Letting A Story Write Itself

Stories sometimes just drop out of the sky. Or do they?There is a paragraph in Stephen King’s On Writing that hit me about the head like a frying pan. In it he talks about his writing process: how he transforms an idea he has for a story into an actual book.

The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured, to begin with – come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I never expected. For a suspense novelist, this is a great thing. I am, after all, not just the novel’s creator but its first reader. And if I’m not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out, even with my inside knowledge of coming events, I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety. And why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere.

King makes it seem so easy: why ever should you have to ‘be enslaved to the tyranny of the outline and the notebook filled with “Character Notes”?’ And I must admit, it does make writing sound fun. But after giving it a try and thinking about the possibilities of this technique – I have to say that the differences in story and plot really depend on what kind of writer you are, and what kind of stories you write.


Story is what King advocates: he starts off with an idea, and instead of pulling up his sleeves and pushing characters around, he sits back and just ‘write what happens’. He alleges this is more organic and inspired, and some pretty complex books of his have come out of this style of writing (Doleres Claiborne). To his credit his arguments do make plenty of sense – and he throws in a caveat: “… each of the novels summarized above was smoothed out and detailed by the editorial process, of course, but most of the elements existed to begin with …”

Story works where there is a situational premise (Richard’s Undead Flowers, for instance: what happens if there are the undead and the living live together, side by side, in a village?). And I believe story also works when you’re writing a blook … for the reasons King gave, as well as its suitability to the medium.


Plot is what King calls the ‘jackhammer’ of the storyteller’s arsenal. But despite all the things he says against it there are authors out there for whom plot works well. Generational epics (like Steinbeck’s East Of Eden, for instance) have to be plotted, and couldn’t have been pulled off without some planning. And you have Jefferey Deaver, who swears by the importance of outlining before beginning a book. So plot does work, and is in fact needed for novels with a high levels of complexity. Even King admits to plotting (The Dead Zone), though he says this is the exception rather than the rule: ‘I have written plotted novels, but the results, in books like Insomnia and Rose Madder, have not been particularly inspiring.’

Plot … Story … Eh?

And me? I try to plot. Really I do. I outline and decide what happens in chapter 18, and which character gets killed off by chapter 23. But honestly, I have no discipline following any of the plotting I’ve done … so what King writes serves as a lovely excuse for me not to plot. Which I will, in my next manuscript.

Here’s a shoutout to you fiction writers out there: which works for you? Plot? Story? I’ve got one part of an interview with Authors on the Web on exactly that, and the replies are mixed. Are yours? I’m interested to know.

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Category: Learning To Write · Writing
  • http://wisb.blogspot.com/ SMD

    I have to admit that I am not a fan of King’s writing, however I did read is book “On Writing” because he obviously has to know what he is doing if he’s so successful. He does offer a lot of insight.
    I have tried his method, but I find that I always know the ending and the problem is figuring out how the characters get there. Often times if I go to the trouble of plotting a story (a novel or short) I find that the characters will go a different way. This happened several times in my online novel The World in the Satin Bag, which was an experiment anyway. I’d suddenly have an interesting insight into the world and things would go an entirely different direction almost instantly. I loved the way it went, and I think the story is still very good with that bit of freedom, but sometimes it gets annoying when you find that you can’t meet your deadline anymore (which for me was a chapter every other week up until the last ten chapters when it turned to every week). It’s really interesting though to see where you characters go. Sometimes they do some great things. But I think knowing the ending, even vaguely, can help a lot in keeping focus…

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I’m still working it out, and I’m heartened to hear you’ve managed to pull it off – the freedom thing. I was just done with my writing for the day when I came online and saw your comment, and I had just taken an unexpected turn in my story, and found out something about my character which I hadn’t before.

    I’m afraid the ending’s a little blur at the moment, though. :(

  • http://rebirthnovel.blogspot.com Scott McKenzie

    I’ve tried writing without much of an outline of the plot in the past and I ended up getting nowhere fast. Now I’ve started outlining the whole thing chapter by chapter, along with which characters are in each scene, what should happen to them and how they should change by the end.

    For me, it makes the writing process a lot easier if I get as much of the “plotting” as possible done early on in the process. My first novel deviated quite a bit from the original outline once I started writing but the second (coming soon!) has stuck quite closely to the plan.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Wow. That’s real commitment to detail, Scott. Good to meet a ‘plotter’ – does it take real discipline to stick to it? Or is it natural for you?

  • http://rebirthnovel.blogspot.com Scott McKenzie

    A ‘plotter’, eh? You callin’ me names? ;)

    I got the idea from a book I read about screen writing and I found it worked for me.

    I start off with a blank sheet of paper, separate it into three sections – act 1, 2 and 3 (prologue and epilogue if appropriate as well) then make notes about what needs to happen in each act.

    Then I get a set of blank cards and note down all the scenes I need, then all the scenes I want, including the characters, the location and what they should learn/achieve by the end of the chapter. Sometimes it also helps the writing process to note down whether the chapter should focus on developing the plot or the characters. I then arrange the cards into an order that makes logical sense.

    I then transfer all the notes into a blank Word document (one card per page/chapter). This then gives me the outline of the whole plot.

    I find this works well for me because I tend to write for an hour at a time early in the morning before I go to work. By having the plot and character arc planned for each chapter, I’ve got enough preparation done to crawl out of bed and start writing.

    This isn’t really a good option if you want to start writing something without an ending in mind but writing thrillers with twists in the tale, I tend to focus on the main plot points first and work out how my characters can get from one point to the next in a believable way. I can totally understand how people write in a less-structured way, especially full-time writers but as someone who is writing to blog, I want to get the whole thing written first (see previous article :) ) so I set myself deadlines and do my best to stick to them.

  • http://nomananisland.wordpress.com Gavin Williams

    I have a totally different method than either story or plot, I think. I see scenes in my head, and do my best to relate them onto the page. Then I begin to figure out how to connect them, and the sequence they go in.

    It’s almost as if the story is in the back of my mind, already written, and I just have to carve it out.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    That is a wonderful way to write, Gavin. I’m still hard at work at unplotting myself … and I find it fun, though occasionally frustrating.

  • http://nomananisland.wordpress.com Gavin Williams

    It’s a fun way to write, aside from the times when I can’t see a picture. Then I have to see if I should force it, or leave it until the picture is ready.

    However, I don’t know if it’s a fun thing to read — the only completed work so far is the one that’s going up on my blog chapter by chapter, and it’s a fairly odd duck as books go. Some people seem to be enjoying it, but I call it “experimental” because it’s not structured like most novels.

    If anyone asked me why it’s experimental, I’d say it’s because that’s the way the movie in my head shows the scenes, and that’s the way my mind works. Whether that works for readers is still up in the air.

  • http://criticalmass.crazydreams.org/ CrazyDreamer

    I start with a character or two (Princess Esmerelda and Prince Charming) or a setting (post-apocalyptic dwarves–don’t ask, and please don’t steal) or even a genre (military fantasy). Story and plot are my real weaknesses; I’m really a better roleplayer than writer. If I can figure out what my characters have to deal with, though, I can generally work my way forward from there. Usually I have a few iconic scenes from later in the work floating around in my head, but getting from here to there tends to be freeform.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    You start with characters.

    To tell you the truth I have no idea what I start with … but it’s usually a concept that gives a tingling feeling down the spine. Characters, scenes and the message I want to get across follow shortly after.

  • Diana

    Generally I work like King, apparently. And Heinlein, actually– found in the book ‘Grumbles from the Grave’ a really fantastic quote about plotting:

    “Winslow says I don’t understand plotting and probably I don’t– I have been congratulated many times on the skill shown in my plotting when I knew damn well that the story in question had not been plotted in advance at all. My notion of a story is an interesting situation in which a human being has to cope with a problem, does so, and thereby changes his personality, character, or evaluations in some measure because the coping has forced him to revise his thinking. How he copes with it I can’t plot in advance because that depends on his character, and I don’t know what his character is until I get acquainted with him.”

    I was extremely amused by this description from my personal favorite author, because it so closely mirrors my own take on plotting– there’s only so much I can know until I start writing and working with the characters. Now, once I write through a manuscript, it takes a lot to make it good; the editing process is brutal when you haven’t sat down to plan it out before hand. But yes, writing is a much better way to plan than plotting, at least for me.

  • http://arcanadium.monoxide.ws/ Spotty

    For my story that I’m writing at the moment, which was admittedly an experiment from the very start (I was planning on writing a series of short stories), I wrote the first part, thinking that I’d leave it there. Then, for the second part, inspiration failed to hit, so I did the same scene from the perspective of a different character. Then when I walked away from that, ideas started flowing for a third part. And things kind of got out of hand from there.

    I have ideas for where I want the story to end up ‘eventually’, but if it ever gets there, or whether it ends up somewhere completely different, I have no idea yet. Also, alot of the characters are based loosely (or tightly, but I’d never admit to that) on people I know. So I suppose I’m a part of the ‘story’ following.

    What I want to acheive is something completely different though. And that is something you’re going to have to read and comment to find out about though.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Sounds like you’re having a lot of fun, Spotty. That’s always something I’m in favour of. =)

  • http://arcanadium.monoxide.ws/ Spotty

    Isn’t that the point? How many authors write ‘because they have to’, or some similar reason?

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  • Ray Love

    I have written one book so far and I just created a title and let the title tell me what kind of characters needed to be in the story and also the title told me what kind of story it was going to be. Before typing I lay down in bead and began watching a theatrical preview in my head of what this story would be like as a movie, then I write down what I have seen. After I go and expand the preview into a full on story that writes itself through cause and effect. —Hope this has been helpful, -Ray Love (author of “THE SKULL OF DRACULA”)

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  • Zen Ken H

    Personally I find plotting takes away suspense and the fun experience of being a reader from the writer. Imagine writing a story so interesting that even the writer himself can’t wait to find out what happens. The readers would probably feel the same won’t they?