Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
September 5, 2011

Linear Writing vs. the Scattergun Approach – Which Are You?


by Laura Drake

In the last Writers in the Storm ‘throwdown’ (if you missed it, it was character driven vs. plot driven writing.) I was more than willing to admit that both sides of the argument are valid – even necessary to a great story.

But this time?  The other side of the coin terrifies me.

Do you start at the beginning of your novel, and write straight through? Or do random scenes come to you, so you write them and then, at the end,  stitch them together like you would a granny-square afghan?

I’m so far to the linear side of this one that I can’t even see the middle. I like things orderly -- bordering on regimented. I love routine. My library is in order by author, then by title. I admit to not being able to go to bed if there are dishes in the sink, and I can’t leave the house in the morning unless my bed is made. I’m a bean-counter in my other life and it fits me well.  I like things to balance – to fit neatly into the little boxes I make. But life is messy, and the little buggers won’t stay there!

Control freak? Huh. No, not me.

But before the other WITS bloggers schedule an intervention, let me get back on the subject.

I write in as close to a straight line as I’m able. I start (in a perfect world) on scene one, then move to scene two and write that, and so on. That doesn’t mean that I have no idea what’s going to happen through the story.

While I’m riding my bike, I may have a flash of an idea for a scene farther into the book. I record the thought on my voice recorder (one of the best inventions ever.) When I get home, I jot notes about the scene on a 3X5 index card. This allows me to reorder scenes with a quick shuffle. By the end of the book, I have a three to six inch stack of index scene cards.

There are disadvantages to the linear method though, I will admit.

  • It takes me forever to get started with a new book.
  • I’m not sure of the character’s traits, or the backstory that caused them. And I can’t begin until I know!
  • I wring my hands.
  • I write in fits and starts.
  • I whine to my crit group. They’re wonderful, helping me look ahead and plot, reminding me that I’m not losing it; I always do this at the beginning.

I also use excel as a tool to help me see the big picture. I’m including it here in case you’d find it useful. Below is a snapshot of my “Cheat Sheet.” I create a file for each book. First is a quick chapter review. I fill in the page and word count as the chapter is completed.

Cheat Sheet

The next sheet is my detailed “Scene Sheet” breaking down the chapters. It gives more detail on what happens, and gives me a bird’s eye view of upward and downward movement of the protagonist, as well as turning points.

Scene detail

Drawbacks aside, Linear works for me. I’m a character-driven writer. It takes a long time to develop a rich, multi-layered protagonist. A lot of that I find out through naturally progressing through scenes, and the character’s arc, I don’t know it all when I start. If I didn’t write linearly, I could end up spending time on a scene at the end of the book that isn’t true to that character!

Aren’t you scattergunners afraid of that? Why not?

Which comes naturally to you? Linear or Scattergun?

Don’t forget to check back on Wednesday when Jenny answers the challenge and discusses the dreaded non-linear side. *shudder*

The dark side.


0 comments on “Linear Writing vs. the Scattergun Approach – Which Are You?”

  1. WOW! Great topic, Laura. I WRITE my scenes linear, but my scatter-brain develops scenes at odd times and hours. I do not have your discipline writing the scenes on index cards, although I DO have a nifty, tabbed, 5x7 index binder with colored, lined cards. It now holds recipes, old to-do lists, timetable for last year's T'giving production, M-F NEW and IMPROVED daily schedules, and several old shopping lists. Oh. And five scene. Yes. I can imagine your left brain "frzzzt" as you read this.

    I'm now on a deadline. Enter Karen Weisner on completing a book already in progress. Enter hard copies of all those iterations of scenes written and discarded. Enter scissors, scotch tape, three ring binder and pen. I am birthing one UGLY first draft -- visually. It feels GOOD to combine the mediums.

    The reason I didn't record those scenes as they came to me? B/c my inner editor Gracie played with getting them "just right"--dialog and all. I also played "what if" on how they could fit in the overall schematics of plot threads. All those thoughts? Some tucked away for another WIP. Some planting themselves on the page. I am having FUN and making progress. ACK ATTACKS happen less often now.

    It you're coveting that nifty, tabbed binder, tweet me. I'll gift it to you. Thanks for the great post. Can't wait for Jenny's Scatter-brain-er-gun post later this week.

    1. You're just right, Gloria. I read your comment with horror. Ugh, all that ...disorderliness!
      Hey, this journey is hard enough - do what works for you!
      But really, scissors and scotch tape? If only you rewrote...okay, I'll shut up now.

  2. I'm Linear in preparation for sure but relaxed in journey. Let me explain. A few months ago we traveled to Wyoming, a 1000 mile journey for us. In advance of this I put together maps, key points of interest and a detailed list of everything that would be needed for the trip, organized and easy to access. During the actual drive, we stopped at quite a few spots, none pre-planned, which is where all the excitement of the actual trip occurred.

    Writing, for me, is the same process. I take detailed notes, plot and plan, keep Excel sheets, use WriteWay Pro writing software to keep it all organized and a written journal for when I'm not near my computer. Once the writing begins, the characters are free to play within the framework that is established. I know where the story is going so the characters won't end up in Florida when they are supposed to be in Wyoming, but there are plenty of short diversions along the way to entertain them with.

    I'm currently experimenting with the "card system" and the board concept (from Blake Snyder's Save the Cat) as a method for organizing scenes. I think it hold great potential for plotters.

    Great post, Laura 🙂

    1. Thanks Gene, love your system - and your analogy. That's just what writing a book feels like to me! Love the back roads you end up on that you never could have planned. Yay for happy circumstance!

  3. Good post! I write in a linear fashion in the sense that I know where to start, usually know where it ends, and I fill in everything in between on the fly and let the characters take it from there. I sometimes write down notes of what I want to accomplish but I'm a pantser to the nth degree. Somehow this works for me. I find writing a bunch of notes and plotting out everything from the get-go confining, and too "organized" for me. But, hey, it doesn't bother me to have dust balls in the corners of my house either. My parents always wondered why I didn't inherit the "clean gene" that my other five sisters naturally had!

      1. Yes, I write my scenes as I see them in my head unfolding. I've never rearranged something to fit somewhere else. A scene that my editor/mentor wanted me to take out I used for the beginning of my third novel, but that was something else entirely.

      2. Good reuse of words, Patti! I hate cutting - it's not only that they're my darlings - it just seems like such a waste!

        Okay, Jenny, quit sniggering. Don't think I don't see you!

  4. Great post. I am also a linear writer. I do a character arc and a short plot and then I allow the characters to take me where they need to go. They through some twists in there alwas but I just roll with them.

    I usually know exactly how it would end. I'm taking fiction writing classes now to improve the structure of my stories.

  5. I definitely write linear. I jot down my story idea (my basic premise comes to me first), then I do rough character outlines, must have my title and main character's names before I write one sentence. I do a rough turning point, 3-act structure outline - bullet points. I've been known to rough that out on a napkin! By this time, my first scene has been boiling around in my brain for literally weeks and I MUST write it, so I do, warts and all. I go back to fleshing out some TP's, then I continue with scene one right straight through. Shannon Donnelly's multi-week boot camp really shook me up -- I hadn't yet written the scenes she wanted done for homework. What?? Write the mid-point scene before I'd finished the first act? Then the black moment soon after? Yikes! But you know what? That was an excellent exercise. Even if I decided not to use the scenes I'd written for class, it made me really think about where I wanted my characters to end up, where my plot points really were. That analysis was invaluable. It was like looking in a crystal ball, but knowing you could change the outcome if you wanted to. Good post, Laura!

    1. You know, Barb, when you say it, I can see why it would help. I just can't make myself do it! I have this fear of wasting time on a scene that I never use.

      But then, I can spend an hour, playing Majjong. Go figure.

  6. Giving my blog vacation a well deserved break, I come to you ... you nut case 🙂 Aw yes, the organized-COD of it all. I don't believe I could declare a winner in character vs. plot and this one is even harder. Since I had developed the habit of writing in my head, I "see" like a wide screen movie and hear like sterio speakers and my fingers are nothing more than the tools to translate what I see and hear. The story itself has a beginning, a middle and an end from day one. BUT WAIT! That is what happens when my compulsive need to drive myself from point A to Z in one fell-swoop is in charge. What I do in the re-write, the daydreams and conversations with my characters I have in the process and the changing Libra mind fighting the Virgo need for order ... are less linear and might be more like those winding roads of yours 🙂 I look forward to Wed. AT least my Libra looks forward to Wed. We'll see.

    1. Just reading your reply makes me nervous, Florence. You and Jenny go hang out in la-la land -- I have beans to count and sort into little boxes...I'm a busy person!

      Danged whippersnappers.

  7. Love this blog. As Laura's crit partner she and I go well together. I'm linear too. Can't even write unless my house house is clean because messes clutter my mind as well as my house. 🙁 I write in 3 chapter increments then go back and edit the first of the three, the second and third before writing the 4th. Yes ideas for subsequent scenes come to mind and I'll note those ideas but they never see the true light of day until it's their turn. Sharla

    1. I can attest to Sharla being...um, organized. She labels and codes her boxes into an Excel spreadsheet when she moves. She keeps notebooks and lists. I bow to her.

      I hand all the lists over to my husband because I'd set it down somewhere and forget where I put it. 🙂

  8. Ha! And I thought I was the only one who had to clean a room before starting on a project. Too funny.

    Thanks for showing your cheat sheets! I have something similar, but it's not all filled in yet. I guess I'm a little of both :-/ I know the direction I am heading. I have the big picture chart. Then I see if any scenes need to be added or shuffled. But, writing in order goes against my writing muse. If she is ready to write the murder scene first - then that's what we do first.

    I'll have to use some of your techniques for organizing when things are introduced - that's a fab idea! THANK YOU for this BLOG!

  9. Thanks for the comment, Tiffany!
    Wow, you're truly a hybrid. I'm with you, right up to the 'out of order' part. You're giving me shivers!

    Everyone reading this knows that over on Jenny's More Cowbell blog, she's having a 'Dirty Fighting' contest that ends tonight at midnight, right? Go now and check it out - Tiffany is the prize! (well, you don't get to actually KEEP her, but...)

  10. As a mathematician could I be anything but linear? When I "get" a scene I don't write it until I have the parts before. And I write those first. Can you imagine what would happen if I wrote the world's best scene--out of order--and couldn't link it to the rest of the book? Just shoot me.

    1. My point exactly, Fae! After reading all these responses, I've come to the following conclusion:

      Linear writers are afraid to write scattergun
      Scattergunners are bored with linear

      Weird how the other side sees the exact opposite, and not many people are in between.

      These throw-downs are SO interesting - you get to see how a different brain works!

      But I don't think anyone could be convinced to take the opposite side.

  11. Scattergun? That implies something random, which is not at all how I work.

    I like to call what I do "the mold method." I seed the most important scenes and events, and let them grow to meet up with others. Sometimes it's more linear, but sometimes it's, well, it's like viewing a cathedral by matchlight. You keep lighting matches until you've got an image of the whole.

    Lately, though, I've been thinking of the process as more like artwork (did a couple of blog posts on it a couple weeks ago) where you work in layers on the whole canvas at once. Sure you might pause to work more on a detail here or there, but you also don't draw a picture by starting at the top left corner and drawing across the canvas in rows until you get to the lower right.

    1. That's RIGHT, Camille! That's what I'm talking about too...a fine meal that we prepare piece by piece, in whatever order works. You feel free to come back tomorrow for MY post, Camille. I'll need you cheering for the non-linear team.

      Scattergun, smattergun...Geesh.

  12. I'm definitely not linear. I usually start somewhere near the middle of a book and work out both ways. And I always write the ending early on so I have something to aim at.

    That said, with this new book I'm working on, I have written almost linearly and I haven't written the ending yet...

  13. The first (omniscient) draft of my novel, I wrote beginning to end. For some reason, I started writing the first-person version at the halfway point. Finishing the second half first has worked out very well, because the foreshadowing of future events early on is much better when said events are already written.

  14. I'm linear, right up until I hit a snag, and I can see where I want the book to go, but not how to get it there. If the snag last until the following morning, despite walks, rants and massive tickle sessions with my kids I bail and just jump ahead, trusting that if I force myself to leap forward, the "how I got there" will be forced to fill itself in.
    So far, it works - but it does mean MAD, CRAZY revisions at the end to fill in those gaps and make sure everything still flows logically.
    I'm a pantser (as opposed to a plotter) so I also occasionally learn something about a character that changes something I did at the start of the book. Rather than go back and fiddle with it then I jot a note to myself and then keep writing as if I did it correctly in the first place and as if all the pieces are where they should be.
    Everyone's got their own path to finished though, and I have mad respect for anyone who gets the job done, no matter how they get there.

  15. Here is the thing I think a lot of people miss in these debates (whether it's this, or pantser vs plotter, or character vs. plot): this is all artificial, and when it comes to being a professional writer... it's all moot.

    You need to master you skills -- including the stuff you're not naturally good at. Different stories require different techniques. You may have a natural inclination toward one or another -- but that doesn't mean you won't be a better writer in every way if you don't work to master all techniques. You'll be a better pantser if you can plot without being thrown off your creativity, you'll be a better plotter if you learn to take advantage of spontaneous ideas.

    And I think a part of the problem here is what I call, "intentional misunderstanding." If you call non-linear writing "scattershot" it indicates that you haven't really given any thought to it at all. It's obviously something you've never done or you wouldn't even think of that as a term for it. It's something you'd only apply from the outside.

    At the same time, I'd never call linear writing "boring." It's inefficient, yes. And like all inefficient things, it can be a tool to see things from a different perspective. Even if you are writing in a non-linear way, a linear "run through" has a lot of benefit.

  16. It depends on the project. Still, the linear approach seems to work better for a novel-length piece (at least, in my limited experience). Now that I'm using outlines more, I'm finding it easier to write scenes out of order because I know how it fits into the whole.

    1. Well that's exciting to know, Sonia. Maybe once I'm in the full-tilt finishing every book mode, I can try outlining. I'd like that. Thanks for commenting!

Subscribe to WITS

Recent Posts





Copyright © 2024 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved