Have you ever seen a “breakdown board” for a movie? You and I as novelists can learn a lot from it about the writing of first drafts.

Breakdown board with sliding panels

Breakdown board with sliding panels

Motion pictures, as most of us know, are not shot in sequence. The first day’s filming may be the movie’s final scene, or a scene from the middle of the picture.

What dictates the order of shooting is efficiency.

Budget concerns.

If we’re shooting Zombie Apocalypse VI and we know we’ve got three scenes that take place in the abandoned warehouse down by the railroad tracks, let’s shoot them all back-to-back Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday, even though one is the opening scene, one is a scene from the movie’s middle, and the third is from the climax.

We save money because the production can set up in one location and stay there till that section of the film is in the can. No expensive moves.

Likewise if we’ve managed to convince George Clooney to take a 99% salary cut and appear in five scenes as the deranged high school principal, let’s schedule all his scenes back-to-back as well. That way he can give us three days in a block and then be free to go home.

Can we get him, just for three days?

Can we get him, just for three days?

The breakdown board is the production department’s tool to accomplish this efficiency/economy. The line producer and his or her team start by reading through the screenplay, seeking locations (INT. ABANDONED WAREHOUSE/ZOMBIE HIDEAWAY) that appear more than once. They rip the pages out of the script and stick them all in one place. Those scenes become one sliding panel, i.e. one unified block of shooting time, on the breakdown board

By the time the production team is done deconstructing the script, the sequence-of-scenes-as-story has been turned inside-out and upside-down. But it works in terms of bang for the buck. By filming out of order, we’ve just saved $1.2 million out of our $9 million budget. Maybe we can afford Clooney for an extra half-day.

But back to you and me as novelists slogging through our first drafts.

What law says we have to write in sequence?

Could we gain something by working out of order?

I’m a big believer in this, and my first reason won’t surprise you:

Resistance.

Resistance is the factor that (sometimes, not always) determines for me which scenes and sequences I’ll tackle first.

I want to do the hardest stuff early—meaning the scenes or sequences that will generate the most Resistance. Maybe it’s the climax that’s really, really tough. I can tell because I’m so daunted by it that I don’t even want to face it in outline form. That’s the scene, I know, that I should tackle first, or at least early in the first-draft process.

Remember, the last thing we want to do is save the really hard stuff for the end. (See this post about moving pianos.) What if we spend two years writing our Wordsworth Serial Killer story, get to the finish and find that we can’t make the Climax In the Ruined Bell Tower at Tintern Abbey work?

Write that scene first, or at least outline it, get it to a place where you know you can do it in crunch time and make it work. Force yourself to do this. How good will you feel, going forward, knowing that you’ve got those really tough scenes already in the bank?

There’s another compelling reason to work out of sequence.

The Muse.

Inspiration is not linear. The goddess slings her thunderbolts with no regard to logical story-progression. If I’m working on Page Four but find myself obsessing about a sequence in the middle of the narrative, I’ll drop everything and work on that. It’s great fun, I must say, to reach Act Three and discover, “OMG, I’ve got forty pages that I wrote on this last February and they all work!”

That’s the logic behind writing a first draft out of sequence. It works in the movies. It can work for you and me in books.

That said, there are equally compelling counter-reasons. I confess I often throw the out-of-order concept out the window because of these.

First is story logic. Sometimes it helps to write Scene 41 when you’ve got Scenes 39 and 40 fresh in your mind. Sometimes 39 and 40 trigger great stuff for 41 that we might not have thought of if we’d done 41 in isolation.

Then there’s momentum. Sometimes a story just wants to be told in order. It flows better that way. Its own velocity propels it forward.

Yes, I know. I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth on this issue.

Bottom line: the canny writer uses BOTH techniques. She knows how to roll in-sequence when that feels best. But she’s ready to break that habit and jump around in her story when working out-of-sequence seems to make more sense.

P.S. Don’t steal that Wordsworth Serial Killer idea. That’s mine.

 

 

 

 

THE WAR OF ART

Read this one first.
It identifies the enemy—what I call Resistance with a capital “R,” i.e. fear, self-doubt, procrastination, perfectionism, all the forms of self-sabotage—that stop us from doing our work and realizing our dreams.
Start here.
Everything else proceeds from this.

The-War-of-Art

DO THE WORK

Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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THE AUTHENTIC SWING

A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.

The-Authentic-Swing

NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

noboybookcover

TURNING PRO

Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

Turning-Pro

22 Comments

  1. Lise on June 8, 2016 at 6:15 am

    This entire article is brilliant but I love this line the most: “Inspiration is not linear.” Thank you.

  2. Mary Doyle on June 8, 2016 at 6:21 am

    Thanks for this Steve! Being canny is the key here – I have often felt that it’s Resistance that is pulling me away from one scene to another when I get stuck. I’m never quite sure whether the smart thing is to tough it out and finish that scene knowing I’ll have to come back to it later, or shifting gears to work on a different scene. Resistance can mimic the Muse, and it’s not always easy to tell the difference.

  3. Matt on June 8, 2016 at 7:04 am

    I know that everything you said is right, but it does scare me into the reminder that in order to write out of sequence I have to be willing to put some time into outlining my story to begin with! It’s okay… I know I need to do that anyways.

  4. Michael Beverly on June 8, 2016 at 7:09 am

    I can outline out of order, knowing the ending first, perhaps, but writing out of order?

    I can’t imagine it for the reasons you stated near the end, I don’t know what/how/why scene 41 will be until I’ve written scene 40.

    But, I like the idea of being a “canny” writer…

    I just joined a 4 week online group/class where we are being compelled to write a 70,000 book in 14 days without an outline.

    Yes, I think that’s completely insane, which is why I’m going to try it.

    No plan? Sounds like a disaster waiting to happen…

    But I’ve come to realize that dismissing strange things, sushi, mustard, paranormal romance pulp, without trying them at least once (or twice) is not a wise way to live.

    Maybe I’ll try writing a novel backwards…

    • Adam Abramowitz on June 8, 2016 at 12:20 pm

      Writing a novel backwards is an awesome idea! I literally had that idea last night while I was watching “Cosmos” preparing to fall asleep…

      The idea was to start a movie script out with the end…

      Like, for example, What if the original “Star Wars” began with Luke being all powerful and all knowing in the force…

      He had succeeded in his own Hero’s Journey.

      The timeline for the film would go backwards from that point. Essentially, the main character of the “film” or “novel” would regress from his actualized form.

      Maybe you could start there for the book your gonna write…

      or maybe not.

      Do what you think is right my man, great stuff.

      • Michael Beverly on June 8, 2016 at 9:49 pm

        The End.

        Not much there,,,but at least I got started.

  5. Maureen Anderson on June 8, 2016 at 7:14 am

    I found this post particularly helpful, Steve. Thanks!

    I’m working on a how-to book that will include a lot of material I’ve already covered in essays. It feels like I’m assembling a book, not writing one (the way my husband jokes I assemble meals as opposed to cooking them). And the process isn’t linear — the way my other books have been — which bugged me. It felt wrong. Until I read this post.

    Thanks again.

  6. Lee on June 8, 2016 at 7:48 am

    Hey! Works for us ink-stained wretches that write plays and long poems too!

  7. Tayo Gbenro on June 8, 2016 at 8:58 am

    Am a consultant, but I write a lot – reports, articles etc. I find this idea most helpful when am putting a deck of slides together. I’ve always wanted to follow an order, but my mind is always trying to pull me away to tackle the key aspects first, like the methodology. I typically try to suppress this urge thinking its bad practice. This idea gives me a new frame of mind and it just makes sense.
    Thank you.

  8. Max on June 8, 2016 at 11:37 am

    What an auspicious post Mr. Pressfield!! Your wisdom and inspiration have helped me launch my creative endeavors after too many years of hesitancy.

    And the BOARD is a must! How can you build something without a plan??
    RE: what I’ve learned from you…
    When I first started writing, I wrote one page and got so depressed cause it was so crappy that I didn’t rite again for months….but now?

    – When self doubt rears it ugly head, I recognize it as The Flaming Dragon of Resistance and redouble my efforts. Screw resistance, let it kill someone else’s aspirations, not mine!

    And regarding today’s post …..

    Yes!! The muse is fickle and ideas indeed come out of sequence!

    While hiking with my Dog at the Top of Big Rock yesterday, she popped out of the bushes with the Solution to my my Act. 3 problems! Now I have the great ending I was seeking and it sets up a sequel!!

    Thank you thank you thank you for taking the time to “send the elevator back down,” as Jack Lemmon once said. 🙂

    • Max on June 8, 2016 at 11:39 am

      Excuse the typos and spelling errors. I would’ve made it shorter and edited it properly if I had more time, but I have to gat back to Doing The Work 😉

      • Adam Abramowitz on June 8, 2016 at 12:22 pm

        Awesome stuff my man, keep those creative juices flowing

        • Max on June 8, 2016 at 2:40 pm

          Thank you Adam! I just signed up to follow your amazing website, and if you need someone behind those drums sometime, just holler

  9. David Kaufmann on June 8, 2016 at 1:00 pm

    There are actually several programs out there designed to help writers outline, work out of sequence, or in sequence, as they desire. One can also move chapters and scenes around, so that if in the process one realizes that a later scene should come earlier, or vice versa, one just moves the chapters from here to there on a cork board. Sort of an electronic board that Steve describes. The best one out there is probably Scrivener, and it has a lot of other powerful features which you may or may not need or use. Supernotecard is another, a bit simpler. And I think Mariner Software sells a decent writing tool. Of course, one can set up different scenes or chapters as different Word files, but it’s awkward, and can be confusing, to go back and forth between scenes, or even character files and outline, rather than having it all in one place, on a menu bar.

    Just a thought. Thanks for another helpful, stimulating and informative post, Steve.

  10. Jules Horne on June 8, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    Love the idea of writing out of sequence. I’ve done it for plays and reports, but never tried it for fiction. Somehow because we read in a linear way, we expect to write that way, too! Thanks for this great tip.

  11. Vince on June 9, 2016 at 12:47 am

    I’ve tried it and do it but I don’t like it. I like to write in a linear way because it just flows better and the direction comes from the inspiration that comes off of what you’ve just written before. I stick chapters, parts in I write separately they always feel like they stick out from the narrative. Maybe readers don’t see/feel it but I do!!

  12. Debbie L Kasman on June 9, 2016 at 3:31 am

    I’ve experienced what Steve is talking about (inspiration is not linear and discovering months later you’ve got really good stuff that works) and it is indeed great fun when this happens. I’m a new writer but I came to the conclusion a while ago that writing is both linear and circular. I am finding that when I go with something the Muse has provided, it tends to be my best stuff and the linear writing is what holds all those good pieces together. I can’t imagine writing anymore without writing out of order.

  13. Simon Townley on June 10, 2016 at 5:03 am

    I’ve got bad news for you on that Tintern Abbey bell tower idea. When they say the thing is a ruin, they mean it. I’d recommend a google image search before you write the scene 🙂

  14. Julie Gabrielli on June 10, 2016 at 5:17 am

    Great insights – thank you! I wrote my first draft mostly in order, then switched during revision to tackle the harder scenes first. Now I am putting it back together and finding that working in order helps me to be consistent with details, not repeat anything, and inform the scenes that come next. John Irving famously says he writes the ending first, so he knows where he’s going. I find that a fascinating idea but haven’t tried it yet.

  15. Sharon on June 12, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    Anything goes as we “Do the Work”.

  16. Pat on June 22, 2016 at 7:38 am

    Let’s clarify: Culture warriors are not a warrior culture!

    There is, for sure, a role for both, and the U.S. Military prides itself on being a warrior culture. Its leadership, however, abhors culture warriors in its midst of warrior culture because it would destroy esprit de corps, and cause systemic chaos.

    Distinctions, therefore, are imperative to keep separate to properly define the mission, and the tasks. Activists are culture warriors, and anything but a warrior culture trying to maintain the status quo, and reliable stability.

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