Should You Write Your Story in Chronological Order?

I wrestled with this question leading up to NaNoWriMo this year. Should I attempt to write my story in chronological order, even in the first draft?

You see, until the story I wrote for NaNo, I had not yet written any fictional story in chronological order. In fact, it’s rare that I write much of anything in order, including essays for school or documents for work. I tend to start with what I know or what seems like the most fun part to write, and then I rearrange later as I shape the work and figure out what I want it to be.

In theory, this haphazard approach seemed like a good idea for the story I wrote last year for NaNo. I hadn’t written any fiction in years, and I wanted to keep myself going by writing whatever scene came into my head when it came into my head. I did this because it felt more organic, and because if I was writing scenes that felt fun to me, I hoped that would produce better, more vibrant writing.

To some extent, this held true. I did write some scenes that I like a lot, and I also wrote some scenes I might never have written if I didn’t write things as they came into my head. However, this becomes problematic in revision for a long story. I’ve realized now that while this method may function for essays and work products, as well as even for short stories, it can easily turn into a nightmare for a novel-length piece of fiction. I’m still working through the parts of my story that are missing and trying to achieve a flow that is hard to cobble together with so many different and unconnected story fragments. I trust that I’ll finally pull it together, but it’s taken so much energy and time that I wish would have been spent in normal revision.

While I’m not ready to fully disparage occasional “write whatever scene I want whenever I want” writing, I have to admit that writing the story in the order of events made so much more sense. And once I got about halfway into the story, I had done so much set-up and I had worked through enough areas where I was unsure that the ending of the story mostly fell into place. (I think this might have been how I wrote almost 20K words in a weekend.)

Still, I’m a little conflicted over what’s the best approach. I’ve made a list of the pros and cons of writing chronologically, and would love to hear from you on what you prefer and why!

Pro #1: The flow of the story is more or less in tact in the first draft

olympia-clockWhen you write in chronological order, the flow of the action is typically apparent, even in the first draft. While the flow of the plot may need to be tweaked by dialing up scenes or scaling them back, the natural progression of the story has been constructed, even if it’s weaker than you want it to be, right from the start. This is valuable for determing the strengths and weaknesses of the plot.

Pro #2: Plot holes need to be resolved in order to move forward

I think one of the things that kept me from writing chronologically last year is that I didn’t want to do the work of solving some of my plot issues. Whenever I hit a plot issue, I just skipped to a new scene. Carrying on with the story where it is, rather than skipping ahead, forces you to deal with the issue. While your fix may not be perfect in the first draft, at least you’ll be partially on your way to plugging up the plot hole.

Pro #3: The ending may make itself clear

If you stick with the natural order of the story all the way through, an ending may present itself naturally, too. While you don’t want to write an obvious ending, following the logic of the story to an ending that transpires from the rest of the events in the story is a decided benefit of writing all the way through.

Pro #4: You’ll spare yourself detective work in the revision process

Instead of trying to find and fix stray pieces of the story that aren’t connected to the central plot, you’ll already have a story that follows from scene 1 to scene 2 and so on. This could save you time in the revision process, so that you’re already starting with a whole beginning-to-end story.

Con #1: It can impede creativity

If you have a brilliant idea for some random scene, you may snuff it out by moving forward with the chronology. I combat this con by occasionally allowing myself a random scene when I know I’m in a good stopping point with the main trajectory of the story, or by writing out the basic idea of the random scene, and saving it for later.

Con #2: It may make the process less fun

Pushing through the chronology of the story may infuse more of a “this is work” mentality into story-writing. I combat this con by reminding myself that as much as I love writing, it’s still a craft that I have to hone and a skill that requires work. Not all of it is easy, and sometimes it’s a nitty gritty “put my bottom in the chair and write” kind of activity. But almost always, after I get through a hard part, I come back to how much I love it.

As for now, the benefits of writing in order far outweigh the occasional annoyances of it. (And goodness knows my critique group will be appreciative that my stories will come to them in order and make sense!) I’m convinced that going forward with this method will save me a lot of time in revision, and it will also keep me more sane when I know my plot’s trajectory from draft #1.

Let me know what you think in the comments! Do you always write in order? Why? When do you not?

4 thoughts on “Should You Write Your Story in Chronological Order?

  1. Nice post! I’ve thought about writing out of chronological order, but my biggest worry has always been character development. I’m afraid I won’t keep a smooth rhythm with their evolving emotions. For that reason (along with the ones you listed), I always write in chronological order. Seems more organic to me! Thanks for the interesting post.

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    1. That’s another great reason, too! I think you’re definitely right that the flow and rhythm of the characters, the story, and the plot work better when things are written in order. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. When you write in chronological order you’re saving yourself a lot of grief. Plus, and more important, it helps your readers keep hold of the story. Don’t add confusion when you don’t have to.

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    1. I completely agree that you save yourself a lot of grief, as I learned (and am still learning) from a draft that I wrote rather haphazardly last year. It’s taken so much time, and will continue to take time, for me to rearrange into its proper order and fill in all the gaps. I also think you’re right that writing in order will result in a clearer flow for readers.

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