Posted by: Jodi | October 15, 2014

Debate: Linear vs. Non-Linear Writing

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Does your story look like this?

There are several debates when it comes to drafting a novel. The most well-known debate is usually between plotters and pantsers. Plotters being those who outline and plan each chapter in advance and pantsers being those who wing it and see what comes out.  Turns out most writers I know do a bit of both.

A lesser debated issue is that between linear and non-linear writing.  Linear writing is when a writer starts at the beginning and plows through to the end without going back to change or fix things. Non-linear writing is when the story is written out-of-order. The writer might have a stroke of inspiration and envision an awesome climax and write that first and then they go through and write the events that lead up to it. Non-linear writing also includes writers who start at the beginning and then loop back to fix or adjust earlier scenes as the writing continues.

There are pros and cons to each style of writing.

Linear writing tends to be the more standard approach to novel-writing.  It tends to be more organized than non-linear writing and will create a finished product in less time.  Because it forces the writer to figure out all the ins and outs of their story as they go, there tends to be less massive revision and changes.  However, since the writer needs to work where they are and not skip ahead, when inspiration strikes for a different scene they tend to wait until they get there to write it.

Non-linear writing is a slave to inspiration.  This is when the writer gets a brilliant idea for a scene and writes it and then has to to build a story around it.  Writing when fueled with inspiration lends itself to awesome prose and satisfying creative experiences.  However, a non-linear writer will shy away from scenes that they don’t feel the inspiration to write and stick to the ones they are passionate about. When it comes time to assemble these scenes into a story there tends to be a disconnect between them and it takes lots of hard work to bring the story to completion.

I’ve been both.  Back in the day when I started my story and didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I didn’t know where I was going with it and so I wrote it in a non-linear style.  It was fun and self-indulgent and I felt like I was putting some terrific words to paper.  It wasn’t until almost a year into the process that I realized that I had many major problems that had to be fixed before the scenes could be strung together.  It’s taken ages to correct the problems I caused for myself.

I learned my lesson and now work strictly from beginning to end.  This way it’s clear when a draft is completed.  When I find a problem I flag it for the next drafting pass.  I know when a story is getting close to being finished when all the problems have been addressed.

What experiences have you had with linear vs non-linear writing?

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Responses

  1. I’ve written both ways as well, though I’m typically linear (partly because I’m about 55% planner and 45% pantser).
    There are times when you see a scene so clearly and you know that if you force yourself to wait to write it, it’ll never be as good as you envision NOW.

    • It’s true – and I admit that I’ve cheated before on those rare instances where I get hit by a bolt of inspiration.

  2. I tried to be a strict plotter (hello Type-A personality) and just kept starting over at the beginning because I couldn’t get everything to fit together in advance. Now I rough out an outline and see where it takes me. It works so much better!

    • Wow! I tried that as well and found that my ideas changed before I could get even part way through. Now that I know a bit better about story structuring I think I might do a better job of it.

  3. As a total pantser, I almost have to write linear, because I don’t know what’s going to happen next and, therefore, can’t skip ahead. However, with my current project, I’ve been more non-linear. I discovered my characters as I went and ended up expanding their stories during what was supposed to be a second draft. I’m on my third/fourth draft (don’t ask) and decided to add a new chapter the other day. I just revised it yesterday, so i suppose I’m on my second/third/fourth draft.

    When I explain to people how I write, they often take it upon themselves to assume my story won’t work (a blogger actually told me my story would deflate like a cake with the wrong ingredients) and that I can’t possibly come up with something that makes sense using this approach. They are mistaken. I know exactly what I’m doing, and it will all fit together like a puzzle in the end. Boo-yah.

    😎

    • Shame on them. People who do that really drive me nuts. At least you are in the process of creating something awesome with your spare time. Unless you are Stephen King you can do as many drafts as you need.

      • I’m trying to keep it to four before I turn it over to beta readers. I’ve overdone it in the past.

        • I think that’s called learning. Means you’re starting to rock even better now – or are caring less. It’s a hard call.

  4. I wrote my prologue and then I wrote the epilogue and then I went back to the beginning and am working my way through.

    • That’s one way to do it, makes it sounds a little like bookends.


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