatever is left exciting, too. 'Cause if it isn't fun for me, it won't be fun for the reader. The use of a more detailed outlined might also help.