Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Does Story Structure Crush Creativity?

Plot development recently came up in a writers’ discussion, and I was surprised by how much the group seemed to resist the idea of creating a plot outline before beginning the story. Stephen King’s book, On Writing, came up, along with King’s assertion that he doesn’t outline a plot before he begins a novel.

I am a long-time fan of Stephen King novels, but this claim by the King—whether you like his books or not, he’s sells them by the boatload—leaves me doubting. The books that got him on the map certainly had a solid, basic plot. In Carrie, King’s first big success, the protagonist wants to get revenge on her high school peers because they tease her. She uses her telekinetic powers to get even with her classmates, but these powers get out of control.

In Salem’s Lot, Ben Mears returns home because he wants to face his fears caused by a spooky old house, but a vampire has decided to take up residence in the house.

King wrote that he imagined the situations and some of the key scenes that follow in these novels—from Carrie “becoming a woman” to the night she goes to the prom. In Salem’s Lot, a child disappears and it escalates to Ben’s love interest being taken captive.

Doesn’t seem to me that he’s writing blind.

However abstract, whether he’s outlining the plot in his head or on paper, King is not just taking some interesting character and telling us about his or her daily routine. He is putting them in very difficult situations than get worse until the end.

King also wrote at least two books that he couldn’t get published before he had his first success with Carrie. I read The Long Walk, and it’s not my favorite King novel, but it has a plot too: Win the race because if you do you will have all the riches imaginable, but if you quit then you’d better be dead or you’ll be killed. Then King walks the reader through all the challenges that the protagonist faces on the “long walk.” Stephen King’s plots are not complicated, I like his characters, but he does create a plot, and from what I have read, he starts out with a bare bones sketch of where he is going.

I know of another award-winning writer who takes this approach, but he does 70 or more revisions on a book. He says it takes a lot more time to go back and write in the plot (which he still says he has to have) than writers who plan and/or outline. It’s the way he likes to do it, but he still has to face the need for plot at some point in the process. Perhaps plot can be different to different people, and acceptable outcomes aren’t the same based on culture and expectations.

People don’t think in a linear fashion, I’m told. Nonetheless, people seek out patterns. People seek structure, even where none exists.

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