[Perry] Situation vs Plot

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.




7 thoughts on “[Perry] Situation vs Plot

  1. Jenny Gibbons

    To me, it sounds like King prefers character studies over complex plots. I’m the opposite. For instance, none of my favorite King books are on this list of his ‘situational’ writings. I liked Misery okay; the others, very little. For all of them, I can give you a one-sentence summary of their concept (eg, “Young baseball fan gets lost in Maine woods.”). Then… nada. The plots were completely forgettable. Like in “The Girl Who…”, I remember that there was a supernatural element… but, for the life of me, I can’t recall what it was. It, and the plot, were quite unmemorable. And that’s not the kind of book I like.

    Situational- and plot-focus both have dangers. Too much emphasis on character creates flabby, uneventful, unfocused novels with incoherent narrative structures. Too much plot, and you get boring, unbelievable, dead characters and ‘stories’ that are as dry as doctoral theses. (Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy springs to mind; I know there had to be characters in those books, but damned if I recall anything about them.)

  2. Jenny Gibbons

    Still mulling this over.

    My first attempt at a novel (which I wrote with Tami) was completely unscripted. We were writing about characters we adored, and we had a blast. But one morning we realized that we’d written 150,000 words… and we were only 1/3 of the way through the book. Worse, nothing much had happened. Oh, if you loved those characters (as we did), there was some good stuff in there. But we really did create the poster child for “Why You Need an Outline.”

    So I started outlining. I liked the next thing I wrote (the one I’m trying to sell). I started on a sequel… and hit the exact opposite problem.

    I could not get my protagonist to care about my villain or my plot. I frequently found myself staring at a blank page, thinking, “Okay, my hero HAS to do this certain thing. How am I going to make her do it?” One morning, I heard my hero wail in the back of my mind: “You’re RUINING my story! I **HATE** you!” After that, with much sadness, I threw out half of a book. If my characters didn’t give a damn about my plot, there was no way my readers would either!

    So I’m trying to find a middle path. Right now, what I do is I outline a plot. Then I talk it over with my husband (who’s played D&D and other RPGs for 30 years, and is fantastic at spotting inconsistencies and plot holes). Once I have a plan, I start writing. But I try (now…) to be open to character-driven changes. Little ones I just add while I write. Biggies may force me to stop and re-outline the last part of the book.

    One trick that’s helped me is to feel characters and think structure. I just hit a point in my outline where I had plotted a certain event. However, as I went to write it, my hero rebelled. Things had changed in the writing, and she now realized that doing this event was dangerous and stupid. She dug her heels in, in my mind.

    My first impulse was to “think character.” I had to find a way to make her do this. Wrong answer. Only Bad Things lay down that path. So I switched to thinking structure. What, I asked myself, was I attempting to achieve with this event? Structurally. Did it move the plot forward? Display aspects of the hero’s personality? Was it just ‘really cool’ and I wanted it to happen?

    In the end, I realized that the real purpose of this event was a) I thought it would be a cool problem for the hero, and b) it gave my hero and my villain quality face-time together.

    Once I figured out what I wanted, structurally, I thought about how I could achieve those same effects without the ‘stupid’ event. Find a way to slip in that problem, in another, more sensible spot. Find another place to have my characters meet. Breaking a scene down into effects helped me find ways to achieve the same results, without antagonizing my protagonist.

    • Perry

      I think that the balanced approach is really the best of both worlds, to be honest.

      I would advocate the idea of…having plot points that you want to hit at various phases of the story, but leaving it a little open for the characters to actually make some decisions during the process.

      This way,. you still have some of the structure that helps you get to the end of the story while still keeping some parts organic enough that it doesn’t always feel quite so cut and dried.

  3. Good read yet again Perry, always helpful!
    I put my writing aside once I hit 10,000 words realizing I had fleshed out a few characters (or tried to), barely touching upon the plot of the story… quite literally let it roam and develop on its own with no true direction or purpose, it looked to me like an amorphous blob hanging on the tip of a very long stick, the stick being the plot.

    I like King’s imagery of uncovering a fossil, but at the moment I see the plot as the hidden skeleton and the characters as the tendons and sinew that keep things from falling apart, bringing the dry plot bones to life… just the way I see it

    I cant help be feel like the first 10,000 words were meaningless, and I spent all of last night trying to salvage what I could, trying to lay some groundwork for the plot to develop from the characters… I am certain I will revisit the first part of the story (over and over again) but I feel that I just need to get straight into unloading (or dumping as you like to put it) the plot while it’s still burning in my chest.

    I’m curious about King’s plot-driven methodology, does he develop his characters after knowing where the story goes? does it happen all at once? I don’t read enough to know how to write well, which is why your blog posts are so valuable to me :P

    I definitely enjoy situational writing more than plot-driven writing (my current piece being my first novel attempt). As a poetic writer (as I like to think), I often draw from images and metaphors to build the foundations of a piece. I feel that the scene or story blossoms naturally (when/if they do) and ideas and images become freely available to me when I explore the space I’ve created within a metaphor without any defined destination or purpose. Even the characters of my story came from ideas that stemmed from short situational pieces, the “what if’s.”

    But today, I just want to get this thing out of me!

    • Perry

      You definitely need to have SOME sort of plan, for sure.

      You can’t really wander off completely without a plan, unless the piece is short, or not serious. (Or, unless you’re a phenomenal writer).

      Anything else will likely end in a bit of tragedy.

      Knowing the project you’re working on, Noah, I’d really be careful about that.

      I KNOW how it feels to want to just get the story OUT of you as soon as possible, but the straight infodump method is definitely one you want to avoid.

      I’ll go a little more in depth on that next week for you =)

  4. Tami

    I have found that unless you have a really stellar writing voice and a fantastic grasp on characters (which most people don’t, let’s be honest here) writing “organically” is just writing lazy. It’s fun for the writer, but rarely fun for the reader.

    Those writers whose voice is so effervescent they could make an ad for toilet paper riveting can cut a lot more corners than writers who are starting out, and I still believe the organic writers who produce the best work are the ones who have a firm grasp of beginning writer principles and what works and what doesn’t.

    That’s just my $.02, and I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with organic writing (and Jenny did a fantastic job discussing the balancing act required to make it work and what is so strong about it) … I just hear a lot of beginning writers take advice like this as carte blanche to not have to put real effort into learning their craft, then feeling distressed when their works are not as good as they’d hoped.


    • Perry

      “I still believe the organic writers who produce the best work are the ones who have a firm grasp of beginning writer principles and what works and what doesn’t.”

      I totally agree with that.

      Stephen King can really advocate the whole situational writing thing…but dearly lord, is that man ever prolific as hell.

      He has a TON of experience under his belt figuring out what works, what doesn’t, and how to fix the things that are broken.

      For most everyone else…the situational writing needs to be tempered with at least SOME structure.

      All I’m really trying to get across is that leaving some wiggle room for your characters to make some decisions and surprise you can never really be a bad thing.

      You always have to learn the craft…no matter what kind of craft it is. Unless you’re a prodigy of some sort….and to be honest (I think you’d agree, Tami), I’d have much more respect for a someone who fought and clawed their way to become skillful with a certain craft as opposed to someone who can just DO it from birth.

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