Becoming a Storyteller: Plotter vs Pantser, or, Did Stephen King really just call me a Dullard?

Stephen King, in his seminal work On Writing, says the following about Plotting:

“Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort, and the dullard’s first choice.”

Cover of "On Writing:  A Memoir of the Cr...
Cover of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Wait, what? I’m a Plotter! Or, at least, I was until five seconds after I read that line recently. See, these days I’ve been stuck in neutral, my tires spinning in the slick mud of the writing journey, despite the fact that my headlamps are fixed on this shiny new idea. I’ve started a bit of World Building, and I’ve decided the audience, but I haven’t begun drafting. Like I said, I’m stuck.

I’m someone who has always preferred knowing where I was heading and how I was going to get there. Tell me the plan, or I’ll be wringing my hands–having heart palpitations. With this new story, I know who my main character is, and I know what his general conflict will be, I just haven’t been able to shift the damned story into drive yet. So, the plan today was to do a bit of Outlining. Apparently, outlining will get you insulted by a publishing maven, and is frowned upon in some circles.

I can remember outlining the bulk of first novel idea. There were several versions of the outline, and would deviate from it here and there, but there was a plan. I thought it helped to know where I was going–nay, I had to know where I was going. In a recent article for Writer’s Digest, author Steven James says there’s is an inherent problem with outlining.

“Here’s the problem with writing an outline: You’ll be tempted to use it. You’ll get to a certain place and stop digging, even though there might be a lot more to uncover.”

James goes on to make an interesting point I had never considered when regarding the value of an outline. He says that outlining will result in weak transitions between planned scenes. When I think back to my manuscript, there’s no doubt I could shore up some of those links between the scenes I plotted ahead of time.

The Must Haves

In his article, James suggests a different approach, a more organic one. He says that a story must have the following:

an orientation to the world of the characters, an origination of conflict, an escalation of tension, rising stakes, a moment at which everything seems lost, a climactic encounter, a satisfying conclusion, and a transformation of character or situation.

These must-have elements, especially the first couple, need to be planned. I’ve never be one for much meandering, but I could see how allowing the characters explore the conflict would be beneficial in terms of Believably and Causality. I think allowing the characters to roam might help in developing certain surprises, particularly for the reader. I see the value here, I’m just not sure I can practice this sort of writing.

This all makes me think of a quote from Bruce Lee.

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

I realize there is a certain fluidity to the process of crafting a story, so, it might be time to listen to my good buddy, Bruce. At least he doesn’t insult me like Stephen.

23 thoughts on “Becoming a Storyteller: Plotter vs Pantser, or, Did Stephen King really just call me a Dullard?

  1. I think it depends on the author. I outline my books with divided scenes, but I also make them vague and prepare myself to go off the path I set. I always found that an outline helps give me some focus as far as the main plot. Yet with subplots and character development, I leave it open enough to fit things in. There’s also the fact that you can repair weak scenes, add scenes, delete scenes, and alter everything through editing.

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    • I hear ya, and really how I’ve used outlines in the past. I’m not sure exactly which route I’m going to take with this latest idea, I just thought it was ironic that I sat down to work on an outline, and I came across this article and Stephen King’s quote.

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  2. I don’t think there is anything wrong with being a planner. I need to have a plan to enable me to write. I might not go with the plan, the characters might be able to convince me to head off in different directions, but the plan gets me in front of the laptop writing.

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    • I’m inclined to agree with you, I just find it ironic that I sat in front of my laptop this afternoon with every intention of outlining a bit, then I came across the article and Stephen King’s quote. Thanks for reading!

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  3. Never, ever, ever, found outlining a help. From grade, high school, through to college, I wrote/brainstormed the assignment first. Then a quick edit, and rewrite. Give it to someone else to read and edit; followed by rewriting final draft. Then and only then wrote any required outline. My English and composition grades? All A’s and B’s.

    Always thought my brain was wired backwards.

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  4. Stephen also made a lot of references of different writers and their styles. Some were outliners and some were pansters. He even outlined a story or two. He also thought that books on writing were full of shit too, but a friend talked him into writing one. I’m glad he did. Mr. King pointed out many factors to writing, and of course he’s going to write the book in classic King style. The main premise in his book was you really can’t tell someone how to be a storyteller- they have to figure it out themselves. He believed you can definitely show people the craft of writing, “Elements of Style”, which is primarily a grammar book. And I definitely loved his theory on Bad Writers, Competent Writers, Good Writers, and Great Writers.
    Steven James has a good article, “The Five Essential Story Ingredients,” but does it really have anything to do with outlining or panstering. His advice can easily be added to either process. There are many ways to panster and many ways to outline. Like everything else in life, there a little outliner in the panster, and a little panster in the outliner.
    Some people experience things in life and share their opinions to try and help people. Why do they feel the need to compare- I don’t know? Sometimes it’s not necessary, and I guess some times it is.
    If you are an outliner, than be an outliner. If you’re a panster be a panster. The most important thing is creating a good story, right. Rock that damn story out D.L.F. like you’re rocking that photo, a.k.a. AC, because you’re cooler than a FAN my man, and I will see you at the top.

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  5. Oops! Sounds like someone was trying to tell you something re the Stephen King quote! lol…ultimately though, we’re all individuals, unique and different and what works for one doesn’t always work for another. The end result is what matters and hopefully an adoring readership of happy fans loving your book 🙂 I’ve tried conventional and highly unconventional methods for writing purposes and am still trying to figure out what’s right for me but I also believe that if you enjoy what you’re writing and how it’s going others will too…it shines through in what you write and if you enjoy the rest will follow naturally… now what would Stephen King have to say about THAT I wonder!!! Probably something very scathing!! lol 🙂

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  6. Gave this some thought. There is NO one way to write. Just like there is no one way to live. We each bring our perspective to living, so too with writing. It doesn’t matter how you write, who enjoys it. Write.

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  7. This seems to be go against most writing rules again. It’s sort of encouraging writing off the seat of your pants, which last I heard, is the number one reason for failure. But hey, I’m not complaining, that’s how I write. I like your blog!

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  8. To be honest, that’s not how I’ve ever interpreted Stephen King’s quote — and as a self-confessed Panster, you’d think I would have considered it that way.

    I always thought he was referring to the difference between:

    1. Creating authentic characters and having their actions and reactions chart the course of the story; and

    2. Creating a plot, and then forcing characters to move through it with little more organic motivation than “the plot says I have to do it”.

    In which case, the idea is that writing a story that is primarily “plot” rather than character is the first choice of the dullard writer.

    But regardless, I wish you well on your pantsing adventure. 🙂

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    • Tam, King himself has cmnoemted that Pet Sematary is the only one of his books that creeped him out so much he had to pause while writing it.As for comparing Lovecraft with King, well, King can write Lovecraftian stories, Crouch End and Graveyard Shiftamong others, but there’s no way on earth Lovecraft could have written The Reach, or Head Down.Or the Dark Tower Saga for that matter.Lovecraft excelled at creating a mood or atmosphere, while Kind excels at creating vivid characters that act and speak like real people, and it is that reality that draws you into the dark with him.Sure King puts out some klunkers (2 novels about haunted cars? Really?) but when he’s on, there’s nobody better.

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