Devious Plots, part 1: If Stephen King doesn't do it, why should I?

 This is part of a six-part series on plot. You can find the other parts here:
~Devious Plots, part 2: What is this "plot" you speak of?
~Devious Plots, part 3: Don't put the toilet in the living room
~Devious Plots, part 4: Plot store!
~Devious Plots, part 5: More plot store!
~Devious Plots, part 6: Plot store, final sale!

To plot, or not to plot, that is the question!

Lots of top-selling writers don't plot. Anne McCaffrey didn't plot. Stephan King doesn't plot. In fact, in his book On Writing, King says plot is a clumsy tool, a jackhammer that destroys the fossil of a story.

But Terry Brooks in his book, Sometimes the Magic Works, points out that most of us are not Stephen King and Anna McCaffrey. He is in favor of organization, along with screenwriter and novelist Alexandra Sokoloff, and pretty much every mystery novelist you've ever read.

In that face of all these confusing opinions, how do you know what to do? Should you outline, organize? Or simply let the story flow?

Here are three questions to help you figure it out.

Question #1: What kind of story am I writing?

Orson Scott Card divided stories into four distinct categories, each of which requires a different level of organization.

Milieu: A Milieu story is mostly about the world of the story; it begins when the character enters the world and ends when they leave (or decide to stay.) Because Milieu stories are so setting-focused, they can be written well with or without plotting.

Idea: Idea stories are all about questions. Who killed Roger Ackroyd? What is in the mysterious box? Who is Keyser Soze?  The question is posed at the beginning and answered at the end. Because of this, Idea stories are very hard to write on the fly. There has to be an answer, a destination, and to get to a destination, you need a map.

Character: Character stories may be the easiest stories to write without plotting. They focus on people, and the story arc starts with the catalyst, the transforming event, and ends when the character either changes or doesn't. Because the change occurs in the characters, you can follow them around without a map and see where they go.

Event: Event stories are just those, events. Something happens in the world that upsets the natural order of things: an asteroid hits, a volcano explodes, Sauron tries to take over Middle Earth. Event stories can either be plotted or not.  King says most of his novels consist of putting characters in terrible situations and watching them fight their way out.

Question #2: How much revision do I usually need?

This is a sure sign of lack of organization: a huge amount of revision later. And I'm not talking about revising for submission or publication. I'm talking about making your story readable and coherent. How long does it take you to plug all the plot holes and tidy up the loose ends?

If it takes you only a month or two to write a full draft, but a year to make it ready for a critique group, you might want to think about doing some outlining before you start. If you find yourself cutting out huge sections every time you revise, you might benefit from some pre-planning.

Question #3: Is what I'm doing working for me?

This is what it really comes down to: what works for you, and your story. Forget what Stephen King does or what I do or what any other other writer does. What does your story need?

Are you struggling with side plots that go nowhere and beautifully written scenes that don't pull their own weight? Have you ever killed off a character on a whim and had your story grind to a screeching halt?  Then maybe you need some organization. Sit down and write a basic outline of your story, get yourself a blueprint so you know where you're going.

Or maybe you have the opposite problem: a plodding, predictable story with flat characters, and prose so functional that it bores even you. In that case, wing it a little. Put down your outline and take your characters for a spin. Send them to Las Vegas for a gambling spree. Have them adopt a pet raccoon, dance in the rain, fall in love with an inconvenient person.  Have fun with it!

When it comes right down to it, you're the only one who can tell if plotting works for you. If you prefer to wing it and you can do it well, excellent.  But if you want some ideas and help with plotting, tune into the next few posts and we'll see what we can come up with!


  1. This is a great post. I used to stress myself out over this, but I've learned to just go with the flow.

    Generally, I like to just wing it, but it makes things easier if I have a rough idea of where the story is going and/or the end.
    I will also outline if I need to. The current ms I'm editing was outlined, but not in great detail.
    My current WiP is character-driven and I'm totally winging it although I have a rough idea of where I want to take it.

  2. I think there's a key difference between outlining and plotting. Plot is forcing your characters to do certain things - which is why Stephen King doesn't like it. Outlining is allowing the characters to do their own thing, but knowing in advance what it will be. You have to know your characters before you begin, or be open to change.
    Also, I don't think it's King's or McCaffrey's talent that makes them not plot out the book, it's just their style. So I think going with what's natural is best - after all, you can always switch it up later. :)

  3. I don't pre-plot but a plot emerges so I guess I'm in Stephen King's camp. I simply can't whether it is 'right' or 'wrong'. I start with an idea like what if a rock walker at Peggy's Cove found a baby in the rocks? And then I let the characters go. They tell me what is happening and where they want to end up. In my revising I do have to do a lot of work but so what? I read how Elizabeth George does it and she writes reams and reams before she starts the book. What's the difference? Once I've done the first draft then I see what the beats are and work to strengthen the conflict and clarify the story. So you might say that I plot when I'm done telling myself what the story is.
    So interesting - and I love both King and George so what odds?

  4. Jade- I'm like you, I almost always have an idea of where the story will end. It's great that you can use both styles if you need to!

    Beth- I see your point, though I'd say that King and McCaffery do well at their style because of years and years of practice. If you're not that experienced, being open to organization is probably a good thing.

    I do use plot, organization, and outlining interchangeably in this post because I think they're interchangeable in a lot of people's heads. I am thinking about doing a post on the differences though!

    Jan- There is no right and wrong in writing. There's only what's working and what's not working. :) (And that was a LOT of 'w' there.)

    I love the line "I plot when I'm done telling myself what the story is." Wonderful!

  5. Terrific post! I'm discovering it depends on my novel. Sometimes the novel wants to be plotted, sometimes it doesn't. I always need a basic idea of what's going to happen, though! It just depends on the novel whether the story is meticulously or ambiguously planned!

  6. I love the MICE quotient! I think that even if you don't outline, you should determine in advance which type of story you are writing. That little bit of clarity really helps to guide you, I think.

  7. Great post. I've only written one book so I'm still learning what works best. I'm just starting my second book and I think I have a better feel for where it's going in the middle where I struggle the most. I'm hoping being more organized in my head will help me to be more organized on paper and I pray require fewer years of revision.

  8. Renee- You're right, knowing what type of story you have is an excellent tool even if you want to wing it.

    Natalie- We're all still learning. :) In my opinion, every book is written differently and every book teaches you more about the process.

  9. I was going to say that it depends on the writer, but I think you're right: it also depends on what kind of book you're writing. I never thought of it that way before.

  10. Missed- I hadn't thought of it much that way either! A mystery writer I know pointed it out to me. :)

    Of course the kind of book you write is influenced by the kind of writer you are. King does say he has some books that were plotted, but his preference as a writer seems to be with character-driven Event stories.

  11. My first book I wrote not knowing a thing and never thinking that I would transform into a writer. But several family and friends thought it was great. From there I learned to keep excellent notes so I wouldn't forget to answer questions, and then, a series emerged when as I wrote the characters whispered their stories in my ear.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  12. N.R.- It's very much a learn-as-you-go process, isn't it? Every book is different, and every book teaches you something new.

  13. Hey Miriam. It is Anne McCaffrey, not Anna. Good post though. I'd never heard anything about her writing process. -Katissima.


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