the perfect plot

Greatest Enemy

This falls right in line with last week’s post about writing.

When I read my very first Stephen King book, I was a little disappointed. That first book was Insomnia. Years later, I read On Writing, in which Stephen King says the following:

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…As I told you, I have written plotted novels, but the results, in books like Insomnia and Rose Madder, have not been particularly inspiring. These are (much as I hate to admit it) stiff, trying-too-hard novels.

What do you know? Stephen King sounds under-impressed, too. (Good for him for seeing that Insomnia, while not horrible, certainly wasn’t one of his stronger books.)

The problem with it, and if you’ve read it you’ll know what I mean, is that it is plot driven. Said another way, King began the writer’s journey with a perfect plan. As plot-driven stories go, it’s solid. But, it’s plot-driven, and as a result, the characters (and their reactions, feelings, emotions and even conflicts) come off kind of flat. I suspect this is partly because King knew the resolution, even as he introduced the conflict, and you might think that sounds smart, but it sucks the life out of stories.

The greatest enemy of a good story is the dream of the perfect plot.

Beware the temptation to plan out every element of your story ahead of time. Personally, I like developing the characters, putting them in the situation and then just seeing what they’ll do. Like King, I often don’t know how they’ll fare. While that might sound chaotic, it’s actually helpful. As King says, “…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.”

Thankfully, that’s exactly how most of King’s books are written, and that’s one of many reasons I appreciate him as an writer.

Plot is good. Essential, even. But plot is not king. The perfect plot will end up being perfectly disappointing. Go at your stories without a complete plan firmly set in your mind. The results are sure to be more spontaneous and engaging.

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About Ash Martin
Ash Martin writes dark fantasy and horror, has a thing for classic monster legends, Nordic mythology, coffee, and sarcasm, and is currently working on multiple books.

6 Responses to the perfect plot

  1. Well said! I’m one of those that don’t plot much. I start out with a situation, and may see some partial scenes, but I agree with King that most everything I’ve written trying to stick to some fore planned plot reads technically okay, but ends up lacking in the suspense and momentum. It’s enough to just know what we want to write in the next hour, and never mind about next week – that will take care of itself.

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  2. tristdagon says:

    Sound advise if you focus too much one one aspect the others are all going to suffer as a result.

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  3. I remember being very relieved when reading this in “On Writing.” I never plot. My inspiration comes from some tiny piece of my world, or perhaps that should be some piece of my tiny mind…;0) and grows as I write.

    Before reading King’s thoughts, I always felt like I was cheating or not doing it the ‘proper writer way’. Now I know it is not only okay, it’s exciting and can lead to places never dreamed, should things have previously been laid out for us.

    Makes me think back and wonder…what WOULD I have worn to school had my mum not set out my clothes for me the night before? The world has probably missed out on a plethora of fashion frenzies!

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    • dex says:

      LOL.

      Yeah, it’s more fun to write this way, too. I mean, I actually like not knowing where a story is going. Today, for example, I’m reworking a critical scene in the working draft of my book. It’s really, really important that it play out well, and since the full draft is already finished, I know where it’s going. And you know what? It sucks. It’s so hard. It would be infinitely easier if the ending could be open, but it can’t be because, you know, I’m re-writing, not writing.

      I prefer writing. (But, of course, all the work is in re-writing…)

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