I recently read Stephen King’s On Writing for the first time. Everyone knows that King is a wildly successful writer, and there’s that perennial question of whether he’s actually a good writer. (Yes, bad writers can be wildly successful, witness Dan Brown, who is a horrific writer.) I’ll confess that I’ve only read one of King’s novels (though I’ve seen a number of films adapted from his works), and it was a recent one: Mr. Mercedes. I’ll likewise confess that I didn’t finish it. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, exactly; it just didn’t grab me.
But On Writing was a very engaging book, and not just because of the writing advice. It’s an actual page-turner. He offers a memoir about how he began writing and the course his working life took until he became successful. What’s more, the book was an eye-opener for me in a couple of ways. For one thing, his suggestions about the amount of time one needs to devote daily to writing, and the word count goal one ought to set for oneself, motivated me to be more aggressive about my commitment to my craft and to my output.
But there was one thing in the book that was a real shock to my system. King doesn’t mince words that he thinks plotting is a bad idea. “I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible” (163), he says. Even stronger, he claims, “[As a tool, plot is] clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. 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” (164).
Instead of plotting, King begins with a “what-if” situation. It’s barely a sentence, sometimes not even written down. “What if vampires invaded a small New England Village? (Salem’s Lot)”; “What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone in sight? (Desperation)” (169). And he sits down at his computer and lets the story come as it will. He insists that the writer doesn’t and can’t control the direction of the narrative; the narrative dictates to the writer where it wants to go.
King is convinced that “stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world” (163), and that the writer’s job isn’t to force the ingredients of it together, as if he’s baking a cake; but rather to dig it up with fine-grained tools, as if he’s trying to get a fossil out of the ground.
Now, all this was a shock to my system because I’m an obsessive plotter. All the novels I’ve written have been plotted, and as I’ve worked over the years, the outlines have become more and more detailed and complex. In the last few years, they’re in the range of 30 – 40 pages, single-spaced. And that’s just the outline. It doesn’t count the reams and reams of notes I’ve already taken just to get to the outlining stage.
Now, it could be that King is right, and my writing is artificial and labored; it could be that I’m robbing my stories of any true spontaneity and inspiration by plotting them out so thoroughly. After all, he has made a kabillion dollars from his books. Or it could be that there are different ways to go about the process, such that what works for one writer may not work for another.
First, when King says that stories are “part of an undiscovered pre-existing world,” I’m reading that as a metaphor for the creative process itself. I assume he means that, during the creative process, the writer needs to shut down the analytical, rational side of him- or herself, and let the truly primal, instinctive, creative part run wild; he means that the analytical part of the brain will constrain and hinder, will get in the way of, what the heart and the guts can truly accomplish.
If this isn’t meant as a metaphor, and King literally means that stories pre-exist out there somewhere, then he’s either bought into some absurd metaphysics, or he’s schizophrenic. So, I’ll go with the first option and read it as a metaphor.
My retort to King, then, is that the process of coming up with ideas and constructing a plot is a creative exercise. It just happens a step removed from the construction of the actual prose. That is, suppose I’m writing a suspense novel. Choices have to be made about every aspect of the book, the characters, the situations they find themselves in, how they get into and out of those situations, what the big confrontation is at the end, etc.
If I’m like King, I sit down at a blank page, and write the prose on the spot, without planning anything out ahead of time. I do all the creative work in that moment. But in the way I actually do it, some of the creative work is done ahead of time. Who is the main character? Who are his friends and his love interest? What’s the inciting incident that turns his world upside down? What’s the first act climax? The second act climax? And so forth.
However, in the process of thinking about those issues, and making those decisions, my rational and analytical faculties are not holding me back. All the ideas that occur to me come from inspiration, from the guts and the heart. They don’t necessarily come as the narrative unfolds, that is, chronologically, in story-time. They may well come out of order, and more in bits and pieces. But, as I say, they are the product of creative imagination; and not all narratives work in a linear chronology anyway.
Okay, so maybe I lose some of the spontaneity, but I deny that spontaneity is absolutely necessary for creativity. In subsequent drafts, King surely adds lots and lots of elements to his stories. Why, I ask, is introducing some cool idea in the second draft somehow original and inspired, but coming up with that idea during the note-taking or outlining phase isn’t?
As many chills as King gets down his back writing those inspired moments in the midst of a scene, I get as well in those great bursts of creativity in the planning and outlining phase. Stuff happens, the story goes in particular directions, that I didn’t see coming. The difference is that, (for me) trying to write a suspense novel (or worse, a mystery) without an outline is asking for trouble. You can write yourself into difficulties that you might not be able to get out of without starting over or throwing out lots and lots of pages.
Further, just because I outline extensively doesn’t mean I outline absolutely everything. I have a road map of where the story starts and where it goes. Most of the important and interesting details are provided in the actual writing of the prose. Even with that structure in place, there’s still a great deal of room for spontaneity, for the story to come to life, for me to put meat on its bones.
So, my conclusion is that King is wrong to say that plotting is the death of creativity, “the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.” It’s just not the way he does things. You and I are free to do it differently.