The single most important paragraph in Stephen King’s “On Writing.”
Stephen King’s “On Writing” is a wonderful book full of useful anecdotes and advice on the craft of fiction writing. I found the book incredibly helpful and encouraging, and have returned to it for inspiration many times over the years.
The entire book resonated for me, but this paragraph in particular—about letting go, trusting the process, and not trying to predetermine the outcome of a story—struck a chord:
“The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however it’s something I never expected. For a suspense novelist, this is a great thing. I am, after all, not just the novel’s creator, but its first reader. And if I’m not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out, even with my inside knowledge of coming events, I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety. And why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere.”
I love this passage and find it inspiring and liberating. Painstaking outlining and plotting probably works for many writers but it has never felt right to me.
In the case of my new eco sci-fi thriller, EXODUS 2022, I began with a concept I was passionate about and let the story unfold page by page. No outlines. No character profiles. No multi-page back-story. I did have an idea of where I wanted the story to go and what I wanted my characters to do, but the novel changed direction and I added and subtracted characters many times as I went along. The story grew and took on a life of its own—with scenes and entire chapters I’d never imagined at the outset revealing themselves along the way.
Another author, E.L. Doctorow, summarizes this “trust the process” approach in a slightly different way: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
After reading about how King and Doctorow write, I felt happy and vindicated in the knowledge that my preferred approach to storytelling isn’t crazy. For me, coming up with a killer concept and then leaping into the writing and going with the flow—allowing the story to unfold page by page, day by day—is incredibly exhilarating.
How do you like to work? I’d love to hear from you.