Writing Excuses 17.14: Structuring for Disordered or Order-less Reading Order
Key Points: Stories or structures that can be read out of order? That ignore or bypass a specific order to events? Being able to read books in a series, or sections in a book, out of order, and it still works. Television episodes often do this. Although books usually still have to build. Fixup novels do this. Often there is a frame that explains why the story is told this way. Webcomics demand that each installment is understandable and rewarding enough that people want to find more. Series often require that readers be able to start with any of the books. Different characters and big time jumps can help readers with this. Make sure that at the beginning of the story or episode, the character has earned the reader’s/viewer’s trust, belief, admiration.
[Season 17, Episode 14]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Structuring for Disordered or Order-less Reading Order.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes or so long.
[Peng] Because you may or may not be in a hurry.
[Howard] And I’m not allowed to write episode titles anymore.
[Dan] I suppose I’m Dan.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Peng] I could be Peng.
[Howard] I’m Howard. I’m out of zoomer.
[Dan] I demand that you may or may not be Howard.
[Howard] Is that in order?
[Dan] Disordered or orderless reading order.
[Dan] There are books that can be read out of order. There are stories, structures that demand a specific order to events, and structures that ignore that or just bypass it. Peng, what do we mean by this? What are we talking about with orderless reading order?
[Peng] Well, there are a couple of different ways that I think we can take this. I would say that it’s one of the… It’s a rarer structure for sure. Because we, as readers, especially Western readers, have been conditioned to expect that you start at the beginning of the book you finish at the end of the book, or the series. So, when we say flexible orders of reading, we could mean something like reading the books in a series out of order, or, if you got books that are… Have multiple sections, you might be able to read the sections out of order. But it’s basically a story in which you can read all of the pieces either in the order that’s suggested by the book or in whatever order you choose and it still has to work.
[Dan] Yeah. I think it is funny that we talk about this as a rare style of storytelling. Because within books it definitely is, but that’s how television was for decades. Right? Modern detective stories, something like The Killing, you have to watch those in order because there’s a very large serialized story being told. But go back to the 80s. You can watch any Magnum, PI, episode out of order with no context whatsoever, and still understand what’s going on. So I… It’s definitely a style of storytelling that we are culturally familiar with, just not really in our prose, in our books.
[Peng] Well, I think the main difference between TV shows like that, where every episode is its own thing and you can just watch any out of order, and books that are trying to do this is that with those TV shows, they’re not necessarily building towards any kind of greater narrative. It’s just every self-contained episode is a half-hour of entertainment, and that’s that. Whereas books that can be read out of order, or they have some kind of a flexible order of reading to them, it doesn’t matter what order you do choose to read it in, it still has to build in a way that these TV shows don’t necessarily. So I think that is the greatest difficulty of this form, but also a really rewarding aspect of it. Because it is very hard to pull off.
[Mary Robinette] It’s a… I think it’s a structure that we did… We have seen perhaps a little bit more in a type called the fixup novel. Which is where an author takes… The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury, is a prime example of this. It was a collection of short stories. He put them together, then added some interstitial material to kind of stitch it together. But you can really pick up The Martian Chronicles and read a chapter without reading the rest of the book, and it’s fine. There are other examples of those. Most of the ones that I’m coming up with are in the fixup novel category, which is really a collection of short stories that are masquerading as a novel. But there’s one that I… I haven’t tried reading it non-sequentially, but The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Ward, I think you could read it non-sequentially and still get the overwhelming sense of loss that she builds towards.
[Peng] Does that book… Does it give you instructions to read it in any order you want, or is it just something…
[Mary Robinette] No, no. It’s just something that I’m thinking about as I’m thinking about it. It’s not a fixup novel. It’s just… It is… When I read it, I was like, “Oh, this is not a three act structure or any of the other structures.” Yeah, but there’s no instructions that you should read it out of sequence. There are books that tell you you can read it out of sequence?
[Peng] Yeah, so there’s… Oh, go ahead.
[Dan] I was just going to say I’m familiar with one called Second Paradigm by Peter Wacks that’s a time travel novel that every chapter can be read out of order and the story still makes sense.
[Dan] You could just open it up to a random chapter, read to the end, start at the beginning and wraparound. You could read the chapters in random order, and it all still works. It’s really a brilliantly constructed story.
[Peng] That’s really, I think, that’s another really good point to call out about this structure is that because it is not so standard, a lot of times you… The story that you’re working on, it might require some kind of a frame to give your story a reason for being told that way. So, out of order or in any way and order you want to read. It sounds like the book that you just named does that, because it is a book about time travel. So the jumping, like the book itself is conscious that it can be read in that way because it is about time travel. So it provides, like, a really good reason or frame for it to exist that way.
[Howard] When we think about this in terms of a physical novel where you’re paging through in order to read, it’s often difficult to imagine, well, why would I not just go to the next page? Why would I just open it up and start in the middle? My… And I’m going to use these words completely non-ironically… Magnum opus, Schlock Mercenary, the webcomic which ran for 20 years and you can still read at schlockmercenary.com. On any given day, if you went to schlockmercenary.com, the strip that is up in front of you is the very latest event in the story. I had to make sure as I was telling the story that every installment was comprehensible enough and rewarding enough that someone would click a button that says take me to the beginning of this chapter. Take me to the beginning of this book. Just throw me to a random location in the archives and let me see if I like it. We had all of those buttons. In fact, when we put the random archive button up, I got all kinds of feedback from people who said, “You’re a monster. I click that button and then I look up and I’ve been reading for two hours. How did you do that?” Well, I guess I didn’t build the story to be read in any order, I read the story… I built the story to make sure that the first element you see, no matter where you see it, is an invitation to go find more in whatever order you care to.
[Mary Robinette] So, I have a thought on that, but I’m going to wait until after we talk about the book of the week.
[Peng] Ah, okay. I’ve got the book of the week. It’s Crossings by Alex Landragin. This is one of the… This is a pretty intense example, I think, of a book with a flexible order of reading. So I’m going to try to describe it. It’s… The frame of the book is… It starts in Paris, during the Nazi occupation. It’s introduced by a German Jewish bookbinder who stumbles across a manuscript called Crossings, which is the title of the book itself that you’re about to read. Crossings is made up of three stories. One is a ghost story written by the poet, Charles Baudelaire, I think. The second one is a second noir romance about a man who falls in love with a woman who… She draws him into this dangerous hunt for a real manuscript that might have supernatural powers. Then the third is this memoir of a woman who claims that she has been alive for seven generations or something like that. But the really innovative thing about this book, Crossings, is that after you read that introduction by the German Jewish bookbinder who says, “I found this book, Crossings, and it contains three stories,” is that he gives you the option to either read it straight through, so you just read one story after the other and then get to the end, or you can alternate back and forth between the stories according to directions he gives you in the book until you end up uncovering the reason that all of these stories are together. So if you choose to follow his direction, you end up bouncing back and forth like, I don’t know, 12, 15 times between all these stories, working your way through all three at once until you get to the end. It’s… I mean, it’s just so innovative, so creative, so unique. It’s really… It’s worth reading because it is amazing how each story can build on its own if you read them one at a time or when you read all three of them together, they build up to something larger, even though you were going in a really different order.
[Dan] That’s so cool.
[Mary Robinette] It’s like…
[Dan] I love that.
[Mary Robinette] That is really cool. I’m like, that’s like a grown-up literary choose your own adventure.
[Peng] Yeah, it is a little bit like that. It’s…
[Howard] When we put together the 70 Maxims collection, there’s an annotated version of it that’s an in-world artifact where the book has been in the possession of four different people. They’ve all made their own notes in the margins. I had a spreadsheet that tracked the chronological order in which the people had the book, and the chronological order of the events that they are making notes about. But none of my spreadsheet is actually in that book. So you are holding in artifact that has a very nonlinear, very read it in any order sorts of stories written in, no lie, the handwriting of my children and a neighbor kid and Sandra in order to capture that effect. It is structurally super weird. No, it’s not how I would want to tell a mystery story, but I love what we ended up making.
[Dan] Cool. So that was Crossings by Alex Landragin.
[Howard] Oh, sorry, I interrupted the book of the week, didn’t I?
[Dan] No, everyone interrupted the book of the week. But it was super innovative and fascinating. That’s okay. But. Mary Robinette, you had something you wanted to say?
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So what Howard was talking about, about how he had to make sure that when a reader lands on a new strip, that it was comprehensible and also part of a build. That is something that… For those of you who are like, “Uh-oh, nonlinear. I can’t even… Uh-uh.” Which is, honestly, where my brain lands when I’m thinking about this. But it is something that I think about when I’m thinking about plotting novels in a series. Because I really genuinely want anyone to be able to pick up one of my novel as their starting point. But that means that I have to think about all of the previous books as prequels. Even though I didn’t write them as a prequel, I have to think about having them function as a prequel in case someone comes into the series at a different point. So I think that even if you decide that you don’t want to structure an individual story or novel in this kind of read it in any sequence way, learning some of the tools can help you with your… With the overall thing. Like, The Lady Astronauts universe started with a story… The way a lot of people come into it is The Lady Astronaut of Mars, which is set years after The Calculating Stars, but it was the first thing I wrote. So people will ask me, “What order should I read this in?” I’m like, “It honestly doesn’t matter.” You can read… You can go Lady Astronaut of Mars, Calculating Stars, Relentless Moon, Fated Sky or you can go Calculating Stars, Fated Sky, Relentless Moon, Lady Astronaut of Mars. It doesn’t matter. But it took a lot of… It’s basically me making decisions about what things I want to hold as an emotional… A piece of emotional oomph. And what things I don’t mind being backstory. As soon as I decide that they are backstory, that means that I no longer think of them as something that I want to avoid being spoiled.
[Peng] That’s a really good point about that the most important thing if you’re going to approach a book or a series with… By giving it a flexible reading order, would be to hold like the emotional resonances or the theme as the most important thing, whereas the plot might not be. So I was wondering, I was going to ask you, because you said one of your books takes place 60 years after the one that comes before it, even though you wrote it first. Would you say that if you’re going to attempt something like this, that having a different character for every story or having bigger time jumps between them might be a way to allow for greater flexibility, because readers might be more forgiving if the character’s going to change or if there is a big time jump versus feeling like they need to go in order if it’s the same character the whole time or the time jump isn’t very big in between?
[Mary Robinette] That sounds right to me.
[Mary Robinette] Like…
[Dan] It sounds…
[Mary Robinette] I mean…
[Dan] Yeah, it sounds good, although I… In my cyberpunk series, the Cherry Dog books, the Mirador books, I specifically intended them all to be episodes and you could read them in any order. But they all take place relatively at the same time. The… I was kind of specifically aping the TV model. Right? Where the characters are all the same age, they kind of exist in a timeless space. That seemed to work fairly well.
[Howard] One of the things that I keep in mind is the principle of whether or not a character has earned the reader’s or the viewer’s love and belief at a given point in the beginning of the story. As an example, the very first episode, for me, the very first episode of The Mandelorian, the Mandelorian earns the right to be awesome without a training montage or anything. He just… He earns the right to be awesome. The first episode of The Book of Bobba Fett, Bobba Fett does not earn the right to be awesome. All he has is the name Bobba Fett and the legacy of a bazillion Star Wars things. If the first episode of The Book of Bobba Fett is your introduction to Bobba Fett, I had to ask myself, “Why am I interested in who this character is?” So that dichotomy, for me, if there’s the possibility that books are going to be picked up out of order and one of my characters needs to do something that requires the earned trust, the earned belief, the earned admiration of the reader, I have to put something in there for them to earn it. It can be another character saying, “Hey, Bobba, would you mind terribly being awesome for a moment? We need you…” And then Bobba does it, and now the reader’s onboard because the other character was on board. So those kinds of tricks… Every time I started a new Schlock Mercenary book… Eh, from about book 10 to about book 20, I kept that in mind. Who are my characters going to be, how do I make them earn this early on?
[Dan] I think that’s probably the reason that every James Bond movie starts with the last scene of a previous one we have never seen before. Because right off the bat, they’re establishing, okay, this is who the character is. This is why you like him. He is awesome. Now we’re going to tell a story.
[Dan] Mary Robinette, you have our homework this week.
[Mary Robinette] I do. I actually have two homeworks for you. Because I recognize that one of them may break your brain. So, depending on how your brain works. So I’m going to give you a choice. You can do both if you want. So. Look at your current work in progress. Are there pieces of backstory that you could unpack into a sequel? For instance, as I mentioned, Calculating Stars is a prequel to Lady Astronaut of Mars. It’s basically me unpacking her backstory. So is there a story that’s in there for you? The second one, and this is the one that may break some of you. Take your current work in progress. Make a copy of it.
[Mary Robinette] So that you can do this safely. If you’re using Scrivener, this is going to be easy. Otherwise, however you want to do it, shuffle it. Shuffle it, and then see what bridging pieces you need to put in, what elements you need to add in to make it still make sense in that new order.
[Peng] My brain broke because that was so exciting.
[Peng] I’ll go do that one now.
[Dan] Okay. I am excited to hear, dear listener, from those of you who attempt this shuffling thing. Because I think it could be really fascinating. So. This…
[Mary Robinette] I’m…
[Mary Robinette] I am going to say that this came as an exercise because of a real-life incident that I had in which my cats played across the notecards… Played a game of tag across the notecards that I was using to plot my book. When I picked them back up, I was like, “Huh. That’s actually a more interesting order.”
[Peng] Cats are geniuses.
[Dan] Let your cats plot your books, I guess, is…
[Howard] That’s the next [garbled]
[Dan] A take away you should not have from this episode. You are out of excuses. Now go write.