Do I need to plot? Reflections on Stephen King’s On Writing

I’ve come back from holiday and finally had time to read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’. It’s a great book and I’d recommend it to everybody, whether you write or otherwise. I bought it following a friend’s recommendation a few months ago, as it must have have passed me by when it came out. Since then, of course, I’ve seen it crop up in many people’s Top 10 lists of books on writing, alongside the usual Strunk & White etc.

I enjoyed the episodes of his life as a boy, talking about his mother and brother, which were vivid and full of detail. He does a good list; a good Americana namecheck. The book ended with the episode of him being mown down by a van. Grisly medical detail, not for the squeamish, and should make everybody to walk on the verge of a main road with added caution. And not to trust anybody in charge of a tonne of moving vehicle.

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The middle of the book is focussed more on the craft of writing itself and this was what he was finishing when he was recovering from the accident. Some of it is interesting but not wholly applicable to me and my writing situation. For example, his advice to writers starting out is written very much in a particular context (both geographical and historical) so I don’t believe it holds as much validity these days. Perhaps there are dozens of magazines buying short stories and paying you good money for them these days? But I doubt it. So I read this section with curiosity but no mental notepad to hand.

The sections that really gripped my attention were the chapters on writing itself. Alongside the usual writing craft litany (no adverbs, active tense, write what you know) he dropped in a very unexpected bombshell.

Stephen King does not plot.

That is, he claims that he doesn’t work out where the story is going to go in advance of writing it, with all the usual cause-and-effect permutations (see previous blogs). This was (initially) a surprise. Across the majority of his work, King describes the act of writing as finding a situation, a ‘what if’ scenario, and then see what happens when you put a character in there. What if a car got possessed and started killing people? Where could you go with that? Assuming you have at least one strong character, with some interesting imbalances that need resolution by the end of the story, this situation and the character would take you on the journey. Therefore, he doesn’t plot.

But who doesn’t plot? It seemed crazy.

Then I realised: it’s the genre. In case you weren’t aware (you kids out there), King writes predominantly in the horror genre. The horror genre typically follows a straightforward plot: MC is threatened; MC overcomes threat (or MC tries to overcome threat but is still destroyed).

In the horror genre, the what-if scenario dictates how the plot starts, and the character themselves will take actions according to what feels most plausible. Well, at least, they ought to do what seems most plausible. Quite often they do the opposite.

Once you’ve set the scene and introduced the threat, the plot is all about the MC trying to find means to escape, or to reduce or to destroy the threat. And this is pretty much what King describes as his writing style. He lives with his characters in real time, only discovering the plot by actually writing it.

That is a liberating way of writing!

I am currently writing all five of the last chapters of the latest book in the Lost Archive series in parallel because I’m trying to get all the multiple story strands to land in … well, at least to land in style! This is a complex and stressful business. The reason it’s stressful is because, when I plotted it out in advance, it all seemed so simple. But when I came to actually write, the plot (the events in the story being dictated by specific causes) started to stray away from what I had originally planned. So I had to re-adjust and re-plan, with all the moving parts that a complicated multi-book series and a multi-character storyline brings with it.

And then I started thinking about when I had first started writing. About when I had first borrowed my parent’s typewriter, having decided I wanted to be writer, and just started putting words down on a page. I seem to remember it was some pulp nonsense involving a hotel out in the wilds of some hot country somewhere, peopled by characters with scars on their faces and loads of emotional baggage. I never got past the first chapter, of course, but then that’s not the point. The reason I started writing it – letting each sentence follow on from its predecessor without a care for where the next went – was because it was it was exciting. I was writing and reading the story at the same time. I haven’t felt like that while writing for a decades now.

Perhaps I need to let go of the reins a little and just see where the horses take me? It might be that they just stick to the well-worn ruts in the road – that I and many others before have followed, but maybe they might just strike out in the forest? And find something unexpected.

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