“Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”
~ Stephen King
That’s what King says, anyway. He should know, right? The man has written a few million words of fiction. Mostly, it seems, without outlining.
This story may be apocryphal, but I remember reading, or hearing, how King outlined the plot of only one of his early books, 1979’s The Dead Zone.
I was a huge early fan of The Shining, ‘Salem’s Lot, and The Stand. I liked Carrie, his first novel, quite a bit as well, but not as much as the others. I believe King when he says he didn’t actively outline those other four novels, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have a plan once he began writing. My feeling is that King has some idea of where his story is heading, but he doesn’t ignore the occasional side trip or bit of happenstance. The journey may not end up where he first guessed, but I don’t believe it began without some sort of map or guide, even a nebulous one between the author’s ears. But, I digress . . . We were talking about The Dead Zone.
When I first picked up this 1979 novel (probably 1980 since I first owned it in paperback), I noticed that it felt different than his other novels. The sentences and paragraphs, the very story structure, seemed more carefully crafted. The writing was more controlled. Not emotionless; no, not at all. But, with less of the manic Ohmygod, What is happening?!? feel of King’s earlier novels. I later chalked some of this feeling to much of the story being about predestination. Johnny Smith had to do something about Greg Stillson before he became president of the USA, which Johnny saw in a premonition, a vision. Johnny’s psychic flash about a possible future required him to take action to stop it. And that’s what the plot is: How does Johnny stop his premonition from coming true, if in fact he does?
In spite of King’s feelings about outlining, I thought The Dead Zone was one of his better books. I still do, in fact, and this is many, many books later. It doesn’t feel like the literary version of a paint-by-number landscape. King’s creativity, his wit and familiar tropes still shine through. It’s a good novel.
Does that mean Stephen King was wrong in the somewhat mean-spirited quote that kicked off this post?
No, absolutely not. I’m not saying he was right, either. I’m just reporting the news.
This is a different type of article about whether or not you should outline when you’re writing fiction. I’m not going to stand fully within either camp. This would be plotters and pantsers. I’m in that tiny intersecting sliver between the two on a Venn diagram.
You’ve heard of these groups of writers before. It’s very black-and-white, very either/or. It’s the way we like things. At least here in America. Red State/Blue State. Liberal/Conservative. Star Wars/Star Trek. Good/Evil. We are a binary society. Very yinyang without all the Eastern philosophy. If you like one thing, it automatically means you won’t like something else. You can’t like heavy metal music and Broadway showtunes. You can’t like comic books and Russian literature.
But, that’s not the way it really is. You don’t have to be one or the other. You can be each in different circumstances, or a weird hybrid of both. Call yourself a panster if you want to hang out with Steve King and his cool buddies, even if you occasionally plot your novel separate from actually writing it.
I will tell you that there are plenty of other well-known authors who come down firmly on the side of the plotters. Hemingway was one of these, expressing that prose is architecture, not interior design. You may have heard of Hemingway. Stephen King certainly has.
I think part of the aversion to admitting that, as a fiction writer, you actually work from an outline concerns our own adolescent school trauma of having to write outlines with numbers and letters and complicated indentations. When King mentioned writers of theses in his quote above, that was the image I had. I hated outlining a term paper when I was in high school. Often, I would decide beforehand what points I wanted to make, and then I would write the paper. Afterward, I’d write the outline. So, it looked like I was a plotter when I was a panster. Mostly.
If I thought this sort of regimented outline was necessary to be called a plotter, I would immediately suggest that everyone jump over to the pantser side. That’s not how I see this. You can be a plotter without ever recording anything on paper. For myself, a plan seems real to me only after I write it down, but you should do whatever you’re most comfortable with.
Here is an absurd example. Listen to this imaginary conversation.
“I’m going to make a movie about a yokel teenaged farmboy who leaves his planet to become a huge hero in the Resistance.”
“There’s always a Resistance, isn’t there? What makes this farmboy leave his planet?”
“There are these two droids that he and his uncle buy, and one of them has a message for someone the boy thinks he knows. He goes and finds this guy, some old desert wizard who has some odd ideas. Oh, the message is from a real princess, asking for the old wizard’s help—”
“Gotcha. Droid leads to wizard. Wizard leads to . . .?”
“Eventually to a pilot with his own ship. The pilot’s a smuggler actually. The farmboy and the wizard pay him to take them off-planet. This was after the boy learned that his aunt and uncle, his only family in the world, were killed while he was with the wizard.”
“Nothing holding him back now. So, this new little group goes and saves the princess, right?”
“Something like that. There are complications along the way, and our story is going to switch over to the other side as well, showcasing our boo-hiss villain and his evil death ray or whatever that can level entire planets.”
And so on and so forth.
If this were a real conversation, you would be correct in assuming that the writer was outlining his story. Even if it’s not on paper. Some writers, myself included, often think about what main plot points we want to see in our story.
Back to the Star Wars reference. That story of a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away could be crudely summarized with the following plot points.
- How Luke gets away from Tatooine.
- How Luke & the gang save Princess Leia from the Death Star.
- How Luke blows up the Death Star.
When you think about the first tentpole, you ask yourself about the events that lead to Luke’s escape. The droids arrive and are enslaved by the Jawas. Luke and his uncle buy the droids from the Jawas. Luke find’s Leia’s hologram message. Luke goes to find the Kenobi mentioned in the message, getting attacked by Tusken sand raiders along the way. Obi-Wan Kenobi shares some information about his weird religion and snatches of history. Luke’s family is dead. Luke and Kenobi head to the Mos Eisley cantina to hire Han Solo. Han shoots someone, Luke starts a bar fight, Kenobi uses his lightsaber. They all leave Tatooine in a hurry.
That’s it. The story for this particular plot point is effectively outlined. There are plenty of writers who can do this sort of thing in their head, telling the story to themselves, but knowing ahead of time what the major plot points are.
When you plot loosely like this, you can deviate from your expected path as long as you end up at or near where your original destination was. Does this mean you can’t alter the destination? Not at all, especially if you’re writing solely for yourself. If you’re writing a book based on an outline a publisher already approved, you may have more obstacles to making a last-minute change. Otherwise, you’re the God of your fictional universe. Do as thou wilt.
It should be plain by now that when I use the term outlining I’m not talking about whatever it was your high school English teacher was trying to teach you. No letters. No numerals, Roman or Arabic. Nothing that structured or anal-retentive.
I’m working on an idea at the moment that frequently occupies my thoughts. I have an idea for some of the big tentpole events in the story, including a very explosive ending. I have some rudimentary ideas for characters, which will in turn dictate story plots and subplots and, it is fervently hoped, give the story some emotional context.
My personal philosophy is that readers want interesting characters doing interesting things towards a single, eventually-stated goal.
Act one, our characters are all introduced and some story goals become known. Story goals may change, so we keep that in mind. Then, something major happens: someone is killed, someone makes a bombshell revelation, or an unexpected person is revealed to be an antagonist. Something fundamental in the story changes. Maybe a story goal even changes. Well, yeah, that was important before—you know—but now I have different priorities.
Act two is typically a series of setbacks for our protagonists, and sometimes our antagonist. But, by the midpoint of the second act, we should reach some sort of turning point so that the goals for the remainder of the story are much clearer. We may even make it look like our protagonists are going to succeed in defeating the antagonist, but that’s usually where there’ll be what seems to be a catastrophic failure, or maybe there’s a twist that changes everything that happened before or after, something of that nature.
Then we’re on to the final act. Here’s where our protagonists pull themselves from the ashes and rise, phoenix-like. From the beginning of this act until the end, our protagonists are working towards their goal with renewed drive and more passion, especially if one of their own were martyred at their lowest moment. It’s most likely that they will succeed in their goal, but we haven’t ruled out the dreaded bummer ending. Sometimes it just makes more sense for everyone to die. That’s why we can’t have a Rogue One sequel.
While it may appear that I have outlined my story, I really haven’t. This was basic story structure. There are structural variations for plots, and I recommend the book 20 Master Plots: and how to build them, by Ronald B. Tobias. I suspect that some authors, such as Stephen King, have a compartment in their brains dedicated to story types and plots. It’s no secret that King is an avid movie buff, or that he still outreads ten other people while continuing to pump out new books. His plots are informed by—or perhaps inspired by—movies he’s seen and books he’s read. Even if this is on a subconscious level.
I’ve obviously seen A New Hope enough times that I could write an official outline of the movie if I had to, without referring to notes. If you’ve seen enough movies, or watched enough television, or read most of the genres of fiction, it’s feasible that you might develop an innate sense of plot outlines. You’ve done that yourself when watching a movie or new television episode. We always have certain plot expectations, or we’ve seen similar stories that we compare it to without thinking about it. I get most excited when those expectations are subverted, but even that happens often enough that you might even expect that.
At this point, I understand the story structure and typical tropes of the CW’s Supernatural enough that I could write a script for the show. Since filming on the final season has already wrapped, this was excellent timing on my part.
In my opinion, Stephen King is doing the same thing, only his memory and his writing abilities are, objectively, lightyears beyond my own. He remembers watching Children of the Damned, and might think the movie’s plot structure could work for one of his stories. This could be a conscious decision, but I’m willing to admit that it could be something that King never actively thinks about.
So, you’re wanting to know which is better, being a plotter or a pantser? I’m going to prove my Moderate leanings by telling you that I’m not convinced that any writer is all one or the other. If you’ll allow it, there is a spectrum here. Even if you’re making up your story as you go along, on a day-by-day basis, you’re still plotting the work of that day. Another writer (I apologize: I can’t remember who) was quoted as saying their first drafts were their outline. I do believe this is at least partially true, since it’s rare when multiple drafts aren’t required. Telling yourself what you think the story is, whether in your head or on paper, it what plotting is.
As far as Stephen King goes: He was lying.
Maybe he’s not even aware that he lied. But, he did.