Stephen King "On Writing" -- no plot

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  • Stephen King "On Writing" -- no plot

    I'm not Stephen King, but what he describes here is almost exactly how I go about writing. King clearly articulates what I've tried to say here several times about artificial, "bolted together" story writing that so many of the screenwriting "gurus" seem to favor. In my opinion, the mechanical process of plotting often gets in the way of the creative process of writing.

    At any rate, for what it's worth, here's an excerpt from Stephen King's On Writing (pages 163-165). I quote from it for the purpose of civil discussion.

    In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.

    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. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible. It's best that I be as clear about this as I can - I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course). If you can see things this way (or at least try to), we can work together comfortably. If, on the other hand, you decide I'm crazy, that's fine. You won't be the first.

    When, during the course of an interview for The New Yorker, I told the interviewer (Mark Singer) that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn't believe me. I replied that that was fine, as long as he believed that I believe it. And I do. Stories aren't souvenir tee-shirts or GameBoys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered preexisting world. The writer's job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it's enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.

    No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it's probably impossible to get the entire fossil out of the ground without a few breaks and losses. To get even most of it, the shovel must give way to more delicate tools: airhose, palm-pick, perhaps even a toothbrush. Plot is a far bigger tool, the writer's jackhammer. You can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jackhammer, no argument there, but you know as well as I do that the jackhammer is going to break almost as much stuff as it liberates. It's 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.

    I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story. Some of the ideas which have produced those books are more complex than others, but the majority start out with the stark simplicity of a department store window display or a waxwork tableau. I want 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.

    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. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it's something I never expected. For a suspense novelist, this is a great thing. I am, after all, not just the novel's creator but its first reader. And 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. And why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere.
    STANDARD DISCLAIMER: I'm a wannabe, take whatever I write with a huge grain of salt.

  • #2
    Re: Stephen King "On Writing" -- no plot

    "...In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.

    You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer - my answer, anyway - is nowhere..."

    -------
    -------

    In my opinion, the way he describes "Narration" he actually is talking about the "plot." A story moving from A to B is the plot. It's what's happening. The stuff that happens is the plot.

    I do agree where he says that characters are brought to life by dialogue -- we don't know the character's POV until he speaks. It's a shame, to me, that the WGA freely gives credit recognition to writers that alter a script's plot, but not necessarily to the writers that come in and fix all the dialogue.

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    • #3
      Re: Stephen King "On Writing" -- no plot

      I remember reading this book years and years ago and thinking it was one of the best books I've ever read on the subject of storytelling.

      I think what King is saying here is that Plot has a connotation of making things up out of thin air, where he looks at it as unearthing the story, more of a process of revelation than contrivance.

      You really shouldn't be making things up, you should let your character be his or her own worst enemy.

      If you are writing a script about a self indulgent hero, then you should be thinking what challenges self indulgence? What are the consequences of self indulgence? What are the long term and short term effects of self indulgence? And how will all that play out in a cohesive, easy to follow structure.

      Do you make it up out of thin air or does it reveal itself to you through the process? I think you can tell the difference between the two.

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      • #4
        Re: Stephen King "On Writing" -- no plot

        1,000 pages to play with frees you up from a lot of things. You would not approach a haiku with the same "let's see what happens" ideal as Stephen would a novel, they are different things.

        Ultimately, the question is always: "What makes sense to you?" Grab that, and leave the rest behind.
        Last edited by Mpimentel; 12-20-2016, 07:53 PM.
        "We're going to be rich!" - 1/2 hr COMEDY written/directed/edited by me, I also act in it.
        SUBTITLED
        Episode 1 (Beef pills)
        Episode 2 (African commercial)
        Episode 3 (Brenda's rescue)

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        • #5
          Re: Stephen King "On Writing" -- no plot

          Plot is an industry label that refers to a sequence of events that culminates in the answering of a major dramatic question that has been carried by the narrative through the whole story.

          Every story has a plot. Even if the writer doesn't care for the label. They may prefer structure or sequencing, but it is what it is.

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          • #6
            Re: Stephen King "On Writing" -- no plot

            He's talking about novels rather than screenplays.

            When King was in charge of the screenplay we got MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE.

            I stopped reading him when it became clear that he was making crap up as he went along and ended some book by just having it rain refrigerators and small appliances... which had nothing to do with the story.

            - Bill
            Free Script Tips:
            http://www.scriptsecrets.net

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            • #7
              Re: Stephen King "On Writing" -- no plot

              i try to write novels and screenplays. i think it is as easy to lose a reader on page 27 in a script as it is on page 27 of a novel, or on page 432 of a novel, etc. novels have a lot of room to do...whatever...but they sure have a lot more room to...stink on every single page and the work be deemed crap. i think of plot as the magic dust that at some point gets all over everybody and everything in the story and at some point gets all over the writer of the story and things get sorted out correctly or best as the writer can figure without trying to figure out things too much, etc.

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              • #8
                Re: Stephen King "On Writing" -- no plot

                Screenplays need a throughline in which a character with a problem must overcome obstacles to achieve a goal within the normal length of a movie, so a screenplay can't meander as much as a thick novel. Part of screenwriting is engineering and part of it is art. Most of us plan out the engineering, because a screen story tends to work in a specific way. Brainstorming and outlining help many of us find the basic parameters of our story. The art part is where the honesty and the emotion and the meaning gradually reveal themselves to us as we write, rewrite, and find the best version of our story. That, I think, is the part King is talking about.

                Some writers have some stories come to them fully formed. Great when that happens, but most of us, most of the time, figure out as much of the skeleton as we can before we start writing, and then, hopefully, find the magic during the writing.

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                • #9
                  Re: Stephen King "On Writing" -- no plot

                  Originally posted by figment View Post
                  "...In my opinion, the way he describes "Narration" he actually is talking about the "plot." A story moving from A to B is the plot. It's what's happening. The stuff that happens is the plot.

                  I do agree where he says that characters are brought to life by dialogue -- we don't know the character's POV until he speaks. It's a shame, to me, that the WGA freely gives credit recognition to writers that alter a script's plot, but not necessarily to the writers that come in and fix all the dialogue.
                  figment, I agree with your take on "narration," but I differ on your take about dialogue: "we don't know the character's POV until he speaks."

                  Film is a visual medium, so the best way to get across something about a character, such as who a character truly is, his view of the world around him, would be to express it visually.

                  In my opinion, in films words are secondary to action/behavior in revealing character.

                  DISCLAIMER: The above is not a RULE that must absolutely be followed. I know there are exceptions. It's meant to be a guideline. When you attempt to bring a character to life -- think visually first, then dialogue.

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                  • #10
                    Re: Stephen King "On Writing" -- no plot

                    Originally posted by JoeNYC View Post
                    figment, I agree with your take on "narration," but I differ on your take about dialogue: "we don't know the character's POV until he speaks."

                    ... In my opinion, in films words are secondary to action/behavior in revealing character.
                    For sure character is revealed through actions. But their POV is also revealed through dialogue.

                    Take away Jack Nicholson's dialogue in A Few Good Men. Replace it with the dialogue of a preschool teacher that is polite, considerate, and inclusive of everyone's tender needs and feelings. Is he the same character? Does he have the same impact?

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                    • #11
                      Re: Stephen King "On Writing" -- no plot

                      Originally posted by Mpimentel View Post
                      1,000 pages to play with frees you up from a lot of things. You would not approach a haiku with the same "let's see what happens" ideal as Stephen would a novel, they are different things.
                      A lot of what Stephen King wrote are short stories. Some of those were made into movies that had to add new material.
                      "I just couldn't live in a world without me."

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                      • #12
                        Re: Stephen King "On Writing" -- no plot

                        Originally posted by StoryWriter View Post
                        A lot of what Stephen King wrote are short stories. Some of those were made into movies that had to add new material.
                        Someone here has a quote in their signature that says something with this gist: "Don't copy the bad habits of a successful writer." Stephen could probably wet fart on a piece of paper and sell the the sh^t stain as a short story... His collection of work grants him that power... I still don't suggest starting out by farting on paper.

                        Really though, as I said, follow it if it makese sense to you. I'm a believer in learn the rules before you break em'

                        Happy new years to everyone btw, hope everyone gets a lot of work done!
                        "We're going to be rich!" - 1/2 hr COMEDY written/directed/edited by me, I also act in it.
                        SUBTITLED
                        Episode 1 (Beef pills)
                        Episode 2 (African commercial)
                        Episode 3 (Brenda's rescue)

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                        • #13
                          Re: Stephen King "On Writing" -- no plot

                          Originally posted by Mpimentel View Post
                          Someone here has a quote in their signature that says something with this gist: "Don't copy the bad habits of a successful writer."
                          Yeah, that thought comes up often. It's usually when a successful writer breaks imaginary "rules." A lot of time, those "bad habits" are the very things that provide voice and help work stand out...

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                          • #14
                            Re: Stephen King "On Writing" -- no plot

                            Originally posted by Mpimentel View Post

                            Really though, as I said, follow it if it makes sense to you. I'm a believer in learn the rules before you break em'

                            Happy new years to everyone btw, hope everyone gets a lot of work done!
                            There are basic rules that every screenplay has to follow to be a screenplay. There are also ten-zillion arbitrary, invented, bulls*** rules that the pros have been breaking on continual basis and were breaking on the first spec scripts they wrote. (The scripts that got them noticed in the first place.)

                            I've read books of advice by pro screenwriters. In one of them (I can't remember the name right now), I think the author had a little fun with his book, because it seemed to be intentionally arranged to have one successful screenwriter say what he or she did to get a screenplay done and the next interview of another successful screenwriter would say almost the exact opposite.

                            So, as long as the end result is a professional screenplay (which does have to follow defined rules), it really doesn't matter what arbitrary rules you broke to get it done. For example, some of the things people go through to develop a character -- endless outlines filled with minutia -- cause my teeth to hurt, just reading about the "process". It seems like such a mechanical method that makes me wonder whatever happened to imagination. I would never complete a character if I did all that crap.

                            But "all that crap" is how many successful screenwriters create characters, so it's hard to argue against how well that method works for THEM.

                            By the way -- I wouldn't exactly call myself a huge fan of Stephen King. He has way too many "lapses", where right in the middle of an action scene he goes off into 15 pages of reminiscing about a high school girlfriend or something. In his defense (sort of) Stephen King admits he was highly "medicated" when he wrote a lot of what he wrote. And even he calls a lot of it bad.

                            Sorry, this got a little long. Happy New Year!
                            "I just couldn't live in a world without me."

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                            • #15
                              Re: Stephen King "On Writing" -- no plot

                              As far as King goes, let me just say that anyone who can write a book made up of three different novellas which are Stand By Me, Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile gets my utmost respect. I'm not a fan of 'everything' any writer does.

                              The only writers, and I mean the only writers who mention 'rules' are amateur screenwriters. What they refer to is the basic three act structure paradigm.

                              Screenwriting 101 is the basic 3 act structure. In screenwriting 101 it's the job of the novice screenwriter to learn all the important moments that occur in a film. The moment itself means nothing. I mean a character losing his job can be a fun little scene in the B story of a secondary character or it could mean life or death for the main and be the climax of an Act. It's all about crafting the throughline in such a way that makes money be what it is supposed to be. We've given this technique/element/tool of screenwriting a name - pacing. In the 101 class the novice needs to prove they can replicate the pacing of just a basic 3 act structure story. Not the pacing of a multi protagonist story, or the pacing of a non linear story.

                              You prove you have a handle on pacing by performing it under the most basic, controlled conditions first. And you can't be the judge if you nailed it or not. And it's not that you shouldn't 'break the rules' as they say, but if you are a D+\C- screenwriting student would they really advance you to screenwriting 201 or 301?

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