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In the topic thread below you will find several responses by veteran writers and authors critical of Stephen King's personal opinions regarding plotting, and further reaction to his disparaging of authors who themselves utilize plot and story planning techniques (for example, J.K. Rowling).

We here at Algonkian Author Connect believe the dialogue concerning this issue is important, especially for writers relatively new to novel writing. Feel free to contact us with any thoughts you might have. 

Thank you.

Michael Neff
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Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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There's some good in here....and some not-so-good.

He's totally right that "the best writers are voracious readers", and no writer ever succeeds without getting REAL comfortable with rejection. You should, in fact, hone your writing with imitation exercises/short stories, have a routine, and pick the best possible ideas to work on.

And every writer should strive to be a King, not a Martin, when it comes to productivity.

But going where the story leads you? Now this is the real stinker because, sir or ma'am, that's risking a whole lot of time, words, and creative agony on the fact that you might not have the natural talent of Stephen King. Are you willing to track through hundreds of pages to see if you've got the right 'instinct'? Are you willing to rewrite the whole darn thing because you didn't truly think through this plot thread or that character arc?

Wouldn't it be easier to plan out a hard-hitting, page-turning story BEFORE you start?

That's what King and his pansting ilk get wrong. Muddling your way through the plot as you go is like driving without a map, in the dark, without high beams. You MIGHT get somewhere cool, awesome, new, satisfying. King often does.

But you might also end up in a ditch.

The choice is yours...

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Stephen King clearly trusts his intuition as a writer and advices other authors to do the same. This is apparent in several of the points. I love this! With #3 “Go where the story leads you," I find it intriguing how much he releases control over to his characters time and time again. It obviously has worked out for him. There’s certainly nothing wrong with taking the risk at least once to see what it feels like. I think, as writers, we tend to be a bit overcontrolling, which often puts us in the pickle of over-editing our work and stressing over fine details that may not even matter in the end.

“If you don’t succeed, get a bigger nail.” I think it’s always helpful to know that even the most successful authors had to work at it in the beginning.

“The good ideas will stay with you.” I find this very encouraging because who hasn’t had an idea stick in their mind for months or even years, but then waiver on whether or not it’s a good one. According to King, there’s something to it, and I agree.

Overall, the points he makes are definitely worth taking into consideration. None of it is mundane or run-of-the-mill advice. There's a lot here, but I don't recommend that any writer try to do it all at once. This is what works for Stephen King, but we all have to develop our craft in our own way and what works best for us as individuals.

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King is the exception to the rules. There will only be one King. Just like there will only be one of any great artist/athlete/performer who influences generations. All the rest of us passionate hopefuls need to do the work, learn from the pros, put in the time and develop ourselves to be exceptional writers in our genres so we can tell some damn good stories that people will enjoy and remember.

I'll be honest, I think King is a horrible teacher. His way of writing is just that...his way. Imagine a martial arts instructor or professional athlete of any kind teaching a student to just "go with it." Are you kidding me?

I'm reminded of the time I visited the chiropractor for several weeks. After every session, I'd leave with my body in so much pain. One day, after another series of brutal snaps to my neck and spine, I told him I was hurting and asked him what the goal was; what was the projected path for my treatment. He looked at me, confused and answered, "The goal? The goal is to feel better, man!" I grabbed my coat, walked out of his office and never returned. He expected me to "just go with it." (Ugh...where was I?)

Writing can be taught. Like any other craft or discipline, it most certainly can be taught. I've been blessed to learn from highly skilled and qualified professionals and it's because of their true instruction, guidance and feedback that I've been able to grow.

"Pantsing" is unorganized and undisciplined. In my opinion, it only leads to wasted time, countless rewrites and of course, rejections. 

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"PLOT IS THE LAST RESORT OF BAD WRITERS." 

  - Stephen King

Can I now scrape my jaw off the floor? Amazing statement especially considering plots are a strength of his stories, as well as the films, obviously. So let me get this straight. The last resort plots in MISERY and THE SHINING were just that? Were the plot points and reversals whispered to him by Jack Nicholson's character when the screenplay was being written? And are King novels now consider plotless by the author himself all these many years later? The last time I read a plotless novel was in a post-modern daze of Beckett and his contemporaries like Donald Barthelme. 

The statement is utterly absurd, even by King's standards. But I don't have to be a therapist to ascertain his motive.

It's telling that rather than voice his objection to plotting in the context of novel writing alone, he bombasted it forth like the voice of God in an auditorium full of people and cameras, and in the context of it being defined as "the last resort of bad writers." You don't have to be a genius to see this was a choice, not an accident. He was swiping maliciously at rival authors who have stated the polar opposite about plot, namely J.K. Rowling. In fact, it almost feels like a dig at her. He's narcissistically letting everyone know that he is beyond such artifice due to his superior and innate artistic ability. Only "bad writers" consider plotting. Don't we all know that? 

Regardless, this is horrible advice for new writers. I've never heard worse. Sure, pen your SFF or thriller novel then pitch it as all character-driven while quoting King's bogus maxim above and see how far that gets you with an agent or publishing house editor. Agents and editors want strong plot, no question. Twenty years of workshops and pitch sessions have taught me that over and over and over. How many poor openings and saggy middles have I seen? Countless. How many times have I read rejections based on inexpert plotting?

King is also dead wrong about his uncertainty over writing being teachable. The very nature of good writer workshops and classes contradict him. Great books on novel writing contradict him. Common sense contradicts him. Writers can be taught an enormous number of basics and advanced nuances, from complex sentence structure to denouement wrap up. All beginners don't even know what they don't know. Instruction is indispensable. I've never witnessed a writer who was able to write a competitive commercial or literary novel simply by reading a lot of books. Not once, not even close.

Below is part of an interview with R.L. Stine, one of the bestselling authors of all time, who refutes King's assertions about plotting and pantsing.

Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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On 1/24/2021 at 8:21 AM, KaraBosshardt said:

With #3 “Go where the story leads you," I find it intriguing how much he releases control over to his characters time and time again. It obviously has worked out for him. There’s certainly nothing wrong with taking the risk at least once to see what it feels like. I think, as writers, we tend to be a bit overcontrolling, which often puts us in the pickle of over-editing our work and stressing over fine details that may not even matter in the end.

All good points. And you're right, it does work out for him. IMO don't you think we need to look at King's work in the context of a long career writing horror and becoming popular as a result? So many popular authors can engage in flights of fancy, just the kind a breakout author would be disallowed from attempting.

The word count sweet spot for most adult novels is 85,000 to 95,000. This requires a reasonably tight and coherent plot line with limited sub-plot tangents and viewpoints. This is what agents and publishing house editors are looking for. Some "release of control" but in the context of the bigger picture. I know what King says in the context of his own work, but this context would not be repeated by anyone else. In the hands of an inexpert writer, it could mean sag or a loss of momentum. If Sarah and Conner are racing to Jupiter, a diversion to the casino planet for three chapters worth of  blackjack might not work (this actually happened in a screenplay collaboration).

But as you note, the risk, not being overly controlling... I agree, and I'm not saying that characters cannot voice their concerns and take the story in new directions (in the context of the primary high-concept premise which should remain immutable), I'm saying that caution is advised. This circumstance can happen limitless times. Does the writer allow the rail jumping every time?

Thoughts?

I'm glad you pointed out the "pickle" of over-editing. That is worth a full topic discussion.

Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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On 1/26/2021 at 5:14 PM, MichaelNeff said:

All good points. And you're right, it does work out for him. IMO don't you think we need to look at King's work in the context of a long career writing horror and becoming popular as a result? So many popular authors can engage in flights of fancy, just the kind a breakout author would be disallowed from attempting.

I agree with what you say in terms of the context here-long career of being published vs. just starting out, etc. However Stephen King wouldn't be who he is today if he never allowed himself to write the way that he does. If he'd rigidly adhered to the rules of plot structure when he was first starting out then we may not even be talking about him in this post. Take an artist, for example. How do they know which medium works best for them until they allow themselves to try multiple kinds? Any writer cannot truly find their own unique and authentic voice and style of writing until they give themselves the opportunity to try different things.

Perhaps the middle ground here is a semi-loose plot outline that gives you points A, B and C then "pantsing" your way to each? Or, if people are curious but nervous to let their characters lead the way, then perhaps a short story would give them the ability to try it out without having to fully commit. A tasting, if you will.

I guess I should clarify that I'm not pro pantsing, nor am I pro-detailed outlining. I'm pro figuring out what works best for you.

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39 minutes ago, KaraBosshardt said:

I agree with what you say in terms of the context here-long career of being published vs. just starting out, etc. However Stephen King wouldn't be who he is today if he never allowed himself to write the way that he does. If he'd rigidly adhered to the rules of plot structure when he was first starting out then we may not even be talking about him in this post. Take an artist, for example. How do they know which medium works best for them until they allow themselves to try multiple kinds? Any writer cannot truly find their own unique and authentic voice and style of writing until they give themselves the opportunity to try different things.

Perhaps the middle ground here is a semi-loose plot outline that gives you points A, B and C then "pantsing" your way to each? Or, if people are curious but nervous to let their characters lead the way, then perhaps a short story would give them the ability to try it out without having to fully commit. A tasting, if you will.

I guess I should clarify that I'm not pro pantsing, nor am I pro-detailed outlining. I'm pro allowing yourself to try new things.

For writers trying to break in, they need to appease agents and editors reading the work. If they're missing an inciting incident and first major plot point, they're sunk, period. I know that for a fact after 15 years of pitch conference. So the issue becomes, how loose can the plotting be, so to speak, and still get over the line to be fitted for a brass ring? For those self-publishing, it's the wild west. For more literary authors, certainly more flexibility in some cases. For veteran authors with a good readership, also more room to try new things.

As for me, I know my last novel wasn't rigidly following a continuum of points in the same way a screenplay would, however, it didn't veer off into character-inspired tangents. There were tangents, but not spontaneous ones, rather controlled ones that still supported the main story. I wanted to hit that sweet spot between 85,000 to 95,000 and couldn't afford to get crazy. However, one could still spontaneously veer off now and then, but still more or less follow a coherent genre plotting scheme. It makes rising action development much more steady and sure.

It would be curious to do a study of King's early work and later work in the context of plot. However, I believe his scathing comment that linked plotting to bad writers was a deliberate knock and very petty. He didn't have to put it that way even if he did believe plotting to be a bad idea (which I don't believe he does since his novels are not plotless).

In summary, my many years of workshopping and editing have taught me that new writers are better off following the rules of good fiction writing, simply because 99.9% of them flounder in predictable ways--weak story being one of the ways. Later, perhaps, they can experiment.

But hey, if you get published, that's usually a pretty good sign you did something right... course, there are exceptions even to this.

Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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https://stephenking.com/works/novel/misery.html

In his own words: 

"The inspiration for Misery was a short story by Evelyn Waugh called "The Man Who Loved Dickens." It came to me as I dozed off while on a New York-to-London Concorde flight. Waugh's short story was about a man in South America held prisoner by a chief who falls in love with the stories of Charles Dickens and makes the man read them to him. I wondered what it would be like if Dickens himself was held captive."

This clearly demonstrates a plot line and characters planned in advance and executed according to that plan. MISERY was a huge book and movie deal for King. He now officially joins the club of authors who plot and plan their novels - at least to a certain degree, enough to create a best selling novel. This doesn't mean he didn't vary his approach with other novels, but it contradicts his later claims of never plotting. It's just not true and here is the proof. Realistically though, with a great story concept like this, why not do whatever maximizes the chances of writing a great novel. 

Michael Neff
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We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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On 1/26/2021 at 5:14 PM, MichaelNeff said:

If Sarah and Conner are racing to Jupiter, a diversion to the casino planet for three chapters worth of  blackjack might not work (this actually happened in a screenplay collaboration).

Sounds similar a certain Star Wars movie that was notoriously ill-received....

For the record, I agree that some plotting is inevitable. Even so-called "pansters" must have the general arc in mind, or at least the preexisting twists for a satisfying story, right? How else would Martin have planned the *SPOILERS AHEAD* Hodor scene, or the reveals of various character heritages, or the end-goal of Dany's descent into madness? As much as Martin, like King, talks about eschewing plot for natural character development, in some ways those characters are still on tracks that stem from their backstories. Is that not plot?

As Michael points out, King proves this in the above statement, where the idea itself had a natural inciting incident, first plot point, climax, etc. Perhaps he didn't intentionally plan or name it that way, but as a good story it needed those elements, so he crafted them.

Personally, I think the whole plotting/pansting debate has been badly framed in writing circles. I think it breaks down to the writers who follow the broad strokes, in their head, in some kind of "instinctual" way, often using the rough draft as a sort of playground/idea garden on which to base the entirely-rewritten second draft (as Kara says, knowing points A and B and C, but not the details between them), and, on the other hand, writers who carefully craft outlines first, then write first drafts, and then edit said drafts that don't (usually) have to be entirely scrapped. Either way, there's inherent planning in the story and an inevitable climax it must build to. Some writers just keep that part more vague than others.

Thoughts?

 

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I still maintain the whole pantsing thing started with Jack Kerouac's publicity stunt for ON THE ROAD.

Dramatically speaking, you cannot have a protagonist or an antagonist without a plot, because outside of that context, they don't exist. You can't work from a high-concept premise without a plot. Plot evolves from the concept naturally OR IT'S NOT A STORY CONCEPT. The very basics of genre novel storytelling are PLOT BASED, naturally with a slew of characters interweaving and helping to define and push it forward. When you pitch, you don't pitch character traits, you pitch plot including the inciting incident and first plot point at a minimum.

King novels have PLOT, no question. So he throws characters in bowl and plays pantsing games with them for a few days (or so he says, though his MISERY reflection totally contradicts that) or whatever, then a story emerges, BUT that story has a plot! It's inevitable, or there is no story. Personally, I think he gets the bulk of his story ideas from various sources, as he did with MISERY, but I'm sure it's a mixed bag. Whatever suits him at the time. 

But he can't maintain with any degree of validity that authors can't acquire great story ideas ahead of time, by whatever means, and work from there to flesh out the plot to conclusion. He already admitted he did just that with MISERY.

Even novel writers with advance outlines, in one form or another, realize fluidity as the story moves forward due to the characters coming alive on the page. But a plot plan equals GOALS. Again, if the goal is to retake the mining station on Ceres, a side trip to the slave moons of Jupiter for no good reason (or that would be PLOT) just because X character decided it was a good idea, might not work so well for the story as a whole.

A writer must keep their vision on the overall premise and the time-tested best storytelling ways to get there. This will prevent arbitrary character coups on the page that throw the story out of kilter and lead to rejection slips.

Michael Neff
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We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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One last thing, if every early stage novel writer possessed the time-honed story instincts of Stephen King, a bit more pantsing might be in order, however, they do not. 

Michael Neff
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We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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1 hour ago, aawoods said:

Sounds similar a certain Star Wars movie that was notoriously ill-received....

For the record, I agree that some plotting is inevitable. Even so-called "pansters" must have the general arc in mind, or at least the preexisting twists for a satisfying story, right? How else would Martin have planned the *SPOILERS AHEAD* Hodor scene, or the reveals of various character heritages, or the end-goal of Dany's descent into madness? As much as Martin, like King, talks about eschewing plot for natural character development, in some ways those characters are still on tracks that stem from their backstories. Is that not plot?

 

Excellent points! You really nailed it though with the character backstory observation.

Michael Neff
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We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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My first reaction to this video is to ask whether these ten writing points are Stephen King’s or the creator of the video. The video is highly edited and draws from many different interviews over what appears to be years/decades. I would have more faith in the clip if it was assembled from a single interview and had more context around each point.  

Taking the video as is, I would encourage new writers to skip it as I think it could lead them astray on their journey. I’m particularly disappointed because I really enjoyed Stephen King’s book On Writing. I actually went back to the book to see if he really believes plotting to be so antithetical to good writing. I was aghast to read he does, although he’s not as brutal about it in the book. 

Like GM Browning said in his review, you don’t just magically learn craft any more than you magically learn to be a great athlete or chef or performer. You may have talent but there are decades of technique and skills required in an education. And plot is certainly one of the most important in writing a novel. Not wanting to believe poorly of King, I’m telling myself that he’s so far along in his craft that he doesn’t think about the steps needed because he does them automatically. My bottom line—avoid this video but still cheer for King.
 

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On 1/28/2021 at 10:06 AM, elisehartkipness said:

My first reaction to this video is to ask whether these ten writing points are Stephen King’s or the creator of the video. The video is highly edited and draws from many different interviews over what appears to be years/decades. I would have more faith in the clip if it was assembled from a single interview and had more context around each point.  

Very good points! And I agree with the balance.

In this book he trashes plotting also. 

Michael Neff
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We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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