17.14: Structuring for Disordered or Order-less Reading Order

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, Peng Shepherd, and Howard Tayler

Guest host Peng Shepherd leads our discussion of “order-less reading order” (after we get past the business of “having too much fun with the episode title”). But what do we even mean by “order-less” or “disordered?” At one level, we mean you can just pick up the story anywhere and start reading. Kind of like TV series prior to the advent of the fully serial series. But kind of unlike it, because how does this work within just one book?

Liner Notes: For good examples of non-order-dependent stories, consider schlockmercenary.com, The Lady Astronaut universe, DISCWORLD, Seventy Maxims (annotated),

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson


Look at your current work-in-progress. Are there pieces of backstory that you could unpack into a prequel? Can you shuffle your story events for orderless/disordered reading?

Crossings, by Alex Landragin

6 thoughts on “17.14: Structuring for Disordered or Order-less Reading Order”

  1. I feel like romance series, especially historical romance series (e.g. Bridgerton for the newly initiated) rely on this method. Mimi Matthews has a four book series of four friends finding love. You can read them out of order, in order, doesn’t matter. They’re all back stories to each other and because you get hints, you are curious as a reader about the other narratives.

  2. The “Foundation” series by Isaac Asimov is relevant to the discussion. The first book, “Foundation”, is a fix-up of various stories Asimov had previously gotten published in magazines. But, as the series progressed, the books more and more fell into the “next chapter in the saga” format. They also weren’t fix-ups of stories that had been previously published.

    The idea that each book should stand alone is an old one. The Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, can mostly be read in any order. The Perry Mason books (and the Raymond Burr TV series) were each stand alone.

    I think the stand-alone format was a reaction to an older literary tradition where interminable stories were told. They spanned multiple volumes that were supposed to be read in order. They had to span multiple volumes due to the sheer number of words the author churned out.

    In this context, the modern “series” approach is a reaction to the stand-alone format that was popular from the late 1800s to the late 1900s.

    As far as I know, this business of having a book where the chapters can be read in various orders is a new one.

  3. This week, those who might be Dan, Mary Robinette, Peng, and Howard, talked about books or stories that can be read out of order. Lots of examples, including TV episodes, fixup novels, and webcomics. Series also often need to make sure each book can stand on its own. And when you start a new episode, make sure the characters have earned the listener’s trust, just like those podcasters! Read all about it in the transcript, available now in the archives.

  4. PLEASE, PLEASE, read “Rayuela” (“Hopscotch”in english), from argentinian amazing writer Julio Cortázar.

    It does exactly what you describe here, with short, independent chapters that can be read in isolation, like a collection of “scenes”, or in two specific orders the author proposes, jumping back and forth the pages of the book.

    The book was written in 1973, and the connecting thread is the idea of exile and madness, as the protagonist falls into a progressive breaking of its memories and emotions.

    Cortázar is a truly awesome, haunting, powerful, and hugely influencial latin american writer. Every bit as relevant as García Márquez, Vargas Llosa or Octavio Paz.


  5. Many, many series in the romance genre are written like this. Each novel may be part of a series with a shared group of characters or setting, but can also function as a standalone. The difference may be that the main characters for each book are different, becoming secondary characters in the rest of the series.

    I recently read Kate Canterbary’s Walsh series. It consists of 9 books featuring a family of 6 adult siblings. I started from the end, worked my way to the middle, then went back to the beginning and read to where I’d left off. Were there some threads that ran throughout and left me guessing a little? Yeah, but nothing major. They were enjoyable enough for me to read 3 other spinoff series because the characters and the quality of the writing are fantastic.

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