Who is Right, Stephen King or Orson Scott Card?

Author often have a lot of advice for other writers. I appreciate that. I like to read books and articles about writing. I believe that getting to be a good writer is something that happens over time and with lots of practice and study into what makes good writing.

I have a number of writers that I look up to and look to as “mentors.”  I appreciate that many of them wrote books about writing.

One of those is Stephen King. He wrote a book called On Writing. Another author that I love is Orson Scott Card. He wrote a book called How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.


I found some things out pretty quickly. Both writers have a very different approach to writing. Both writers have a lot of great advice and each contributed greatly to my knowledge as a writer. But what I had a hard time with was how each author said to go about getting the writing done.

Stephen King said that writing an outline kills creativity. That the story needs to cater to the characters and that the development of the characters trumps the plot.

Orson Scot Card, on the other hand, says to write a detailed outline. Spend the time on the outline and the story will pretty much write itself.

Which one is right?

The difference between the two can be explained with two different philosophies of writing. The Stephen King type of writing is called discovery writing. These types of writers get excited about people and situations that they find themselves in. These types of writers have more vibrant and beloved characters because they write the story around what they characters are feeling and how they make their way out of the situations. This type of writer has a hard time getting past chapter three, because they have “finally” discovered what the character is going to do, and started rewriting the first two chapters, again.

The outliners are planning writers. They usually have very solid plots and amazing endings. They usually write the story around what the characters have to do to advance the story. Their stories flow well, but may not produce the same connection between their characters and the reader. The outline writers often get tired of the story. They have already discovered what is going to happen and it is real work slogging through the details.

Brandon Sanderson in his Science Fiction Writing, English 321 course, found on YouTube, said not to think of it as a type of writer, but as tools. Each type of writing can be a tool because each type has its strengths and weaknesses. I have always idolized the outline writer, thinking that using the outline makes writing easier and faster. However, I have come to appreciate the discovery writing, especially when dealing with characters and their emotions.

I have been caught in both camps and have run into both sets of problems. I have had stories sit for some months because I couldn’t come up with how to transition my character from where they were to where they needed to be.

I have re-written the beginnings of many books again and again.

So which one is right? Probably both! Which one is wrong? Probably both!

Have you had experience with one or the other, or been caught with the weaknesses of one approach or another? I would love to hear about it. Please leave a comment.

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4 thoughts on “Who is Right, Stephen King or Orson Scott Card?”

  1. More often lately, I’ve been doing both. Often, if I’m not sure of the overall story arc but have a scene, etc, I might write the opening chapters to see who the characters are and how they react, maybe learn a little of their backstory.

    But soon enough, I’ll write an outline. More along the lines of
    This Happens
    Then This
    Then This..
    leading to an ending.

    If nothing else, I then have a road map to refer to each time I sit down to write. However, when I write, I let the characters react and respond to what I might throw at them from the outline in a more organic manner, surprising even myself at what they do. I’ve often said to folks – “I’d planned for something else to happen, but my character(s) wouldn’t do what I wanted them to.” They had other plans. Because, as I wrote, I focused on them, became them.

    Each time this happens, when I’ve strayed (yes, I know the characters aren’t real so it wasn’t they who stayed, though it feels like it), before I end my current writing session, I jump into my outline and adjust it, based on where my characters “went” in what I just wrote. This way, my “road map” is still valid and logical for when I return to the story.

    And so it goes, all the way to the end. The outline helps me see where I’m going, and is very helpful when I’m stuck and don’t know what to write next (just write the next point in the outline), but letting myself stray from it, and in fact putting it out of my mind when I begin writing, makes for far more realistic characters and character interractions.

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