The Noble Art of Hopscotch. Or how to get from one scene to another when you don’t know what comes between them.

A J HartleyA J Hartley
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I have recently emerged from a massive structural edit of my third DARWEN ARKWRIGHT book, and I have to say that it was a tough one, maybe the hardest I’ve ever done. There were some substantial rethinkings of plot and character which I’d come to, thanks to my excellent editor at Razorbill, but which felt so immense that for a couple of weeks after getting the memo and coming to terms with its rightness, I felt utterly paralyzed.

In the end I think I rewrote about a third of the book entirely, throwing out (or rather cutting and pasting into a separate file) a good 25,000 words and replacing them with the same number of new ones plus another 10,000 for good measure. Even sections I didn’t significantly alter got moved around, sometimes dramatically, so that at times the process felt like being in a massive hedge maze, where turns you thought you’d made before led in different, baffling directions, and routes that seemed sure to point the way out took me right back to where I came in. It was, I don’t mind saying, pretty maddening, and my conviction that I was in fact making the book better as I worked, helped rather less than you might imagine.

I thought that today, and perhaps in another future post or two, I would focus on what DID help, beginning with what you might call the hopscotch approach to writing.

First, a confession. I tend to move in a very linear fashion through my story, especially in its initial drafting, starting at the beginning and moving sequentially toward the end. It’s all very orderly and, if I’m being honest, a little bit pedestrian without any of the wild thrills some writers seem to enjoy. I have always resented these hardier folks for being able to jump around their story so effortlessly, writing the ending first, then a bit from the middle and then—just for devilment—typing the opening page before skipping casually back to the end. To me, (he admits, loathing the puritanical sound of the confession) it always seemed a bit like cheating.

But when I get to these big edits where huge chunks have to be rewritten, moving sequentially scene by scene just doesn’t work for me any more. In my head I no longer have a single (if complex) narrative which comes into being line by line as I move forward. Instead I have an ungainly monolith (Massive, but Precarious like a skyscraper fashioned entirely, if improbably, out of Jenga blocks), something which already exists but which needs extensive rebuilding. I see the whole thing not as a series of discrete potentialities, but as a chaos of the extant, where any adjustment is likely to bring the whole construction crashing down on top of me.

When a book already exists, albeit in Ungainly Monolith form, it doesn’t make sense to start from page 1 and work sequentially through to the end. I have to identify each strand needing attention then work by plot line, or by theme, or by character, dipping into the relevant section, fiddling, adding, taking away, then moving on to the next bit which might be in an entirely different part of the book. I’ll go back to my linear Let’s Start At The Very Beginning (it’s a very good place to start) again when I’m done and the cracks and fault lines in all the new masonry have to be papered over, but till I get there, I’m playing hopscotch, jumping from section to section like a directionally challenged flea whose behind is (for reasons I cannot begin to explain) on fire.

I don’t actually remember how to play hopscotch so the analogy I’m making here is likely to be vague to the point of uselessness or just plain wrong, but bear with me a second. As I recall it, the game involves throwing a rock or something into a chalked square with a number in it and then hopping up and down the chalked ladder thingy (according to what the number was) and jumping over some squares in order to get to others.

Something like that.

I have no idea how you win, though judging by my sense of the game thus far, I doubt that’s ever a possibility which loomed especially large for me, and is even less of an option for a flea whose ass is on fire.

Anyway… The payoff for this unwieldy and probably wildly inaccurate metaphor for my purposes to day is this: when faced with a massive edit, or even an initial draft, writers often get stuck. They are in one spot (on the number 3, say) and need to advance, but can’t step on the number 4 because their little rock thingy landed somewhere else or (in writerly terms) they just don’t know what happens in scene 4. They acould go to scene 5, however, a scene they have a much better grasp on, and this is where they start hopping.

For me, the form of the jump from 3 to 5 might take shape as an inserted note to self marked with a character I could easily search for (an asterisk, say, an ampersand, or something else I don’t actually use in my writing). The note itself might look like this:

[* Insert really cool action scene here: something that picks up the pace, does X to character Q, reveals artifact Y which I need on page 257, lets character Z talk about H, and sets up plot point W. Maybe set the scene at night. In a lighthouse, because they are, you know, cool.]

The more information I add to the note, the clearer I become about the function of the scene, and the easier it will be when I return to it. Sometimes, in the process I discover that I CAN write scene 4 right now after all, but often I’ll just hopscotch over it to scene 5 which is fresh and shiny in my head, reminding myself to come back to scene 4 later (and maybe to scene 2 which now demands an explanation for why my characters will later go to a lighthouse).

The hopscotch method takes a lot of pressure off me, because it’s an IOU, a promissory note to my story that the gap will be filled; I have just enough faith in my own solvency to trust that I will indeed return and fix it. So now I can focus on the bit I really want to write, the part I KNOW, which is scene 5. When I’ve done that (and maybe scenes 7-10 as well) I’ll have an even clearer sense of what has to happen in that troublesome scene 4 and I can go back to it poised to join up the dots in the most interesting way I can think of.

I assume everyone does some version of this, yet I know of lots of writers who talk about getting stuck on a plot point, to whom I offer this little (slightly arch) respin of a familiar mantra: Write what you know now. In other words, get down the scene which is clear to you, even if that means dodging the set up for that scene or other bits which come earlier but which you can’t see yet. Get down the parts you can see, then get your little stone (or whatever the hell it is) and start hopscotching. You can rejoin the Linear Forward Motion Club (get in line, we have T shirts) when the cobbling is done.

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12 comments to The Noble Art of Hopscotch. Or how to get from one scene to another when you don’t know what comes between them.

  • This is really useful. Like you, I tend to write very linearly–to the point that I’ve never not written that way in a first draft of something. I usually start my writing by reading whatever I last wrote, to get myself back into that mental space. But it does also get me stuck. I spent a few days (maybe a week or more?) not being able to move forward because of the scene in front of me. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what happened. I did. But it was big, and semi-actiony, scary, emotional, and the thought of writing it just made me cringe. Eventually I got it done, with the “well, I can edit it later,” feeling because I’m not sure it’s right (or pretty sure it isn’t right, one of the two). But the “write a note, go on to something else” is a good suggestion. One I shall try the next time I’m in a “I don’t want to write that scene” moment.

  • Thanks, Pea. Glad it was useful. I often find that the scenes which feel like walls, or just too big to navigate can wait. Getting past them and then doubling back reduces the sense that the problem scene is a barrier. Obviously, you’ll need to do thorough editing for what the movie people continuity thereafter.

  • >>I have no idea how you win, though judging by my sense of the game thus far, I doubt that’s ever a possibility which loomed especially large for me, and is even less of an option for a flea whose ass is on fire.>>

    AJ, I nearly snorted tea through my nose (which is dreadfully uncomfortable and quite unladylike) when I read the above.

    I do something like your *add a scene notation* method when I skip scenes, chapters, or have to remember something important. When working on Word, I just add an electronic comment in the margin like: “This is a clue that I will use in book 7. Must copy and paste to a new file.” Or, “Add scene about what kind of poison will kill a blowfish.” Or, “Look up info about Cherokee ritual for battle and insert here.” Or whatever.

    When rewriting I often work on hardcopy (as I am doing now) and leave handwritten notes in the margins, like, “Move this scene to after Marsha disappears.” Or, “Go back and see if Marsha and Sally actually knew each other. If not, add a scene that says they do.” And I use different colored sticky notes so I can find the notes easily.

    This makes my work area look like Hurricane Sandy came to visit, but it works for me. Most of the time. Except when I misplace a page or three. Or a dog walks off with a sticky note stuck to his nose.

    At any rate, it is fascinating to me to see how alike our processes are, despite that fact that I could not hopscotch at all these days. Dang feet. :)

  • Faith,
    getting you to snort tea was pretty much what I was going for, so we’re all winners :)

    I haven’t worked on hardcopy for a decade or more, though the big structural edit often makes me consider going back to it. I don’t know my own book well enough at this stage and navigating my way through a document on screen gets really frustrating. Of course, what I do have is the search/replace function which generally compensates just enough for me to stick with the digital version. This is also why I should probably be looking more closely at Scribner and the like. Maybe next time.

  • I love your idea for making notes about a scene you’re not ready to write just yet, and I think I can adapt this to really help me on my WIP. Historically I’ve written scenes as they occurred to me, hopscotching my way around the book with little or no regard for linear structure. Of course, historically I’ve never finished a novel either, so this time I’ve tried to write linearly, but I keep getting stuck because that really isn’t how my brain works.

    Taking notes on the scenes I’ve skipped, and making notes about what has to happen before scenes I write out of order will help me keep focus on the linear order for plot and character development, but allow me to jump around as I write. Thanks–I’m off to do just that right now!

  • Although I, too, tend to write linearly, I am pea’s diametric opposite. I love writing the action-packed, the emotional, the highlight-reel scenes. I’ll sit and stare for hours, however, at all that white space between. I can write it if I know how to get the characters from scene L to scene M, but often times – not so much (the knowing part).

    When I’m writing drafts, each chapter (note that chapter breaks at this point are a bit arbitrary) is saved as a separate Word file. This lets me bring up multiple chapters on (two monitors) screen, side-by-side and add edit comments with appropriate location references or link-tags/bookmarks. This has also made it easier, for me, to bypass those transitional parts I have trouble with – I can just put in something like: [Need to figure out how to get from here to where Joe and Jill are being chased by the Bad Guys and end up jumping into the volcano.] Since the volcano scene is in the next “chapter” I can go write the fun stuff!

    I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to write in a truly hopscotch fashion, and I’ve never (yet) had to do any of the heavy-lifting of a full scale restructure revision, but my multiple file method does make it easier for me to change the order of significant events, combine or separate, etc.

  • Vyton

    A.J., This is a very helpful discussion. I tend to write in a straight line, too. And, when I have to move chunks around, I easily get lost. I have Scrivener, and I’m going to try it on the next one with a good outline.

  • Thank you – this was really helpful. Plus, I just taught Donne’s “The Flea” so the image of burning flea is extra hilarious. I have a bad habit of writing toward the scene I really want to write so that I end up with pages of boring set up. At it’s worst I give excruciatingly precise descriptions of things like the process of making tea just so the MC can have a cup of hot tea in her hand to throw at the BBU. The hopscotching method is a way of giving myself permission to jsut write the event that matters. After that I often can see what part of the set up is necessary action and what is just filler.

  • sagablessed

    As I understand Rowling wrote this way. I have tried this method, but I think I have a touch of OCD when it comes to my WIP. As I am stuck at the moment as to what happens next, I may try to take this approach once again.
    You know I may steal the flea comment for a FB post. Cuz it is just too hilarious to pass up. :D

  • Razziecat

    I generally write in a linear fashion because I’m afraid if I write the big scenes first, I’ll lose motivation to write those in-between scenes. I also like to build up to them, increasing the tension until I get to the pay-off. So at first I resist the lure of the major scenes…for a while. Eventually I give in and write those scenes, then go back and fill in the rest. But I’m not very organized about it. This might be the solution to my current “block” which is holding up my NaNo progress. I have to kill off my favorite character; it’s important to the story, but I keep putting it off. Maybe I should skip over it, write what happens next, and then when I’m on solid footing go back & fill that in.

  • Sisi,
    Great! Glad this helped.

    Lyn,
    the multiple file system sounds useful. Good idea.

    Vyton,
    Oops. Yes, Scrivener is what I meant :) Thanks.

    Sarah,
    yes, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but the hopscotch method may indeed help you focus on the important stuff rather than wasting time on detail you don’t need. Good point.

    Saga,
    yes, as I say, I’m pretty linear too. I couldn’t use this method at the drafting stage and it takes effort for me even when I’m editing, but it’s good to be able to use it from time to time.

    Razzie,
    likewise, yes. Though I have to say that killing off your favorite character worries me a bit, unless you are very close to the end. Sounds risky embarking on a lengthy portion of the book without the character you like best…

  • Razziecat

    It’s OK, A.J., it has to be done to give the rest of the good guys the final bit of magic they need to complete their task and defeat the bad guys. It does happen near the end. I probably don’t need the full 50K to finish the book, so once I get to the end of the story I’ll go back and fill in some of the other scenes I skipped over in the first half, and that will eventually add to up approx. 90-100K for the whole book. I hope. :)

    This guy did not start out to be my favorite character, he sort of grew on me. I’m going to write some backstory when I’m done with the novel. Might get some decent short stories out of it. Or a prequel ;)