When ‘Situational’ Writing Works Better Than Plotting

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, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Characters, Conflict, Experiments, Focus, Guest Post, Motivational, Pacing, Plotting, Writer's Block, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to When ‘Situational’ Writing Works Better Than Plotting

  1. acflory says:

    I’ve been a hybrid pantster for close to 20 years now, but I think I much prefer ‘situational’ writer. 🙂

  2. Dawn says:

    I’m a planner, but I can see how starting with a situation and asking “what if” can be a fun and liberating way to write. This article makes me want to try it sometime. It could be a good writing exercise.

  3. Fox R says:

    So Angela, is situational writing akin to by-the-seat-of-your-pants, but with a (strong) situation as a springboard to kick off from…?
    A murder has taken place on a cruise ship and John Brown is taken into custody regardless of his objections that he was otherwise engaged at the the time.
    That is the situation that tge character now must contend with? The writer develop?

    • Brandon says:

      Fox R: I know your question was for Angela, but I wanted to say I love your “springboard” analogy. That’s a great way to describe it. The stronger the situation, the farther you can “spring” from it. The farther it takes you. This method isn’t for everyone. I think it appeals to a certain type of personality or mindset.

      Let’s take your cruise ship example. With a detailed plot, you would probably know the ending (the resolution of the mystery) well in advance. You might even know it from the very beginning, before you set out to write the story. With a more situational approach, you (as the author) would experience some of John’s confusion, frustration and fear right alongside him. Two very different approaches. I guess it comes down to which method engages you the most, and helps you complete the story.

      • Fox R. says:

        Brandon: No.prob., and thanks for your informative reply. It makes good sense. I like that (unlike me) you write clearly. I have some understanding as a result of yr reply although I can’t say which method comes more naturally.
        I’ve been trying to figure out how to plot/plotting for so long now, that I’ve grown exceptionally long teeth and lost all my hair. I still cannot grasp the difference between plot points and turning points or determine where, actually, the 25% and 75% mark of book falls.
        The point being that, although I.was determined to master plotting, I might be better off just writing!? Which leads me back to my initial post and yr response!
        I need to reread yr reply and chew it over

      • Fox R. says:

        PS. Brandon: How would I, in developing John’s ‘situation’, address his dilemma, down the track, when, after, for example, he has been churned through the process but at tge ‘end’ -where there is no actual resolve, and therefore, no actual ‘end’ but rather, only the ongoing dilemma?
        Getting away from myself here.
        E.g., they need to pin the tail on thd dinkey, to appease public thirst, to play out their alteriir motives whatever they might be, so might just scapegoat him and throw away the key regardless.
        Dead end. No resolve..?
        Is that situational and if so then is this what you mean by springboading fartherest (he might escape, etc etc) but continue to be sent in circles?
        Perhaps I could give the ‘situational’ approach a go. It does have a certain appeal.

  4. Thank you so much for this, Brandon. I have finished my first book, a memoir, and have learnt much about the elements of fiction along the way. Now I am keen to write a novel, but find the idea of plotting overwhelming. As a ‘pantser’, I recognise the way I write in your post for the first time and can now put a name to it: situational writing! I can’t tell you how happy this makes me…you’ve given me hope!

    • I’m glad you found it helpful Sherri. That’s how I felt when I discovered that some well-known authors use this same approach. I was like: “Wow, you can actually write a good book this way!” I imagine this is how Cormac McCarthy got his first draft of The Road down on paper. In fact, that novel is a great model of this approach, starting with a strong situation and going along with your characters. McCarthy once said in an interview: “You can’t plot things out. You just have to trust in, you know, wherever it comes from.”

    • Fox R. says:

      Sherri, I’d call myself a ‘pantser’, too. The situational apprisch sounds good. I might try it out.
      All the best with yr novel!

  5. Those two magic words: what if

  6. Elli Comeau says:

    Totally how I write! That way of writing is what brings me joy as I write.

    One question though: Is situational writing, then, not the same as what is commonly known as “pantsing”?

    • I think of “pantsing” as being derived from the phrase “flying by the seat of your pants,” or figuring things out as you go along. Situational writing, for me at least, is a bit more structured than that. In both cases, you’re moving forward without a full plot outlined in advance. But with the situational approach, you’ve given plenty of thought to the main conflict that will arise within the story. So there’s a structure and framework in that sense. Then you let the situation unfold, bringing as much truth to it as possible. I guess in the end it’s the story that matters most, as opposed to the method used to capture it.

      • Fox R. says:

        Thanks for this on pantsing/flying Brandon. What you say not only makes perfect sense but shows the difference, though subtle it may be (?)perhaps, between pantsing and situational.
        I’m wondering if the ‘structure’ in situation that you refer to exists in the very idea that forms as you [begin to] write? And then, as you say, you ‘let the situation unfold [bringing as much truth to it as possible]’.
        I’m now wondering if I do not already (at times) use situational without realizing it?
        Or change between or merge both ‘methods’.
        But then, yes, it’s story that matters although, I have to admit that I sometimes sit down and write with such ease, it just flows. I never really know what is going to flow but hell, it feels great! I could write forever in this way.
        Then again, as someone said to me years ago, ‘You need structure’, and that was tied in with discipline.
        Can we navigate a boat without knowing much if anything about the surrounds or knowing where we are going?
        Is that what Thor Heyerdahl did?
        The peoples of the Carolinian/Micronesian islands [apparently] settled there because although they had reached the islands, they had no way of [knowing how to] getting back to where they had come from…
        A beginning a middle but no end maybe creating an entirely different story to that which they started out [intending]?
        But don’t we all like a good ending? I watched a movie the other night and the end? I’m still hanging there.

  7. As with most of the things we do in life, there’s no one right way. Thanks for exploring this method for our situational writers!

  8. Kathy Cohen says:

    A most interesting article. I’ve evolved from a situational writer to one who uses the hybrid approach. Both are integral to how I do it!

  9. It’s great when characters drive the story, taking me to unpredicted destinations. Sometimes they even let me take the wheel.

  10. Sheri Levy says:

    I enjoy writing this way and it seems to make the story stronger. It gives my mind room to wander. Thanks for sharing this idea.

    • Brandon says:

      I hear you, Sheri. A wandering mind can be a great thing for a writer. For me, that’s when I tend to find those little “aha!” moments.

  11. I remember when I first started writing I would use situational writing to brainstorm new story ideas. It was a good way to get me writing and past the fear of having no idea where to start. 🙂

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