Writing Out of Sequence

By John Gilstrap

Twenty years ago, I met Barry Livingston by way of helping him shop his industry autobiography, The Importance of Being Ernie. Barry played Ernie, the youngest Douglas child in the iconic My Three Sons television show. During my discussions with him–and through reading his book–I learned that MTS was the first television series to feature a bona fide movie star, in the person of Fred MacMurray. In those days, television was seen as a lower form of entertainment (and a huge threat to feature films). To cross over was to risk one’s career in movies.

One of the most fascinating details Barry shared with me was the fact that MacMurray’s contract stipulated that he would be on the MTS set for only a very limited number of days–this during a time when a television season ran up to 30 episodes a year! The schedule required a bizarre filming strategy. During his time on set, MacMurray shot only his scenes from every episode. If he wasn’t physically in the shot, the shot was not filmed. This meant that every angle on any scene that did not directly involve MacMurray was shot at a different time.

Think about that from Barry Livingston’s point of view: you’re six or seven years old and every reaction and every closeup of you is shot out of context and out of sequence. I haven’t seen MTS in many years, but my recollection is that he pulled it off pretty well.

Movies have always been shot out of sequence for budgetary reasons. You either shoot out a location or you shoot out a character so that you limit expenses. It seems to me that that’s much easier when the script is finished, the shots are story boarded and blocked, and all the actors have to do is, well, act.

In my most recent couple of books, I’ve experimented with writing out of sequence. In the past, I would write my books more or less as they appear in the final version, shifting POVs real time as the story unfolds. More recently, I’ve started to write straight through a POV character’s story arc, and then moving on to do the same for another POV character. At the end of the draft, I cut and paste to get the story to flow correctly.

The process works pretty well until I get to a scene where multiple POV characters are interacting. At that point, I have to decide to whom the scene belongs, and then I write the scene accordingly, giving myself an anchor point for each of the involved characters–a point to which they all must somehow arrive as I’m writing out of sequence.

A Throwback To Accident Investigation

One of my professors in graduate school was Ludwig (Ludi) Benner, who invented an accident investigation technique called Multilinear Event Sequencing (MES). In its simplest form, MES recognizes that at some point before an event, every injured person and every damaged object was at a point of stasis, where everybody and everything was okay. An instant later, an as-yet unknown event occurs (which itself is always the result of other sub-events) and the result is scattered debris and injured people.

In applying MES strategy to the investigation, every person and every bit of debris is considered an actor and is given its own timeline. If we know that a propellant mix was at normal temperature at 09:03:54:70, started to rise slowly at 09:03:54:72, spiked at 09:04:24:78, and went dark at 09:04:55:31 (followed by a big boom), we have a valuable frame of reference. The duration of the primary event was just over one minute, so that defines the timeline for the initial investigation. Every fragment of the building and the tooling will be mapped and examined. If the tooling shows signs of shear, then the explosion was low-order; if it is fractured, that points to a high order explosion, and that determination then leads to other conclusions and avenues of investigation. Bottom line: every bit of debris is the result of an identifiable force which is the result of some other definable force.

Let’s say that the explosion was the result of contamination in the propellant mix. Now, the investigation turns in that direction. With quality controls being what they are, someone somewhere made a big mistake. Every worker and outside player now gets their own timeline. If it turns out that every one of our own workers followed their protocols and procedures to the letter, we now have to turn our attention to the transportation company that delivered the components to us, and the manufacturer or distributor from which the transporter picked up the materials.

That’s a lot of timelines to keep track of, but if you’re true to the process and you’re patient, the intersections of the timelines always bring big reveals.

Plotting Is A Close Cousin To Accident Investigation 

In accident investigation, you start with a set of conditions that are the result of a story the investigators labor to unfold. As an author, I start with a premise and evolve it into a disaster by creating the multilinear events that all interact with each other to create the end result I’m looking for.

Using the propellant example above, let’s say we want our hero safety engineer (why haven’t we seen more of those in fiction?) to discover that the contamination of the mix was the result of Russian sabotage. How do we get there, and how do we do it in a way that is always engaging for the reader? Here comes the reverse engineering:

  • Why do the Russians want to create an explosion?
  • Why choose this route instead of, say, planting a car bomb?
  • How does the saboteur avert the internal quality control processes?
  • What is the plotting road map that leads our hero to discover the truth?
  • Once our hero learns the truth, why doesn’t he call the FBI and let them take care of things?

There are many more, of course, but the point here is that by choosing one character’s arc and writing it all the way through (or mostly all the way), you discover the data points that other characters need to find.

Is this something you’d try in your own writing?

On a personal note, this is my last post for 2022 as we head toward our Holiday Hiatus. I wish all of you a wonderful holiday season, and nothing but the best in the coming new year. If you’re into Christmas letters that run to the long side, here’s a link to the Semi-Decennial Gilstrap Christmas Letter.

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

15 thoughts on “Writing Out of Sequence

  1. Thanks, John. I would have thought it would be intimidating enough for a seven-year-old to be on a movie set, and with Fred McMurray to boot, let alone doing scenes out of sequence.

    Your mention of My Three Sons brought to mind a commercial that was shown during at least one episode. It was for Hunt’s Catsup. Fred and the boys were at the dinner table and they were all talking about Hunt’s Catsup as it got passed around the table, back and forth to everyone but Dad, who finally snagged it and said, “Hunt’s Catsup. Worth waiting for.” I still think of that scene every time I walk down the condiment aisle.

    Also, thanks for the MES breakdown. MES would seem at its core to be applicable to every event. That’s a lot of food for thought to digest.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours, John!

  2. OMG, John! Your Christmas letter was harrowing. You had alluded to some of the catastrophes in prior posts but reading the events in detail was incredible. You and your family have more than earned peace and joy this Christmas.

    Accident reconstruction is a great analogy for writing. With all the interconnectedness among characters and action-reaction sequences, no wonder it’s difficult to keep the plates spinning. Thanks for this terrific insight.

    Merry Christmas and a healthy New Year to the Gilstraps!

  3. Once again, TKZ provides great help. I need to read again to clarify a few points in my mind, but this will help me with my current WIP. While it’s not uncommon for me to write out of sequence, to me the point of this post is writing out of sequence with intentionality–something I don’t always do. More often, I write out of sequence in a blundering fashion–and it shows.

    Hadn’t thought of My Three Sons in ages. Nor did I know that Fred MacMurray was a movie star, but by the time I saw the show it was in re-runs.

  4. I have always been overly anal about writing in sequence, but my THINKING is all over the place. I had a nice discussion of how something I needed to happen could possible happen with my massage therapist last week. And another long email exchange with my daughter, pulling on her martial arts expertise. Once I get the “if this, then that” stuff worked out, I can write the scene, but I can’t move on and write another one until I’ve put the troublesome one on the page.
    My writing out of sequence is more like going back and fixing things if one of those “if this then thats” requires a change to the previous ‘this’.
    Happy holidays, and wishing you a better 2023.

  5. It’s a good strategy, John. I work out subplot issues on index cards in Scrivener. The nice thing is you can give a different color to the different plot lines.

    Speaking of Fred MacMurray, he was one of the great underappreciated stars of his day. He should have been nominated for an Oscar several times, especially Double Indemnity and The Caune Mutiny.

  6. Thanks for a great post, John. Your explanation of MES is really interesting. I can see how it helps understand writing multiple threads of the plot, writing each all the way through, then piecing them together. I’ll definitely try it on my next book.

    Loved your Christmas letter. Wow, your family went through a lot. Congrats on your house. I love trees and houses in the woods. And enjoy Kimber.

    Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and your family!

  7. Unless it is a very short story, I write everything out of sequence. For one legal mystery I wrote three court scenes and the testimony unveiled what happened up to this point in the novel (1/3rd of the way through), I was pretty much making it up as I went along, but there were things I knew had to come out. Then I went back and wrote the characters leading up to the point of their testimony.

    With what POV to use – I have a story about a polyamorous family of four and the story is told from each of their points of view. I wrote a chapter with two of the characters in it which had important details, but it had no ‘feel’, so I decided to see what happened if I wrote it from the other POV – that solved the problem – there was so much more going on in the second character’s head, even though he was not the one revealing what had happened at work that day and how they felt about it. Yes, Merrick is the one who had a hard day – was all but accused of stealing money from a project he manages, but the other’s character’s reaction to how ‘out of character’ it is for Merrick to open up to him was so much more insightful. All the same details, but so much more ‘feel’.

    So I went through every chapter I had written so far, opened a separate page and rewrote it from the pov of whatever other character or characters were in it. I have to say the results blew my mind. I changed almost half the chapters – found tidbits of backstory I never would have thought of – and dove further into how each character perceives their place in this relationship.

    !!!Have a happy and safe holiday!!!

  8. Terrific post, John! Apply accident investigation to writing a novel is brilliant approach for a multiple POV novel. For that matter, it might work very well with a single POV mystery in the plotting stage. I’ve done a little bit of that with my mystery.

    Years ago I took a workshop by Walter Jon Williams, a science fiction writer, on plotting your novel from the end backwards, and I’ve used that approach regularly.

    I’ve been doing a little actual drafting out of sequence lately, and it can be helpful.

    Really enjoyed your Christmas letter. Your family has gone through a lot recently. I’m so glad you are on the far side of that and enjoying your wonderful new home. This stargazer is envious of the dark skies you have 🙂

    Have a wonderful holiday season!

  9. Thanks for the insight of writing out of sequence, John. I’ve written some scenes like that, but more because I came up with an idea that I thought might work later in the story than from intentionality.

    You and your family have had quite a traumatic year. I’m glad things have settled down now and you’re in your dream home. And that Kimber! What a cutie.

  10. Great post, John. I had never heard of MES and its application to writing out of sequence. I plan to give it a whirl in 2023. Actually, doesn’t it seem like the entire world has lived out of sequence the last 18 to 24 months? I digress…

    I hugely enjoyed your Christmas letter. (And I read it to the end.) When I finished, I found myself grateful that my last few years were relatively boring. I truly wish for your family this Christmas . . . nothing!

    Except good food and good fam time.

  11. So glad you are past the difficulties of the past 18 months! Building a house would have been enough!
    I occasionally write out of sequence but like Kay, it’s not intentional. Will have to think about doing that!

    KTZ is the best blog ever! Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a great 2023!

  12. My novels tend to spurt from Pg1 to END. Plays are more chaotic–a catch-all file in no particular order: a line, a set detail, stage directions, a motif, a scene. At some point, I connect the dots.
    I recently completed #25, my Shakespearean play, “Shake, Willy,” which languished for 5 years, lacking only a sonnet for Act II. I was not in a sonnet-writing mood until September, when I whipped one out in a couple of weeks, in order to get past a rare episode of writer’s block on another project.
    The work is done, and pieces of a new play are bouncing around in my noggin, a concept so grotesque, I hesitate to start. But I know I will someday.

  13. I generally write in order, but my manuscripts are always multi-POV. In the sections where the POV’s don’t directly influence each other (the characters are doing separate things), I write out of order.

  14. I’m terrible at writing in sequence. My thoughts are always all over the place and I have to write it down. I usually just try and find a way to connect the chunks i’ve written.

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