Got Plot? Maybe Not!

I was honored when a friend allowed me to read her unpublished novel and proud when I finished it. Her heartwarming story involves a myriad of quirky, interesting yet different characters who I felt I got to know within the course of reading the book. As I learned about the characters, I emailed my friend to tell her how much I enjoyed it, and I told her I couldn’t wait to get to the “meat and potatoes” of her novel. She wrote back that she worried that maybe there were no “meat and potatoes,” and asked me to check back with her if I found any.

As I finished reading the manuscript, I found some meat and potatoes, but in a series of emails, we decided that there was a lot of “salad” beforehand. She had the characters down pat, but the action was missing. I emailed her that her novel reminded me of Stephen King (albeit, a different genre), in that his books spent chapters upon chapters of introducing us to awesome characters. But with King, once you got to know his characters he “did crazy shit to them.” I thought my friend’s novel needed “more shit” happening to her characters. (Note: I was thinking of The Stand and Under the Dome in particular).

Classy vernacular, I know, but we ultimately concluded that her novel had a weak plot. I did a quick google search and found some basic plot information that I forwarded to her: how to make plot outlines, developing plot points, etc., and we tossed around ideas.

Well, tonight I went to the Big Guy himself for his take on plot. Stephen King’s On Writing is one of those books that all writers should read (I previously mentioned this book here and here). Guess what? He’s not a big fan of plot, per se. He considers the three vital parts of stories and novels to be narration, description, and dialogue. As to plot, he writes:

You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer– my answer, anyway– is nowhere. I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible.

He goes on to explain that, “the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves.” King believes that stories “are found things, like fossils in the ground.” He describes a writer’s job as uncovering as much of the fossil as possible with the use of some delicate tools, not the “jackhammer” of plot. He calls plot “clumsy, mechanical, [and]  anticreative,” and writes:

Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.

Instead, King says, he relies on intuition and “situations.” He explains that he:

. . . want[s] to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety– those are jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot– but to watch what happens and then write it down.

Huh! Easy for him to say, but how does this translate into the writing practice of us mere mortals? Well, King says that he thinks of a situation first, then adds narration. Sometimes he has an idea of how things will turn out; sometimes they turn out that way and sometimes they don’t. He lets the characters “do things their way,” which may not necessarily be his way. He advises:

A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question.

So where does this leave me and my advice to my friend. I know she’s reading this post, so I’ll tell her this:  FORGET WHAT I SAID! Let’s listen to Stephen King and figure out a “what-if” question for your lovely characters, and let the characters take the lead. You’re halfway there for the rewrite in that you already created these distinct personalities. You can take them, put them in a predicament, and let it flow. You know your characters already. Your book is awesomesauce and has so much potential and I hope you decide to work on it. I’ll help you however I can.

I also note that I am SO JEALOUS of all you brave Camp NaNoWriMo campers out there, writing a 50,000 word novel in one month’s time. I hope you are progressing on schedule and having fun with it. I’m going to do it at some point. I’d love to hear your thoughts and advice on it.

Thanks for reading and have a nice night.  Keep writing!

11 Comments

  1. I’ve never read the full book you quote, but it sounds like King is talking more about a writing process than a quality of the resulting work. I heard the same kind of thing attributed to Michelangelo where he just unveils whatever was in the rock. In both cases, I think they’re just functioning on good instincts. So, king plans a setting and wings it on plot? Cool. Some people drive from place to place by instinct. Others use a map. In the end, both use cars and roads.

    If you can write using King’s methods that’s great, but some people write better with a map (or plot) in mind.

    For the record, I fall in between the extremes. But, since I don’t write novel length, my methods are a little irrelevant. However, my brother NaNoWriMos every year, the nut!

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  2. Good article, I plan to do the nanowrimo someday too. I tried last year:/ not so awesome. Thanks for the stephen king tips, your friend has a really great test reader in you. The part I like best was that you told her there was a problem not just fluffing her off with a oooh great book! you also helped her find a solution.

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  3. I’ve done NaNoWriMo every year since 2004 (and threw in a few Junes, Julys, Augusts, and Januaries for good measure). I LOVE it–it’s so liberating to write so much in so little time, because you have to let everything go in order to do it. You have to go into it knowing this isn’t going to be your best work, and that you’re going to have to rewrite it twice or maybe three times before you’re going to like it. Plus, you get to write alongside thousands of other people, and the community is great.

    As for April’s Camp NaNo, it’s never too late to join in. This month there’s a flexible word goal you can set yourself, so you don’t have to worry about being behind.🙂

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      • More people do November, so there’s more of a community I suppose. The forums on the NaNo site are a lot busier then. In the other months, you’re placed in a “cabin” with about five other people and have your own private chat room type deal with them. Otherwise, there isn’t a lot of difference–this year for April they introduced the “set your own goal” thing, but people were doing that for November anyway! Hope you give it a try when you can, it’s a lot of fun!

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  4. I like that book. I have used the “letting the characters lead” process in screenplays, but i have had trouble making it work in novels. A play that I had produced actually followed King’s suggestions. Plot versus letting the characters lead,… I have had more fun letting the characters lead.

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