Hi everyone! Help me welcome Brandon Cornett to the blog today, who is discussing a great plotting technique Stephen King uses for people who struggle with plotting. Please read on!
Do you have a hard time plotting an entire novel in advance? Do you get bogged down or overwhelmed, to the point it paralyzes your story? If so, you might be more of a situational writer. And it might be time to set yourself free.
Plotting has long been my nemesis. Over the years, I’ve read many books and articles on fiction writing that stressed the importance of advance plotting. I understand the merits, on an intellectual level. In some cases, as with epic fantasies and the like, plotting becomes more of a necessity than a choice.
But not all writers fall into that boat. Some could benefit from taking a more situational approach to their work.
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I first encountered the concept years ago, while reading Stephen King’s memoir and writing guide On Writing. He was discussing the manner in which he writes his books — or prefers to write them — and he used the term “situational.” Suddenly, I had a label for something I’d been drawn to all along.
Here’s a relevant passage from On Writing:
“Gerald’s Game and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon are two other purely situational novels. If Misery is ‘two characters in a house,’ then Gerald is ‘one woman in a bedroom’ and The Girl Who is ‘one kid lost in the woods.’ 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.”
For me, the pressure to create an extensive plot stifles the artistic process. It bogs me down. It removes the organic spontaneity from the story. And that spontaneity — those little surprises that emerge along the way — is one of my favorite things about writing. When I eventually nixed the plotting and embraced the situational model, I felt liberated. I found more surprises within the story, more life. I got to see my characters emerge and figure things out on their own. It was all I could do to keep up and chronicle their evolution.
Now, before you plotters start throwing tomatoes at me, let me clarify. I’ve read many novels that were plotted in advance (as disclosed through author interviews) and enjoyed them immensely. Plotting works for some writers. For some novelists, plotting is a tool that paves the way to a finished book. And that’s what it’s all about, right? Finishing. So, if you’re one of those writers, and plotting is how you reach the finish line … plot away!
I would also be remiss not to mention the hybrid approach. This is where you start with a general plot but leave room for situational writing and spontaneity.
It’s not an either-or scenario. You can mix it up.
If you’re like me, however, and you feel weighed down and walled in by plotting, it might be time for a different approach. Try the situational method. Let the story emerge bit by bit, the way real life happens, and see where it takes you.
So, how do you go about it?
The first and most important thing is to create a strong enough situation. This is mission critical. It won’t result in a finished work. You still have to figure out what your characters are all about, how they change during the course of the story, etc. But it all starts with the situation. That’s the seed from which the story grows.
In the above quote, King was downplaying when he said the situation behind Misery was “two characters in a house.” There was more to it, obviously. Yes, there were two people in a house. But one was a popular romance novelist, immobilized by a car accident, and the other was a deranged fan with serious entitlement issues. Now that’s a situation!
Misery, and many other novels like it, evolves though a series of “what next” questions. (Or “what if” questions, if you like.) What would Paul Sheldon do if he realized he was being cared for by a closet lunatic? What would Annie do if she suspected he was trying to escape? These questions — these situations and their results — drive the story forward.
Maybe you’re not a Stephen King fan. That’s okay. There are plenty of other examples. Many successful and prolific authors have written novels in this manner. So don’t get too hung up on the whole King thing. It’s the idea I want you to consider. And the idea (to borrow another quote from On Writing) is this:
” A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me.”
So you start with a situation. Then you move toward it, establishing mood, building character. And you ask yourself: what next? What would this character do in this situation, and how might that complicate things? What conflicts would arise? Thus, the story moves forward.
Some critics malign the situational writing method. Some claim it results in one-dimensional stories. I say they’re missing the point. The situation is not the novel. It’s the spark that conflagrates. It is the basis of conflict that creates drama and friction. Even with a strong and intriguing situation, there is much work to be done.
But for some writers, the situational approach makes that work easier to tackle. It gives you a first draft. Then you go back and add layers to deepen the story. Chances are, you’ll discover things about your characters you didn’t know when you first set out. That’s a best-case scenario. It requires revisions. A lot of them, in some cases. But it also allows you to smash through tropes and formulas to produce something new, something the reader never saw coming.
If you’re a veteran writer, you probably have things figured out already. You’ve got your method, and it works for you. Great! But for novice writers, a bit of exploration might be warranted. You have to figure out what kind of story you want to create, and what strategy is needed to accomplish that goal. Situational writing is one approach worth considering.
Brandon Cornett has written three novels and published one. His first published book, Purgatory, is a horror-based thriller with a reality TV tie-in.
His next novel will be out in 2020. You can connect with the author by visiting https://www.cornettfiction.com.
Have you ever tried situational writing? Were you able to plot your way to an entire novel? Let us know in the comments!
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.