October 22, 2019

Two Plotting Extremes in Writing Fiction

This discussion applies to both novelists and nonfiction authors, even though the material comes from the fiction side.

Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett, novelist, has a good entry in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal (9/25/2010; C10), “The Primacy of Plot.” Patchett writes, “A tale well told can sweep up a reader in a way that dazzling characters, piercing language and startling ideas can’t manage on their own.”

She notes that most writers (novelists and nonfiction authors) would agree. Where they differ is in when to install it into the story or writing piece. On the one hand, some authors give their characters (or ideas) free reign in order to where things head–or where the characters themselves take the story. On the other hand, authors like Ann begin with the plot as the basement to their new construction.

“If I had no idea where my character was going or relied on my character to do the work of plotting for me, I would no doubt be writing long, pointless novels about a person drinking coffee and reading the paper.” So Patchett starts her writing on page 1, paragraph 1, and works to the end. She recommends this technique “for writers of essays, short stories, term papers, and living your life.”

As it happens, I re-read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft this weekend in preparation for a client. And King has nearly the opposite view: “In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B…; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech” (159). Plot comes nowhere in King’s planning and he avoids it as much as he can. He recommends writing a scene (any scene) and working out from there.

Stephen King

Interestingly, King reports (203) that if he had had only 300 single-spaced pages of The Stand written, he would have abandoned it. But he had over 500 pages, so he couldn’t let it go. So he began taking boring walks each day in order to sort things out. He did this for a long time, until the solution came to him all at once.

Patchett plots in order to avoid writing boring, meandering stuff (plotting is more efficient); King writes and uses boredom to pull things together (other writing elements are more authentic).

I have worked with authors from both of these camps. What I have discovered is that authors need to (1) gain a sense of their natural approach and (2) accept boredom either as the fox at the door or the way through the woods.

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