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.