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The Great Chronology Debate

The Great Outline Debate is familiar to most of us. Some writers are die-hard planners, pre-plotting every scene and twist like an armature for a sculpture. Others claim the muse doesn't visit unless they fly by the seat of their pants (where did that saying come from, anyway? It's pretty funny when you think about it).

I'm somewhere in the middle. When I plot every detail, I sometimes grow a bored with the book before I truly begin it. But other than the opening scene or two, I definitely need direction.

Which brings me to The Great Chronology Debate – less familiar, but possibly as controversial. Is it better to start at the beginning of your book and write chronologically? Dean Koontz, for example, famously starts at the first word and finishes at the last. Or is it better to tackle whatever scene strikes you in the moment?

Let's face it: some scenes are more interesting to write than others. Like that hot make-out scene under the bleachers. Or the scene where your narrator first stumbles upon her beer-powered x-ray vision. Or the scene with the mutant hedgehog stampede. Or whatever. The words spill onto the page like water from a fountain, and you know the action will leave your readers ' hearts thudding… once they've traversed the eleven chapters leading up to it.

Thing is, at some point those in-between, leading-up-to-it scenes need to be written as well. And when you've already written all the shiny parts of your book, filling in the gaps can excruciating – especially when you're set on squeezing out 1000 or 2000 words per day, every day, even when the sun is shining and pulling weeds sounds a lot more fun than plugging forward.

You might think I'm setting up a pro-chronology argument, but as with The Great Outline Debate, I'm a moderate. I begin at the beginning, or at whatever part I left off on, and I attempt to write chronologically. When I reach an obstacle, I give myself a few tries to overcome it. And when it's just not happening, I let myself skip forward. Because staring at a brick wall won't knock it down. Later on, when I'm refreshed and well-slept and I've just had my chai, I know I'll prove a worthier opponent.

I also allow myself this. When I'm overwhelmingly excited about a scene – like, it's playing in my head in surround-sound and Technicolor and even smell-o-vision – I let myself write it.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to make every scene exciting to write. Because if it's tedious to write, it's probably going to be tedious to read. That doesn't mean every scene needs to be action-packed or ultra-sultry. But there needs to be something about it that tugs readers forward.

Whether that's compelling dialogue, hints at events to come, layers in characters' actions or mutant hedgehogs is up to you.

photo credit: tburgey
Kirsten Hubbard

Kirsten is the author of Like Mandarin, Wanderlove, and the middle grade novel Watch the Sky.

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  1. Adorable picture! And you're so right. When a certain scene is playing so clear in your head-write it! You're so in tune with that moment, it will come out perfect. But yeah, knowing how you're going to get to that scene and what will happen after are very important as well. Awesome post.

  2. Aww, mutant hedgehogs :)
    I try to go chronologically most of the time, for the reason you said--otherwise I'll write all the juicy stuff and leave the in betweens. But if there's a scene that is just jumping out and screaming at me to be written, I listen.
    This post is greatness:D

  3. Okay...who told you about my beer-powered X-ray vision? Hmm?

    Great post! I usually write chronologically, and use those tantalizing scenes as motivation to keep going. But sometimes scenes that I wasn't too excited about to start with end up being a blast to write as well.

  4. Aww, hedgie! I am not a planner/outliner at all. I tend to get an idea for a story, write a one paragraph blurb and proceed to write something completely different - but better. I suppose I let my characters tell their story to me the way they want it to happen. It's an accepted form of schizophrenia, doncha know?

  5. Love the advice, Kirsten. I'm taking it! And that is probably the cutest hedgehog I have ever seen :D


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Item Reviewed: The Great Chronology Debate Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kirsten Hubbard