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Crafting a Narrative: Plotting vs. Streaming

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“I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can – I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow.”

-      On Writing, Stephen King

I get uncomfortable around generalities like this, even from someone of King’s prominence.

The plotting vs. stream of consciousness argument in story development is one I hear often among other writers, with each camp bunkering down in defense of their preferred way of working. I never understand why things like this can’t just be resolved with a “what works for me, what works for you” outlook. But I digress…

“Plotting” refers to the act of outlining a story before it’s written, often on paper, but sometimes just in the writer’s mind. The idea is to figure out all the main plot points of a story beforehand, and thus solve the problems raised by them before beginning its creation.

Plotting is a notorious mainstay in the film and TV mediums, where lots of different people (not all of them writers), for better or worse, can get involved in the process. But, even solitary screenwriters working on spec scripts tend to outline, too.

In contrast, stream of consciousness writing is just what it sounds like: writing without an outline, putting the story down on paper as it comes to you. This process is more common to fiction, and, is generally thought of as the norm for “authors”.

It brings to mind images of a frustrated writer sitting in front of a typewriter, a blank piece of paper loaded and ready, waiting for inspiration to punch him in the face. In my experience, that seldom happens.

King is a notorious and vocal opponent of outlining, and he’s certainly prolific enough to prove it can work. He also makes some convincing arguments for his case in On Writing. Interestingly though, I find that his adherence to stream of consciousness writing often results in a meandering, unfocused narrative in his stories, especially in his more recent work, but even going back to the Dark Tower series.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a giant fan of the Gunslinger, but, reading it, I’ve never once gotten the impression that King in any way knew where he was going with that story, and I feel it shows. I was always frustrated by its seeming lack of direction, but it’s highly possible I’m in the minority there. I’ve heard others defend the Dark Tower’s loose narrative as part of what makes it feel so “dreamlike”, and I can’t totally dismiss that argument.

Stream of consciousness writing can also get you into trouble, often times letting you paint yourself into a narrative corner.

A pretty stellar example of this is the TV show LOST, which threw in everything but the kitchen sink in regards to random plot points and mysteries, implying they were all, somehow, connected in a truly cohesive and planned out way.

I think looking at the show’s final season, if not the final episode, indicates that the writers were “streaming” most of their story as they went, and had an unwritten agreement between themselves that they would just “figure it all out when they got to the end”. I don’t mean this to be too deep a criticism, I loved LOST, and it was, at times, without question, the best written show on television. But you can see the problems operating without a safety net can get you in.

There are, of course, true masters that really do produce incredibly compelling and detailed work all from an outpouring of spontaneous creativity. William Gibson, Elmore Leonard, and Neal Stephenson all come to mind. But there are just as many examples of amazing artists working from the outlining methodology. George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan, for instance (though, admittedly, when you’re working with worlds as large as Westeros and ‘Randland’, you probably have to).

There’s one statement in King’s above quote he uses as a justification for stream of consciousness writing, but to me actually makes a further case for plotting. It is this:

“…our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning…”

It’s actually a sentiment I very much agree with, and, honestly, one of the main reasons I like plot heavy narratives. My life is enough of an unpredictable, ambiguous experience, that I very much find relief reading stories that are heavily structured.

By that, I don’t mean “predictable”, I enjoy surprises and twists as much as anyone else, but I enjoy stories where it’s clear there’s a creator in the driver’s seat. Even if I don’t know where we’re going, I can trust it’s intentional.

For my part, I believe both processes have merit and value, and I usually end up using both. My system tends to break down like this:

I spend a good amount of time outlining a story, plot point to point, in in-depth detail. For a novel, this process can take a month or more (though, it probably should take less time – I’m an advanced level procrastinator), a screenplay or comic script, much less.

The advantage is I figure out a lot of the problems with a story as I go through it (like, why would my character walk backwards through that dark hallway, why don’t the ninjas all attack their target at once instead of one at a time, why did someone design this giant combat robot with a self-destruct switch?). This also gives me an opportunity to see my characters’ journey and growth from a bird’s eye view, which is something I struggle with as a writer. Plot and world building come very natural to me, while dialogue and character require more effort. Plotting lets me get a jump on the issues I need to focus on, and the messages I want to illustrate.

But, for me, plotting is only fifty percent of the process.

From there, writing begins, and so does the other fifty percent. As I begin to write, I follow along with my pre-designed outline, but am open to letting the story evolve and morph as it’s created…and it always does. Sometimes, it takes radically different turns than I originally plotted, which is a good thing.

Because, at the end of the day, I agree with King. Stories, in some way, should make themselves, and it’s our job as writers to give them a place to grow. If my characters don’t take the reins at some point, and start walking down their own path, something isn’t working. I just need an initial direction and goal to set them towards, or it all breaks down.

If you’re a writer, what side of the fence do you fall on? Or do you straddle it like me? If you’re an avid reader, whose works do you enjoy more? The “plotters” or the “streamers”? And yes, I just made those terms up. Remember you were here when they entered the vernacular.

6 Comments

  1. Some Vague Idea
    May 16, 2012

    Great Post! This is a good topic. I agree with all of it. Just going for it and writing without an outline does generally result in an unsatisfying story. Typically great narrative is set ups and pay offs. You won’t have those without an outline.I remember the LOST writers were big fans of King’s THE STAND. It shows because that 1000 page rambles big time and sort of peters out at the end without building to a great climax.Nothing in either LOST or THE STAND’s arcs feels like really seemed to be built on what came before. Outlining sucks but it shows when you don’t do it. You can’t build a house without blueprints. But I really would like to know: why did they design that robot with a giant self-destruct switch

    Reply
    • JBM
      May 16, 2012

      “Typically great narrative is set ups and pay offs. You won’t have those without an outline.” Well put! As far as the robot goes, I never figured it out. So I made it a cyborg dinosaur instead.

      Reply
  2. Evil Arch Enemy
    May 16, 2012

    Well written post! I just recently read On Writing for the first time. King very much schools his readers on how HE writes. And while it is an entertaining book with some great anecdotes, I found little that would help me in my writing. Personally, as tedious as outlining is, it is the most important part of the process. Now maybe if I was King or Tarantino, I could just see where the story took me. But I’m not a genius.What you really need is a writing partner. Then you can just hand off the tough work to them. And take all the credit for their contribution.

    Reply
    • JBM
      May 16, 2012

      That’s brilliant. Hey…do you want to be my writing partner???

      Reply
  3. Iris
    June 2, 2012

    I love this subject. Love the way you’ve drawn a shiny thread through the discussion. Thanks so much.

    Where I’m from (Romanceville), the “streamers” are called “pantsers”. Not as in, “take yours off” (sadly) but in a “fly by the seat of your” way.

    I’ve seen people, (okay, plotters) get some real arm-folding, lip-pursing stink eye going for pantsers when the subject comes up.
    They should save their efforts.
    Pantsers are too buzzed on the glory of their miraculous intuition to care what a group of plotters (or anyone else) thinks.

    But are we really so very different? Or do we just like different things about ourselves?

    As a pantser (no surprise) I like my illusion of freedom. My vision of creating out of chaos. But the truth is, although I never write a formal outline, I’ve always rehearsed a story in my mind at least a hundred times before I put a single word on paper. That’s hardly stream of consciousness.

    Other writers might like the illusion of control and preparation. The obvious advantage of a solid foundation they’ve had the good sense to give their work. And yet – every plotter I’ve ever spoken to has admitted the writing leads them into unanticipated places every time.

    So when we drop the definintions and talk about experience I think distinctions blur.

    After which, in my books anyway, there’s usually some kissing followed by… Oh lord, what comes after the kissing? Why don’t I write these things down? I guess I’ll just have to keep writing and let you know.

    Reply
  4. Alan
    September 20, 2012

    Great post JBM. I’ve read a bunch of articles on ‘stream of consciousness’ style vs plot ever since I read that same quote by king (I think he also said that plot is the first choice of the dullard) and your article convinced me to stick to outlining. That approach has a stream of consciousness to it anyway I think. Like you said, ideas come to you and develop turns of their own or you might notice a certain theme beginning to develop but without that general direction to tell you when your story is going to end your story can hit wall or just sort of die off.
    The SOC approach works for some writers I guess.

    Reply

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