Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Cage Match: Robert McKee vrs. Steven King

Robert McKee and Steven King are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to writing. Mr. McKee is an "outliner" and Mr. King is an "improviser". Which of them provides you with the best advice depends on where you land on the spectrum yourself--or where you should land, given your own set of abilities.

In Story, Robert McKee points out that writers fall in love with their words. It's hard to chop an already-written scene, and tempting to try to massage your plot just to keep something you like. In Mr. McKee's opinion, you should outline your story in detail before you write a single word of it, because you won't be capable of editing yourself ruthlessly enough after the fact. To craft a story that works, you need to kill your darlings before they truly exist. You'll love them too much once they're born.

In On Writing, Steven King is adamant that outlining destroys the life in your writing. His advice is to start with two characters and let them interact. The scene will come alive because of that interaction, and the story flows out of it. Art is about invoking emotion in the audience, so to him, the last thing you want to do is lock the story's emotion up inside an outline. Things only get interesting when the characters begin to squirm free and strive toward their own ends, so he thinks you should give them free reign from the beginning.

Analysing this, I would say Mr. King has an excellent intuitive grasp of what makes a story work. Stories are always about human beings in conflict, striving to get their life back in balance. He starts with the essence of what makes a story gripping to the reader and then lets it create itself. I don't think he'd be able to do that effectively if he didn't have that strong intuition.

Mr. McKee, on the other end of the candy cane, understands the principles behind what makes a story gripping in a precise, intellectual way. He doesn't see merit in flailing around hoping to create something that works. His premise is that you start with something that works; you do the necessary preparatory work before you write. The emotional content will come if you do your job correctly.

In other words, Mr. McKee is a ballroom dancer and Mr. King prefers to hit the floor and just start boogying.

I'm of the opinion that there's an audience for all kinds of art, and that everyone's brain works differently so there's no reason to assume what works for one writer will work well for all of us. I tend to be an outliner, myself, but I still spend plenty of time just making things up on the fly. I'm happier (and more productive) if I know where I'm going with a piece, but it's also incredibly exciting when something just leaps out of my brain and works magic upon the page.

Are you predominantly an outliner or an improviser, and why are you that way? What abilities do you have that make you lean one way or the other? Do you have a good grasp of interpersonal conflict, so you just put your characters together and let the sparks fly? Or do you have a good grasp of how to ratchet up tension, so you lovingly plot out your diabolical surprises beforehand?

Or do you fall somewhere in the middle? Do you outline up to a point, then let loose? Or do you start making things up, but then stop and work it out when you realise you've hit gold? Feel free to give specific examples of how you handled a certain piece of writing; I'd love to hear about both your techniques and your guiding principles for your work.

Ooh, and a Happy New Year to you all, of course! :-D

Pageloads since 01/01/2009: