• Writing Out of Sequence

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 35 comments




    Discussion questions: Have you ever written a book, or even something shorter, out of sequence? Why does it work for you? What are the pros, what are the drawbacks? Do you find it difficult to maintain story/character consistency, and if so, how do you address that?


    Just over a year ago I wrote a post about my “Monday-morning quarterback,” the part of my internal critic that demolishes my confidence when I reread the pages I wrote the previous day.

    The pattern goes like this: I write what I think is an amazing, awesome, brilliant Chapter 1 and go to bed eager to start Chapter 2. The next day, before I start Chapter 2, I reread Chapter 1. My Monday-morning QB tells me it’s garbage. I start Chapter 2, but my heart’s not in it; quickly I lose momentum, then I quit the book entirely. A few months later, I go back. Repeat.

    If (huge “if”) my Monday-morning QB is in a good mood, he’ll be OK with Chapter 1 and allow me to write Chapter 2. Then he’ll decide Chapter 2 is garbage, and I’ll lose heart in Chapter 3 and quit.

    Because of my internal critic and this process, I’ve never made it past Chapter 3 in this novel I’ve been dinking around with for years.

    Today I’m starting Chapter 7.

    How did I accomplish this miracle?


    Writing Out of Sequence

    With most of my coaching clients I know exactly what I’ll receive in my inbox. If last week we talked about Chapter 17, this week we’ll talk about Chapter 18.

    But one client is a total mystery. If last week we talked about Chapter 17, this week we’ll talk about Chapter 18. Or we’ll talk about Chapter 38. Or Chapter 2. Or various scenes from chapters 7 and 9.

    In other words, I never know what I’ll get. This writer writes out of sequence. If this writer is thinking about and excited about a potential scene, this writer writes that scene, regardless of where it appears in the book.

    It always sounded like total chaos to me. How can you know what Chapter 38 will look like if you haven’t written a word of chapters 19-37? 


    Insanity Is…

    A couple of weeks ago I went back to my novel. Again. I rewrote Chapter 1. I got excited. I reread Chapter 1. I hated it. I started Chapter 2. I immediately felt disheartened and bored and started thinking of other projects I’d rather work on.

    “Insanity is doing the same…” etc.

    The next day, I thought about a scene I’d envisioned for Chapter 5. With nothing to lose, I wrote “Chapter 5” at the top of the page and then wrote the scene.

    The next day, I wrote a scene from Chapter 3.

    The next day, I cleaned up a few things from Chapter 1 to be consistent with the new scenes in chapters 3 and 5. Then I wrote some of Chapter 4.

    And so on. Every day, I follow my nose. If I sit down with Chapter 3 but grow bored, I’ll skip backwards or forwards and work on a different scene, one that in the moment feels more intriguing or more pressing.

    It’s all drafty, but Chapter 1 is done. Chapter 2 is almost done. Chapter 3 is at the quarter pole. Chapter 4 is almost done. Chapters 5 and 6 are about two-thirds of the way home.

    And today I’m starting Chapter 7. It’s a three-part book, and Part 1 is seven chapters.

    So I’m nearly done with a draft of Part 1 of my novel.

    And all because I’m writing out of sequence.


    Are You a Convert?

    I don’t think I’ll always write out of sequence. Definitely not with stories and other shorter pieces. But for now, for this book, it’s working for me. I’m a convert.

    Are you a convert? Have you ever written a book, or even something shorter, out of sequence? Why does it work for you? What are the pros, what are the drawbacks? Do you find it difficult to maintain story/character consistency, and if so, how do you address that?

    Let me know below!


    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you reach your creative potential. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres. Browse our book coachingmanuscript consultationpublication assistance services, and sign up for your free writing consultation today.

    david blog


    WriteByNight writing coach and co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    5 3 votes
    Article Rating
    Notify of

    Newest Most Voted
    Inline Feedbacks
    View all comments
    Charles Dikmak

    Whew! I though I was crazy writing this way, so glad to hear that it works for others. I often find myself so self-critical inasmuch as I do not have a “typical” disciplined writers “process” I get possessed at 2 a.m., or other odd times, when a thought comes to mind and I have to get up and write for 4 hours until I get out what’s inside. Sometimes I’m not sure if it will morph into a story, or where in a story it will fit, but oddly enough, these out-of-sequences pieces do find a way to knit themselves… Read more »


    The answer is “yes and no” for me. I will do a sequential “skeleton” for the story, creating scene sketches for all the scenes I know about at that point. I make many passes over this framework, moving scene around, identifying subplots, etc. When I feel ready, I start drafting (in truth, I might draft anytime in the above process). This initial draft (the “Discovery Draft”) I usually do in sequence all the way from fist scene to last. Then I make other passes, revising, adding scenes, deleting scenes, making changes in every story element that strikes me. From here,… Read more »


    It has definitely evolved over the years, though I have always been an “outliner” even when I was programming. A big influence was “The Story Grid” by Shawn Coyne.

    John Liebling

    Perhaps writers block kicks in because we are less passionate about a certain section or character(s). When I was just starting out trying to figure out where to start and not enjoying the first couple of chapters because there was a specific chapter I really wanted to write. One frustrated blocked day I decided what the hell – why not start closer to the middle and see what happens. I did and for the first time I really enjoyed writing and that gave me the extra juice to go back and write the other chapters with more passion and interest.… Read more »


    I began writing out of sequence once I converted to Scrivener–which has been a godsend for me. As you know, Scrivener makes it easy to move stuff around, so I write scenes as I “feel” and “see” them, then I move them to where they fit. Sometimes they get moved a few times. I’ve written/published five novels this way and could never go back to linear writing in Word.


    I definitely do, though I hadn’t planned to. At first it was linear, but once I got a few chapters in, I wasnt sure how to get to the ending, so….I wrote the ending. now I knew exactly what happened, and sparked ideas about other part of the book, and I finally had enough story in my head to make an outline. Now, especially since I have Scrivener, I could just plug the outline into it and write wherever in the story I want, whenever I want. I don’t think I would be as far as I am if I… Read more »


    Progress is still….slow. I’m still fighting my brain, I want to write it well the first time even though I’m perfectly aware that’s not how it works. LOL but I am making small steps, unfortunately there are many more chapters to go. Just keep swimming…just keep swimming… I can’t say I haven’t made progress I guess, with 140K words in, but word count doesn’t make a book, does it? :D I think writing the ending was easier for me, because this story has been in my head for so long. Of course there are still questions as to who may… Read more »


    Thank you.

    Kenneth Harris

    For those of us who have scrupulously colored between the lines throughout our writing journey, your suggestion to write scenes and chapters out of sequence comes as crystal-clear insight and smacks of genius. I take your path in writing stories; initial output seems inspired day of entry, unfit for consumption on day two followed by an extended layover in the land of “well, maybe something will come to me.” Henceforth, I am heading “out of sequence” when inspiration flags. The concept may be as old as “man bites dog” but it’s new to me. And I am hopping on that… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    I do some out of sequence writing, but I think linearly and that is how I write most of the time. I see point A then point Z and look for the steps to get from A to Z. What I do is plot it out with a few ideas for scene then fill in the blanks. But when I start to write, generally it is a straight sequence with the occasional big scene that comes to me that I write and go back and work my way to it. The truth is that there are as many ways of… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    It can be either. In Scrivener 3 I use the cork board and arrange them vertically in 4 columns-one for each section of the book with what scenes will go in there making it easy to hit at the points that need to be in the book. I think more out of the box than I used to, but still have issues it isn’t a pattern or logical. The couple of books where I did write out of order, I had to arrange chapters chronologically then fill in those blank spots. I’m actually delving into Scrivener more with the cork… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    It is for screen writing but works for noveland has become one of the more accepted methods of writing for beats and where your important events need to happen. “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder. It does make sense for plotting a book. You just need to change his ‘times’ to % of the book for the major points.

    Elissa Malcohn

    Yay for your breaking the logjam! Writing an actual draft out of sequence is not something I do habitually, but it has helped me through many a tough spot. My notes are another case entirely; visions of scenes can come from anywhere in the story arc. My first true writing out of sequence occurred as I drafted my series. I wrote the following on April 24, 2006: [blog] Late on Saturday night I rifled through my CD collection, knowing ahead of time that I needed my recording of Miklos Rosza’s music that he’d written for the movie Ben Hur — because… Read more »

    Elissa Malcohn

    No problem re the doodle. Thought it was very cool that you used it. I had drafted most of my series by the time Scrivener was released, but I made heavy use of spreadsheets to keep track of everything. They were invaluable. 220 indeed! By design, the writing process for Framed is 100% linear, but its constraints afford me other degrees of freedom and it is considerably different from 366. I wrestle with it more, and I remind myself that it’s meant to be more thought experiment than story. I do much more free-association than I had with 366, which had taken on a rudimentary… Read more »


    I wrote my book, starting on napkins, church bulletins and Starbucks cups, piecing together the scenes … like chipping away at rock. It never crossed my mind to write linearly until I read this. And I’m almost done with my book. Though I will say, bridging the gap between the story and the ending was difficult when doing it this way.


    Yeah, I learned some lessons writing out of sequence for sure! But I’ll only write that going forward. I kept everything :)


    My first book started out as a collection of scenes and dialog that would enter my mind anytime I was engaged in an activity that didn’t require much in the way of conscious thought. So yes, mostly done at work. Before I had written a single word, I had the final chapter mostly rough drafted and had outlined a large part of the overall plot. When I finally decided to sit down and see if I could write more than just short stories I started the same way. I wrote the final chapter first, you can’t know how to get… Read more »

    Gary Bingham

    Since this is my first attempt to write books I wondered if my first attempt might not be the best way to go about it. So I gave linearly a try. I found myself going off on tangents. I would have ideas for later in the characters lives that would escape me if I didn’t stop right then and make careful notes. Trying to write linearly while stopping for notes for later really messed the writing flow up. I got frustrated and tabled the project for awhile.

    frances hill

    I do write out of sequence, often I have a quirky little scene I just want to shove in somewhere. I put it on a 5×3 note card and find a place or make a place to shove it in.

    frances hill

    Just an outline in my own shorthand so I don’t forget names or flight numbers, etc…

    Hans De Léo

    After skimming over the other comments, my observation is that there is no set formula, style, or sequence to writing. Find something that works for you and go with it. Me? Linear for the first draft. Some of the time. After that all bets are off. I go where the story needs help. Or where my mind happens to be at the time. I find that the places the take me the longest to write are where I have to do things like flesh out a setting or the like. Those are the cases where I have to work at… Read more »

    Would love your thoughts, please comment.x