A lucid explanation of intuitive writing and its vitality by Stephen King, from his book, “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.“
When, during the course of an interview for The New Yorker, I told the interviewer (Mark Singer) that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn’t believe me. I replied that that was fine, as long as he believed that I believe it. And I do. Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or Game-Boys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.
No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it’s probably impossible to get the entire fossil out of the ground without a few breaks and losses. To get even most of it, the shovel must give way to more delicate tools: airhose, palm-pick, perhaps even a toothbrush. Plot is a far bigger tool, the writer’s jackhammer. You can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jackhammer, no argument there, but you know as well as I do that the jackhammer is going to break almost as much stuff as it liberates. It’s clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. 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.
I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story. Some of the ideas which have produced those books are more complex than others, but the majority start out with the stark simplicity of a department store window display or a waxwork tableau. I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety—those are jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot—but to watch what happens and then write it down.
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.
– Stephen King, “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.“
Billy Marshall-Stoneking, a wonderful screenwriting teacher, upon reading this excerpt replied with some powerful food for thought:
Yes, I always talk about screenwriting as an experience of “finding” the story – which means entering into relationships with characters that have problems – and consenting to let their problems be your problems. I s’pose for King the problem is the situation – characters don’t really exist as characters until they have a significant problem and are prepared to do something about it (ACT) – which is where so many Aussie scripts come off the rails – those that inhabit them either don’t have very big problems, if indeed they have problems at all – or are running as fast as they can AWAY from what it is that might threaten their well-being. As such, most of the screenplays I read are not so much accounts of dramatic action as nurslings of therapy. What King never speaks about is the fact that the writer, too, is a character, no more real or less real than the dramatic personae that people his scripts. He seems to want to suggest he is passive in the enterprise of writing – “all I do is watch what happens and write it down,” which might account for why so many of his stories are better ideas than they are completed realizations. He starts well and then never seems to know exactly what to do with it.