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