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Jean-Leon Gerome's Famous Gladiator Painting (Pollice Verso) of 1872

Outline or extempore? Which writing gladiator do you favour? (Image: Wikimedia)

One of the oldest battles in the arena of writing technique is the debate over outlining versus writing off the cuff. When I read Stephen King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, I learned he had some unusual ideas about how to get the work done. In fact, his work habits are so different from my own that I took the time to write up a little summary of how he went about things. While I carefully keep notes and create outlines, King just heroically plunges right in. For years, I believed that outlining was the most common approach to writing longer works, but wider experience on the web has taught me that a great many people come at writing in somewhat the same way as the famous horror writer. While King has his detractors, his remarkable output and amazing success indicate that his methods warrant some consideration.

King does not use an outline, nor does he compile a set of notes on his chosen characters. He writes a rough draft in no more than three months, the time limit being entirely self-imposed. The draft then undergoes a modest revision and gets a thorough edit. King believes the rough draft must be essentially sound because an unsound draft cannot be saved by revision and editing. In other words, he sees major rewrites as a waste of time. The goal is to produce a finished book. It is quicker to start again from scratch with another work. The “toss it” tactic is ruthless, and I am not sure all writers could do this (I certainly could not), but it obviously does work for King.

Literary types will swoon at a comparison between Henry James and Stephen King, but one can be made. James believed that a novel should grow from its basic idea as an oak tree grows from an acorn. That is, every novel starts with a surprisingly small idea. King writes: “The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a what-if question: what if vampires invaded a small New England village…” For King, an interesting situation is the starting point for any story. With his situation as his only guide, he makes a start. This would be suicide for me (and for many who use outlines, I suspect), yet King turns out book after book as he demonstrates his amazing ability to improvise.

King writes that, for him, a story is “found,” and then excavated like a fossil. The nature of the story determines the character of the protagonist, antagonist, and so on. Here, he applies a few rules. Characters must behave reasonably, given what we know of them, yet in ways that further the interests of the story. The story always comes first. Astonishingly, even the theme is not determined until the first draft is complete. He examines his draft and discovers the theme, then revises the second draft to bring out the found theme and to highlight any symbolism that might have emerged. This is an admission that, for King, the writing process is either largely intuitive or quite haphazard. He starts with his situation, writes his story, and then has a look to see what it all might mean. Having settled on a meaning, he nudges his ducks into a row.

I know from personal experience that not all writers can work this way, but given the current popularity of the approach, I thought it might be worth examining Stephen King’s interesting version.