Plot vs Situation

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

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This week I’m moving and in the middle of a major renovation in my new home. Needless to say I’ve been distracted, but Stephen King got me thinking about plot. He suggests writers should forget about plot and give more importance to “situation.”

Wow, that knocked me into next week. Imagine contriving an amazing situation for your characters to react to. One that comes to mind is the plot of a horror movie where vampires invade a small coastal village near the Bering Sea on the nothern tip of Alaska, where in winter, the sun never comes up. Yikes. Or a Battlestar Gallactica premise where earth is destroyed and what’s left of the human race is forced into ships to launch into space with nowhere go. The “situation” has legs. It may take writerly experience to know how to focus the multiple stories that can spring from that incredible situation, but what a great problem to have if your story comes wrapped in a great situation package.

Doesn’t it make you want to take the time to develop a great “situation” or conflict, rather than focusing on the mainstays of plot?

What do you think of King’s assertion that plot is separate from “the situation” premise? Does it have to be separate? Can a great situation be enhanced by the structure of plot, ot would that inhibit the free flow of an author’s creativity to develop the situation organically, by feel using natural storytelling abilities?

King’s notion really inspired me to think out of the box on how I develop story ideas. How about you? Is there room for both plot and situation? Is one more effective than the other for you? Can an author get complacent in method if the focus is purely on plot?

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

21 thoughts on “Plot vs Situation

  1. Thinking about situation just gave me some great ideas for a sub-plot in my WIP because the protag in that sub-plot is definitely in a situation! The protag in the main plot isn’t yet in her situation, but she will be.

    This is different, of course, than a situation for the entire story, but I’m going to come up with one, and I think it will help me tie the two plots together.

    I don’t think plot and situation are mutually exclusive, however, because once you have the situation in mind, you still need to plot, right? At least, that’s how I look at it.

    • As Jim points out below, it can come down to plotting with structure or “pantsing it” by writing without guide posts, organic storytelling that stems from the situation.

      I think there’s room for structure/plot though. I’m glad this notion spawned ideas for you, Sheryl.

  2. It comes down to that hoary debate between plotting and pantsing. Many in the latter camp, which includes King, think it best to pants from an idea and not worry about plot or ending. King has said the ending will work itself out eventually. Sometimes it does, sometimes not so much. But he is so naturally gifted, especially in pure stylistic ability and character work, that most of his fans overlook it when an ending (and what seems like a bit of meandering in the middle) is less than fully satisfying.

    But for mere mortals, King’s method, I think, can lead to needless frustration. There are many things a writer can do to come up with an exciting concept and a great, conflict-filled cast of characters…and then lay out solid plot foundations (or “signpost scenes” as I call them in Super Structure) that will save a whole lot of heartache down the line. This is especially true for thrillers and mysteries, where there are so many moving parts that have to mesh. (Lee Child might be cited as a pantsing thriller author. He says he only does one draft. But I think his background in TV and reading, plus his natural ability, put all the right stuff in his head as he writes. And let’s face it, he seems to know his one character pretty well by this time.)

    However, if one is dedicated to pantsing a first draft, so long as that draft is seen as a massive bit of brainstorming, fine. It just seems to me a longer and more inefficient way to get to the good plot stuff.

    • I saw his “situation” notion as pantsing too, Jim. Thanks for the great summary. I came from a pantser start, as you’ve seen me post about, but have seen the benefits of adding a semblance of plotting method to keep my progress flowing.

      King does have “meandering” issues, but his strong craft and inventive characters and “situations” become the memorable thing. Unforgettable, really.

      For beginning writers, this is usually a problem, to write a novel that stems from a situation. It takes a skilled storyteller to keep the pace and develop a satisfying ending. As you point out, the middle often suffers. When I pantsed my debut book, I hit a wall three quarters in, but realized I had a problem and brainstormed through it. But I wouldn’t advise new writers to follow that example.

      Still for me, I like King’s notion of putting more thought into the situation, rather than immediately plotting the turns. Thanks for your thoughts, Jim.

  3. I’m with Jim – I think this could create major headaches for those who haven’t got a great structure for a plot in place. I do like the concept of ‘situation’ though in terms of making sure each scene/chapter ‘counts’ in the whole schema of the novel – so rather than just putting characters into the plot, think of them in situations that advance the plot and allow an exploration of character and theme. Does that make sense?

    • Writing a novel isn’t easy. Experience helps, for sure. For me, I’m always looking for a different way to infuse new energy into what I’m doing and learning. But you’re right, Clare, a new author can be overwhelmed by launching into a novel without more of a plan (ie plot).

      In YAs, it helps to start with situation (and matching the right character later) to avoid creating stereotypical teens. But I think there’s still room to have a framework of plot.

      Thsnks, Clare.

    • Coming from a pantser beginning, the “situation” idea taps into my storytelling enthusiasm. It will have an impact on my next book, for sure. Just for fun.

      Thanks, Elaine.

  4. I think it’s probably a lot easier for an established author with several books under their belt, such as Stephen King or Lee Child, to be a pantser because they’ve got the experience to be able to feel if a story is working or not.
    I’m just starting out and the idea of pantsing a novel scares me to death to be honest. I feel having a basic story framework to build up from gives you some direction so even though you may well change things as you go along, you have some idea where you are going. But at the same time I don’t want to have everything pre-ordained as I think you risk getting bored actually writing it.

    That said, I agree that coming up with a really interesting and exciting situation can be a great place to start creating a story. Or alternatively it can be a great addition partway through a story to add a new twist or scene that you may not have thought of when you originally plotted it.

    All the Best,

    Matthew.

    • I hear ya, Matthew. Leaping into a novel for the first time would be daunting if you got lost in the middle. Many are tempted to give up and start again. Even if you had this experience, like I did with my debut book, it’s important to dig out and finish. You learn a lot from your mistakes. Make them count.

      But I certainly understand the security of a plot framework. It’s like swimming buoy to buoy, rather than crossing an open ocean.

  5. I think you can start with a situation, or what I call a premise, but then you have to develop it into a plot. So if the premise was, say, girlfriend overhears politician ordering a murder, the plotting begins with, who is the intended victim? Who has been hired to do the hit? Should the girlfriend tell the authorities? Will this exposure jeopardize her life? Can the murderer be stopped? And so on.

    • I get the impression that King is talking about the situation being bigger than a premise. My opinion. I get the feeling that the situation is not just a trigger to a plot, like an incident, but something so big that many stories spring from it. Like the Battlestar Gallactica example, the implications are huge, movie worthy, and can develop in many directions. That’s why, if an author takes the time to create a big “what if,” it can be worth the upfront effort. Hope I’m explaining things well enough.

  6. Hey Jordan,

    Your post sent me back to the source: Stephen King’s On Writing. His argument against plot in favor of “situation” takes up all of chapter 5. He’s very passionate in his stance, saying that plot is “the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.” I think what he is saying here is that if you approach novel writing with plot as your first priority, your result will feel mechanical and lifeless. But if you start with a juicy situation, your creative brain is freed up in those crucial early “moments” to roam free and consider all sorts of crazy stuff. If you are hung up, in the EARLY GOING, on asking “does this work structurally?” you squeeze all the oxygen out of your process. You end up with prodding plot instead of engaging storytelling.

    King talks in his chapter about a writer named Edgar Wallace, who was a bestselling potboiler novelist in the 1920s, who churned out books like a machine (sort of the Ur-Patterson). A story goes that friend phoned him and was told that Wallace was busy writing a new novel. “That’s okay,” the caller remarked, “I’ll wait.” (rim shot!) Wallace invented something called the Edgar Wallace Plot Development Wheel whereby a blocked writer could spin a wheel and use whatever came up in the window — HEROINE DECLARES LOVE. The guy supposedly had a hand in creating “King Kong” but I doubt anyone reads his stuff anymore. (Although I did check…you can find him on Amazon!)

    Anywho…I digress.

    I guess I’m just trying to say that starting with a situation seems like a good point of embarkation. It’s a cousin of “what if…?” What happens after you have your “situation?” Well, that’s the hard part, isn’t it? I’m not arguing for abandoning the fine points of plotting that we all talk about here and I am a big defender of outlining, as long as it remains only a map and not a mandate. And as Jim says, not everyone is blessed with King’s natural storytelling talent. Ella Fitzgerald can scat. If I tried it, it’s yowling cats. But those early moments of the novel writing process are sometimes so ephemeral, so fragile, that — for me, at least — if I think too much about the mechanics, I lose my grip on the magic and what excited me about the idea in the first place.

    • Oh, I love this, Kris. Hugs to you. I truly think your further explanation of King’s chapter 5 fires up my enthusiasm for the intention behind his idea. I can’t wait to try it. Thank you.

      P.S.: I’d pay to hear you scat.

  7. Thanks, Jordan! More food for thought. I pantsed through the first third of my debut novel with only the end point in mind and filled in the details as I went. For the last two thirds, I had a clearer idea of where everyone was going and tried writing chapter outlines, but found my characters still kept digressing from the path. In the end, they all reached the original conclusion, but even there they managed to throw in some little extras. Would learning to plot more efficiently help me keep these rascals under better control?

    • Julie,
      What a great question — the thing about keeping your characters under control. I hear your pain on this one, as I had my hands full with an unreliable narrator in my most recent. Man, it was hard. Yet the second protag, well, I always felt I had him where I needed him. It made me start thinking of my characters as cats and dogs. If you’ve had both as pets you know that dogs are usually easy to control and motivate (Kibble! Ball! Car ride!) And cats…well, don’t kid yourself into thinking who’s in charge or knowing what they really want. If you work hard, you can train a cat, but it’ll try your soul. Some of my characters are dogs, some are cats.

    • Hey Julie. Good question indeed. My first attempt, that never got published, was a pantser effort. My characters ran the roost. They totally left. I followed what made sense, or what I thought they’d do, and it turned into a dead end. Character voice should be listened to, but from my experience, the author is in charge. It was my story and it definitely could have benefited from a plot. That was my experience.

      I later went back and applied a plot with escalating stakes and a real ending, but if I hadn’t made that mistake and learned from it by fixing it, I wouldn’t have absorbed as much. So in my experience, yes, applying a framework of plot can help reign those herd of cats in.

  8. I think that plot and situation should work together. Many of my novel ideas begin with situations (some bigger, others smaller). It’s true that a high concept situation is what then pushes you in the rank of bestsellers (volunteering to participate in deadly Hunger Games, meeting a BDSM-loving billionaire, etc.), so I find the idea of focusing on the situation interesting. Whether you just go along with it and free write or find the time to plot first is everyone’s personal affair. I found out that situation works best and runs on steadier legs if supported by flawless plot (like Hunger Games, which are often cited as THE example of perfect structure in YA).

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