I’m in the midst of reading Stephen King’s brilliant book 11/22/63,* and while I like Jake, the protagonist, and the secondary characters in the book, it’s the plot – or more specifically, the way King constructs the plot that is blowing my mind.
(By the way, I don’t do spoilers.)
King’s Masterful Plotting
In the novel, Jake travels back through time to try and stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy. That’s the central plot element – will he or won’t he stop the murder of the president of the United States? If I was to map this plot line, it would look very much like the traditional narrative arc: rising action, climax, resolution. The tension in this plot line keeps building with every turn of the story, and this alone is effective. Think The Da Vinci Code but more subtle.* This throughline of the story is taut and moves the book forward well.
However, King doesn’t stop there, and in this way, he shows both his mastery of plot-building. Instead of relying, as I would argue Dan Brown did in The Da Vinci Code, on this main storyline to drive all the tension in the book, King weaves in subplots – a bit of romance, a painful history for some of the characters, a small town community, etc – to create ebbs and swells of energy, tension, and intensity. Thus, while the overall plot is being drawn tighter and tighter, the reader gets a bit of relief when the subplots resolve or ease off a bit. We, the readers, get hope and rest, even while the compelling nature of the main plot draws us onward.
I’m going to be bold here and say that this is the most masterful use of plot I’ve ever read in a popular work of fiction. (Feel free to disagree with me in the comments. I’d love to know more great books to read.)
How We Might Show King the Highest Form of Flattery
If we want to imitate King’s choices in our own work – and why wouldn’t we? – I would suggest three ways we can do that.
- Create a central plot line that is lengthy in timeline. By using a long period of time to work out the main thread of story, King allows us get invested in the other stories without losing the reason we engaged in the first place.
- Build subplots that are complete in and of themselves AND that help build the tension on the main plot. In 11/22/63, nothing is superfluous, and nothing feels added on. Instead, everything coheres complete to King’s world, his characters, and his main story, but not everything is dependent on that story. Thus, King is able to build up smaller bits of plot and then resolve them while also using them to further intensify the central point. This ebb and flow keeps us engaged but also lets us feel like we’re getting a bit of a break in intensity as we read.
- Come back to the central plot regularly so that we don’t lose track of it. Some of the subplots in this novel could be books of their own, but King doesn’t let them take over because he quite deliberately and with concerted attention returns to the main throughline of the book. Then, when he’s in that story line, he weaves in the other plots, too, so that everything is enmeshed, everything is integral. . . which, as you’ll see when you read the book, is another stroke of genius since that, too, underscores the ideas, ways, and themes of the book.
If you haven’t read 11/22/63, I recommend you change that, and don’t worry – if you’re not a fan of horror, this book (while it does contain some violence) is not horror. Call it more of a time thriller, maybe.
Have you read this book? If so, what did you think of it? What novels do you love that use plot really well?
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