Writing Advice: The Situation Comes First?

Stephen King is an amazing author. I respect him for his ability and he certainly knows what he is talking about. I personally don’t enjoy his writing because it is far to visceral for my liking, but that is a matter of personal preference rather than a judgement on his ability. I love his book called On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and I learned much. I highly recommend that you read it if you plan to be a writer. The first half is more of a memoir. The second half contains his advice on writing. (For my young readers, this book does contain some strong language and adult topics. Please read the book when you are older.)

There is a ton of advice out there, some of it great and some of it misunderstood. A great deal of advice is taken out of context. Stephen King’s advice is often taken out of context. Sometimes it is rather self explanatory, sometimes not. Here is a quote that had me a bit baffled as I read it.

“The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured, to begin with – come next.”

pg. 164 King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York. Scribner. 2000.

It doesn’t make a ton of sense on its own. At face value it looks like he is saying to come up with a situation first, then characters next and don’t worry about plot. Some people always come up with a character first then plop them into a situation. So is King saying that is the wrong way to do things? I think not.

It has been a number of years since I’ve read the book, so I had to go back into it to see what he really meant. On this page, he is talking about HIS process. He talks of using his intuition, and of allowing his characters to tell him what they would do next, rather than shoe-horn the character into a plot.

“Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.”

~Stephen King, On Writing

So there is a pretty strong opinion about plot I’d say! It’s another quote which can be misconstrued when taken out of context. It is also excellent advice! Plot is easy to plan out. This happens. Then that happens. The main character saves the day and whah-lah! The End!

I have been guilty of this from time to time. I move through the plot point by point and it feels robotic It is also easy to say, “Focus on character and situation, not on plot.” It is quite another, more difficult thing, to actually do this.

So if you are a discovery writer who listens to what the characters tell you, then you are good to go! Keep listening to your characters! (If you are unfamiliar with the term discovery writer, take a look at this post.)

Let me try to phrase it a different way. When a writer tries to make a character do what is necessary to further the plot, it often forces the character to behave inconsistently with previously established tendencies. The reader will pick up on this.

I’m an outliner though. What does that mean for me?

This is hard to hear if you are a plotter (outliner) rather than a discovery writer. I’ve tried both methods of writing and do a blend of both. I tend to lean more toward outlining now. So does that mean that I have to become a discovery writer? No. Plenty of very successful authors are outliners. (such as Brandon Sanderson, my favorite author) What that does mean is you must be aware of this issue when you are plotting your story. You must ask yourself at each decision point if your character is making the decision they are making just because it moves the plot in the direction you intend. Is this decision consistent with the character?

In Conclusion

So if you are a discovery writer and start with a character and put them in interesting situations, keep doing that.

If, like me, you naturally focus on plot and outline heavily, be conscious of the inherent weakness of stilted characters and robotic plot. Don’t be afraid to morph your outline when your character demands it. Listen to them. (Yes, I’m telling you to listen to the character voices in your head. *wink*)

Happy writing!

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