Shouldn’t you, as a novelist, know what will happen to your protagonist at the end? Or will that break the Holy Law of Plotting?
In this post, we want to think about the necessity of plot – Do you need it or is it a matter of choice?
In most writing guides, authors’ biographies, and top 10 blog posts, the individual writer treats plotting like a swimming instructor approaches the water. “The water doesn’t go, and if you want to swim, you’ll have to get wet, I’m afraid. If not, run around the pool.”
But is that true? Do we have to plot to write a novel or a stage play? Before we carelessly jump into the floods with a loud Splat!, let me explain how this train of thought came about.
Thinking about plot
I like to break up my reading list with all sorts of material regularly, from authors’ biographies to guidebooks on writing or even gardening. The last one was on my list for way too long.
And I particularly enjoyed reading it because its author doesn’t preach from the pulpit like many others, but he casually describes his career, and drops tips and advice about the publishing industry, grammar, and work routines on the side, as if they meant nothing.
Stephen King’s On Writing.
The dutiful anglicist, who wears a tweed jacket with elbow patches and philosophizes about Shakespeare by the fireside while enjoying an old scotch, still lies dormant within me. So one thing was for sure: I had to read this book in its original language. Compulsion neurosis. What can I do?
I never concerned myself with King’s biography extensively. So I wanted to use the opportunity and enrich the reading with some of his talks and interviews which are as numerous on YouTube as murders within King’s novels.
Next to writing routines, the topic of horror, and his influences, King repeatedly mentions the idea not to plot.
Stephen King, John Irving, and their relationship with plotting
King doesn’t want to know how it ends before he himself types “The END.”
One of the stories that accompany his comments on working routines describes an exchange with John Irving, who always writes his stories’ last sentence first.
For King, this makes as much sense as eating dessert before the main course.
Today, I’ll focus on these two approaches to the plot. Should you, as a writer, know your plot from the very beginning? Why does it work better for Irving than for King?
To be fair, I should mention that King doesn’t refrain from the classic elements of a good story. But he incorporates turning points differently than Irving.
Why could you profit from not knowing the end of your own story?
Since I’m just venturing on my own story – even though not a novel in King’s style – I wanted to drill down on this idea.
For days, I had taken notes on story arcs, background story, and scene progression. Could I just have started typing away? Was that all for the birds?
First, I could calm myself with the fact that even King mentions a counterexample. And no matter what you think of Irving – you can become successful as a novelist, even if you start with your last line.
Does the fondness of plotting correlate with the writers’ biography?
My next best explanation was that the biography must have left its mark on the individual writers’ working routines. It’s not for nothing that Irving approaches his manuscripts like an opponent in a wrestling match, is it?
Fair enough. Certainly, many of the quirks and idiosyncrasies each writer has are accounted for by his environment, experiences, and experiments — no matter whether they write with a pen, chalk, or nude.
But you can also observe that both – King and Irving – studied the liberal arts.
So there are common traits.
And I consider the influence of years-long reading and writing bigger than the choice the writer’s mother made at the milk shelf in the supermarket.
So if it’s not studying, what could be the cause?
Is it the genre?
I don’t want to pigeonhole anyone, especially not when it comes to different genres of literature.
But it’s not like the rules of contemporary art were cast in stone, either. That may be the case for superfluous attributes, mannerisms, or alliterations, since we can judge them more objectively.
Most classical genres and stylistic devices have been analyzed over and over by countless rhetoricians and theorists since antiquity.
But who could say of himself that he has gathered every rule of all the thriller and horror sub-genres out there? Even Stephen King doesn’t make such a bold claim!
I’m still under the impression that we can find the best explanation for his approach to plotting here, even if he doesn’t explicitly make that connection.
Let’s take a step back.
What does rhetoric want?
In most cases, rhetoricians want to convince you. Invention and disposal, stylistic devices and the manner of presentation are all subordinate to that goal.
But the lawyer wants to convince you in a structured way – and if we have a look at history, we owe most of our rhetorical sources to diplomats and lawyers.
So what does the lawyer want? – Easy: You as a listener or reader should be able to follow at all times. That’s why most legal texts will give you a cerebral bleeding. “The defendant states that the defendant called… after the defendant…”
Legal sources are not meant to be leisure reading material – they aim for efficiency, so you can skip and skim them. The defendant is always called “the defendant” so you can find information on him throughout the entire text without doubting for a second.
Does Stephen King want that, too?
I doubt it. That would run contrary to the core principle of his novels. Like I said, I don’t mean to generalize, or to claim that every author in mystery, horror, or YA wants that. But the little word “suspense” awaits you in many discussions of these works – and there’s a reason for that.
Also, King explains again and again how he sympathizes with his characters, and how he himself is surprised or sad when he lets them die.
It doesn’t matter how disgusting you choose to describe your monsters and rotters – they should be sympathetic in at least one way, that’s for sure.
But couldn’t it be that Stephen King leaves himself in the uncertain on purpose, to permanently check whether the story remains gripping while he’s writing it?
Could it be that this is his only way of catching that feeling which we all know too well, those goosebumps crawling up our spine because the old radiator in the basement rattled away?
I believe it is. When a rhetorician clouds his arguments, he doesn’t convince us.
Now, imagine a thriller author who pats you on the shoulder and tells you, “Oh, right! Look over there, that’s the chainsaw murderer. I wasn’t sure myself for a moment, but now we can calm down and move on. Aren’t you coming?”
… Wait a moment. What? What should he tell you after that? Perhaps he plays around with plain, distinct scenes we know we cannot trust.
In most cases, the reader expects just that when he sees bloody claw traces on a cover. But unless we’re told to follow a setup where we consider the wrong guy to be guilty, that kind of description would kill the story right from the get-go.
“So you’re saying I shouldn’t plot?”
Conclusively, I can neither affirm nor deny that. To some degree, it depends on your experience, topic, and form.
If you’re writing your first stage play (like I am), it won’t harm you to think about your plot – even if you do have some experience as a novelist.
On the other hand, you could also hinge the amount of work you put into your plot on the way you want to surprise your readers or viewers. What’s supposed to draw your readers into the story, the What or the How?
Countless genres live off of that, not just horror novels.
Comedies work with the element of surprise, too.
So perhaps, your manuscript can cope with a pinch of coincidence, and a plotting diet is just the right decision for you. It never harmed Stephen King, after all.
Be careful, though.
If you decide to go that way, be aware that less plotting can result in a blind end. It could happen that after some weeks of writing, your story will land in Neverland and you’ll have to abort it. Don’t believe me? Stephen King reports on that, too.
And it does make sense. If you don’t plan your route, you might get lost here and there. But you could also find those remote corners which you may never have planned on visiting.
Also, if you intend to surprise your reader, put yourself into some “danger” and write without a plot even if it’s just a short story. I’ll keep shipping around more or less plotless, and I’m anxious to know what will come of it.
Let’s compare notes and see whether we’re better off without a plot!
So long, I’ll read you 😉