Today, we continue on extrapolating the advice gleaned from Stephen King’s On Writing.
Essentially, he states that when you can, you’re better off with situational writing instead of plot-driven writing.
Before we begin, a caveat: This is VERY personal advice. Some people ARE more comfortable and write incredibly well with plot driven stories while others may work better with writing in a situational fashion.
Your mileage may vary so take the advice with a bit of caution.
Situational writing largely stems from the “what if…?” process of creation.
You come up with some characters that you can jive with, then you “what if…?” them into a situation and see what they do in said situation. You don’t spend too much time plotting, and figuring out the ins and outs of every chapter.
You don’t figure out every single wrinkle that may come up in the story and you especially don’t try to ‘railroad’ your characters onto a certain path, just because your plot outline says they should be somewhere at a certain point in time.
You just have your characters, sit them down in a situation and see how they react to it.
This has a tendency to create a more organically grown story, and it affords your characters more room and opportunity to surprise you with how they act and react to events around them.
These stories tend to be a little more focused on the driving needs of the character instead of the plot, and largely speaking, churn out more relatable characters. The characters in situation driven stories feel a little more real or tend to hit a bit closer to home because their decision making process isn’t controlled by the needs of the overarching plot, but by the needs of the characters themselves.
For examples of such things within his own works, King points to books like The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Gerald’s Game, Misery, Dolores Claiborne, among a whole host of others.
Situational writing seems to be Stephen King’s preferred method, and it shows.
King writes that he considers the act of writing akin to uncovering a fossilized skeleton, buried beneath the ground. While situational writing is akin to gently excavating the fossil with brushes and weak fans, plot-driven writing is akin to excavating it using a jackhammer.
The jackhammer will get the fossil out in the end…but it tends to make a mess of things.
I think the heart of the advice King is trying to impart is to NOT let your plot outline drown out the voices of your characters.
When you first start writing, your character tends to be a little flat on the page. They need to warm up, you know? They’ve been all stiff and cramped in your head, so when you finally get them out on the page, they tend to need a little bit of stretch before they start coming to life.
The danger lies in NOT letting them come to life.
The danger lies in IGNORING the voice of your character for the sake of slavish devotion to a plot outline.
DEFER to your characters.
You may know the overall story and what you want them to do, but do NOT forget that your characters are living it.
They may see something from the ground that you can’t see from your omniscient, overhead view. Don’t let yourself be so blinded by the dictating of your plot that you forget to give your characters a voice in the decisions that they make.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. Don’t be afraid to lend them an ear. Maybe you know that the characters have to escape the evil lair at some point, but maybe let THEM come up with a solution on their own instead of forcing one down their throats.
I’m not saying that you should cast aside whatever method WORKS for you, keep in mind.
I’m not saying that you’ve been doing it wrong the entire time.
I’m NOT saying that this is the best, and only, way to write and that you should be doing this and only this from no on.
Not saying that at all.
It wouldn’t hurt to experiment a little.
Try mixing and matching the styles. Maybe create plot points that the characters will hit, but leave it up to them to make their way from one point to another, you know?
Maybe work out a short story that’s purely situationally driven.
Maybe write a piece of fan fiction with an established character? Yours or someone else’s.
Put a character you know into a ‘what if?’ situation and see what comes of it as a thought experiment.
Even if you’re the type to completely swear by 110% plotted stories…it doesn’t hurt to experiment a little with short flash fiction pieces. It doesn’t hurt to PLAY.
Remember that writing is PLAY as much as it is work and PLAY.
Try new things.
Try new methods.
Get stuck and have three men barge into the room with guns, just to see how your character reacts.
It may not work for you…but the new experiences can NEVER hurt.