You’ve probably heard of the distinction made between those who write stories by planning them out step by step, and those who ‘make things up as they go along’ — the ‘planners’ and ‘pantsers’ as they are colloquially known.
There may be another distinction, not quite parallel with this, along the lines of those who write in a linear fashion and those who write in a latitudinal way.
The linear one is perhaps the easiest to grasp: one starts with a scene, usually the opening scene, and then just takes things from there, one scene at a time. This is the ‘Then this happened, then this happened…’ method of storytelling, probably the simplest and most primitive kind of tale-construction known to human beings. It’s the one that anyone who has listened to young children will be familiar with, as it’s how they build a story: ‘There was a boy and he went into the woods and he found a sword and he fought a dragon…’ and so on. This method is undoubtedly the most common way of creating fiction. It’s main trouble is that it tends to run out of steam — there are probably innumerable unfinished tales of this kind which simply ground to a halt when the ‘Then this happeneds’ ran out.
The latitudinal method, by definition, tends not to be linear in its construction. It proceeds from an idea or image and connects up a network of other ideas and images, more like a jigsaw puzzle than a line. Gradually, as in a jigsaw, an overall picture takes shape and the rest of the pieces slot into place. Then, with a broad tapestry to choose from, the writer can perhaps follow more than one ‘line’ or ‘thread’ of story. Its main drawback is that it can get lost in itself, and never actually result in a story which can be communicated to readers — readers like to read ‘linearly’, even when they greatly appreciate latitude.
‘Pantsers’ tend to adopt the linear method, though not exclusively; ‘planners’ usually find themselves following the latitudinal way, though not always.
Many of the greatest writers of all time operated using the linear method. Charles Dickens, for example, wrote his stories as serials for his magazine, and didn’t know very far ahead what would happen. On the other hand, there are many great authors who have used the latitudinal method: J. R. R. Tolkien, for example, constructed an entire universe of myth and legend, populated by invented (or re-invented) races and full of created languages but then found the whole thing faced rejection after rejection by those to whom he privately revealed it, until one day, almost by accident, he discovered a ‘thread’ which opened the door to a linear storyline which then made his creation accessible to a wider readership. It was when he was marking examination papers and came across a blank page: he scribbled ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…’ and from that a children’s story developed which then ‘bled into’ the far richer tapestry he had been working on for years. From there, he could tell many a tale, as the tapestry yielded all kinds of wonders.
Neither method is superior to the other; both have advantages and disadvantages. The act of experiencing a story, at least for the first time, tends to be linear; the depth of a story, or when it is read or seen again or multiple times, comes from its latitudinal elements. Some stories are written to be experienced only once: their power lies in their momentum and perhaps in a central ‘secret’ or mystery which, once told, blows everything. Others can be read, heard or seen again and again and reveal new depths and hitherto unrecognised connections every time — these tend to be categorised as ‘literary’ works, and are inclined to survive through generations of readers because they can be plumbed by each new age for new meanings.
Probably the wisest approach is to use some of each method: write linearly, but with an eye on latitude, or vice-versa.