The Plot Thickens. Or does it?

Regarding the handling of plot and by extension, the appropriate use of outlines, the variation and adamancy among authors seem to be as varied as the recent hard-headed debates concerning the scope of the American government. When contention arises, and lines in the sand are drawn someone needs to ask, “what is the real issue here?” as well as, “do I understand you correctly?” 

Achieving consensus is often beside the point. 

Incidentally, the US founding fathers divided themselves up into two factions: The American Federalists lead by the fatherless Alexander Hamilton, advocating for strong centralized government and the Democratic-Republicans, led by plantation owner Thomas Jefferson, who opposed ratification of the Constitution in not wishing to impede the rights of States and Individuals.

So imagining (vaguely) that Stephen King is Thomas Jefferson: “I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all of our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”

Then, if we cast John Irving as Alexander Hamilton: “Know the story—as much of the story as you can possibly know, if not the whole story—before you commit yourself to the first paragraph. . . If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you?” 

And there are supporters of both factions of which I will sample. Flannery O Conner, for instance,  wrote to another author on the subject: "You would probably do just as well to get that plot business out of your head and start simply with a character or anything that you can make come alive. Wouldn't it be better for you to discover a meaning in what you write rather than to impose one? Nothing you write will lack meaning because the meaning is in you."

Ray Bradbury used a simile: “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”

P.G. Wodehouse took a slightly more ominous tone, although still whimsical: “I believe the only way a writer can keep himself up to the mark is by examining each story quite coldly before he starts writing it and asking himself it is all right as a story. I mean, once you go saying to yourself, "This is a pretty weak plot as it stands, but if I'm such a hell of a writer that my magic touch will make it okay," you're sunk. If they aren't in interesting situations, characters can't be major characters, not even if you have the rest of the troop talk their heads off about them."

Successful writers are not disorganized in their thinking; however, they may go about solving problems in a non-conventional manner. One size does not fit all. The order imposed on one’s book may be created initially, during the editing stage or somewhere in between. 

John Irving came up through the Iowa writing ranks, and was once advised by Kurt Vonnegut; he speaks of lessons he learned from his mentors as having “saved him time.” Saving time strikes me as important. Knowing his story in its entirety saved Irving time although it may not save you time. Our writing life is relatively short, and like anything else, we can’t afford to get stuck in too many ditches driving the jalopy to Albuquerque. The fact of the matter is, there’s more than one route to Albuquerque; you can choose between scenic, and highway. I like making the left-hand turn in Paducah myself. MapQuest, derived from an algorithm, might give you one or two routes. So, variations exist within the writing demographic just as there are wide variations of experience and motivation between individuals making up the voting constituency of the fifty United States. Listening to advice is not a bad thing. Ordering one’s thinking toward developing self-acumen isn’t either.

Rather than draw a line in the sand, and have the didacts stand on one side, the swirling dervishes on the other, both yelling across at one another (as is done in politics), to have a conversation concerning the real underlying issues of one’s work, might save time. This discussion takes place within one’s own head. And if the issue of order is approached with honest soul searching, that soul may be liberated to write what is genuine. For some, this may entail a greater and more painstaking consideration; that author, however, would be capable and equipped for that task. Others may need to keep a single finger on the steering wheel, writing continuously on a roll of paper in hotel rooms off Route 66. But both writers get it done. It’s the getting it done that’s important and who cares what happens behind closed doors. What each writer needs to save time will differ from writer to writer. Assuming everyone wishes to improve and explore their craft, those who live and breathe plotlessly may need to pay more attention to organization. Ill consideration of structure, in general, may have an enormous impact on success or failure; that is, how can the author accomplish his intention in regards to voice or character portrayal if there are gaping holes in the storyline? Those who goosestep straight-legged past the reviewing stand, map at arm’s length, may find it beneficial to stumble around blindfolded now and then, jumping randomly into mud puddles. Too much rigidity leads to predictability, and that can result in a reader abandoning a novel when they’re only halfway through. Honesty and self-awareness in one’s editing and capabilities is a lifetime endeavor. 


Writers don’t have to successfully mediate the crisis within the American political system, only within themselves. They have to figure out how to write the best possible story with the tools they have at the time. Both tasks entail an ability to discern what works, what doesn’t, and why. Stubbornness and fear give rise to provincialism and are barriers to progress both within the greater society and the writer’s mind. Thankfully, mediation within oneself should be easier.