A few discussions have taken place lately — here and here — about the things that Stephen King says about plotting in his book, On Writing. Basically, King is very much against the use of outlines and making careful determinations of each event, as it is to happen, in his works prior to writing them. His approach is more spontaneous, and I was thrilled when I read it, because it mirrors mine quite nicely.
I don’t generate outlines of my plot prior to writing a story, nor do I write character sketches of the main players. I start with one thing: a situation. This can take many forms, but generally it’s a one-sentence statement of the fix that my main character either is in at the beginning of the story or that (s)he will get into early on in the story. Here are a few examples of situations I’ve used:
:: A book from the library happens to contain a note written by a woman who was murdered fifty years ago.
:: A pen collector’s latest pen is haunted.
:: The new beer that a bartender has just started carrying is magical, with some very strange effects on the bar’s patrons.
Now, there is a ton of leeway there for exploration, and the first thing that I have to establish is the main character. Basically, the question I ask myself is, “Now, what kind of person would get him/herself into this situation?” So, I decide who finds the note in the book (a lonely artist who has lost his inspiration), who is that pen-collector (an apostate Jew who fancies himself a writer but who can never finish a single work), and who owns the bar (a woman in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania). This isn’t to say that these situations couldn’t happen to someone else; in fact, they most definitely could — these are merely the people who, in my mind, have ended up thus. And then, once I know Who has What Problem, I go from there, pretty much letting my characters determine their own actions. At least, that’s how it feels to me. In each of my stories, I have at some point felt a certain bit of surprise at one or more junctures along the way — and that’s me, the writer, being surprised. I love those surprises, and they cropped up even when I was using outlines. Then, I would end up feeling slightly resentful either of the surprise, because to follow it meant shelving The Outline, or of The Outline itself — because the surprise had just revealed it to be at least partially bogus. Thus, I stopped outlining altogether, except for a single project of mine — a lengthy bit of self-indulgent Star Wars fanfic that I only work on very sporadically, and thus I find an outline helpful in knowing just what was going on when I stopped last time. Once I have my situation and my protagonist, I start writing with the protagonist, get him/her into the mess, and then watch him/her try to get out. As often as not, I will know the ending in advance; but even when I do know the ending, somehow it always turns out quite unlike what I had known would happen.
Now, this approach sometimes leads me to wrong turns. I started three drafts of the “pen-collector” story before I realized where I kept going wrong and subsequently finished it, and just this week I completely restarted the bartender story after I realized that I began it at the wrong point and had some of the events wrongly sequenced. Stopping and starting over, beginning drafts with no assurance that they will be finished, and sometimes having to shelve works for a while until I figure out what went wrong: these are all part-and-parcel of my writing process, a process which works for me and which I find enjoyable — especially during those Eureka! moments of realization, when I recognize the correct resolution to an outstanding problem and, implementing that solution, have the rest of the story write itself. This isn’t to say that this process will appeal to all other writers; far from it. To some writers, the approach I’ve described above is anathema. They look at this and say, “Good God, man! How can you stand to start a story and not know if that’s the correct starting point? and how can you possibly write the beginning and middle of a story if you don’t know how it ends?” To those authors I shrug and say, “Good God, man! How can you stand to just knock off the next part of the outline each time you sit down to write? and how can you resist it when a plot development that’s not in the outline but would totally rock pops into your head?” Both of us would answer the same way:
“Well, it works.”
That it does. So if Stephen King wants to start a novel with nothing more than the kernel “A teenager named Carrie, whom everyone hates, turns out to have psychokinetic powers”, and if J. K. Rowling wants to write the last chapter of Harry Potter, Book VII before she’s even finished Book V and started Books VI and VII, well, bully for both of them.