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 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.





Comments are closed.