Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Writing and Stephen King: What I've learned...

I used to be a big fan of Stephen King. Yes, used to be. That's not to say that I don't admire the guy for being a great writer: he's woven many, many tales. And I could do worse than emulate him in my own writing.

Just like with Micheal Moorcock, these are the top five things I've learned about writing from Stephen King. Be Prolific should also be on this list, but I already covered that with Michael Moorcock. Most these come from King's book On Writing, but just by reading King's works you can pick up on them.

1. Resonance...Resonance...Resonance...
King wrote about this in On Writing, page 215:

"something that will linger for a little while in the Constant Reader's mind (and heart) after he or she has closed the book and put it up on the shelf."

This is all tied up with description, theme, plot, characterization, and all that, with all of those elements adding up to resonance, your message "resounding" in the reader's mind. Great writing will keep your reader turning pages until the end and then thinking about your book afterward.

It King's case, it's why readers of The Stand cringe when somebody nearby sneezes. Carrie captures how teenage girls can be so damn mean to each other. I don't like walking near storm drains because of It. And then there's that one short story by King (I think), where the guy starts having headaches. Somewhere along the way they do an operation and start pulling hair and eyeballs out of the guy's brain. It turned out the guy "ate" his brother when they were fetuses. I don't remember the name of that short story or even if it was by King, but it has stuck with me all of these years, now that's resonance.

2. No "angry lesbian breasts."
Write and speak with authority with you're own voice. King has a distinct voice and style. He manages the details well and speaks with a certain realism even though he is writing horror/fantasy. He doesn't dance around issues. He does his research and it shows in his writing. 

Bad writers often dance around the issues in their writing, whether by copious amounts of passive voice or mumbling into the mic at a poetry slam. 

Good writers "somehow understand that although a lesbian may be angry, her breasts will remain breasts." --From On Writing, page 136.

3. Don't do drugs. Yes, King admitted in On Writing that all those drugs helped fire his synapses and crank out those tales. He also admitted to never remembering writing large parts of Cujo and putting his family through hell. Fortunately his family intervened and he got better.

Yes, some of the best works of art come from screwed up artists addicted to drugs, alcohol, or both. Yet plenty come from artists who aren't.

4. Keep the monster/killer hidden as long as possible to maintain suspense. 
This comes from reading King's fiction and his book Danse Macabre. You want to keep the reader fearing the unknown, imagining the worst. We know its only a matter of time before Carrie goes crazy and becomes the killer, but when--what will set her off? We never really see the true form of It... just Its polymorphed forms and "dead lights." The Overlook Hotel in the Shining is, indeed, haunted. But really the true villain is Jack and his own violent temper. Even in The Stand, King waits awhile before introducing the antichrist-like figure of Randall Flagg.

Revealing the monster/killer, according to King, always brings about a sense of disappointment, especially if its done too soon, especially in movies. Think Hitchcock. Think M. Night Shyamalan.

5. Don't chide the reader for wanting to read the ending. 
If you've ever finished The Dark Tower series you know exactly what I'm talking about.
(Spoiler Alert)

Whenever you start a story, a novel, or seven-book cycle like The Dark Tower you make a promise to the reader that your tale will be worthwhile, there would be a point to it all. Otherwise, why bother taking the time to read it?

Yes, the journey is more important than the ending, as King tells you near the end of The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower,  as the great Joseph C. Campbell would tell you. Sure, we learned that from say, The Wizard of Oz (which King borrowed extensively from in Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass). And yes, I understand that King writing himself into the story Dark Tower VI: The Song of Susannah was a form of therapy for both King and his readership. I could even forgive King when he was trying to get around writing himself into a corner, such as the whole Walter/Randall Flagg thing, and somehow Mordred being the product of two fathers (Roland and Flagg?), a succubus/incubus/elemental thing that had sex with Roland and later impregnating Susanna. Yeah, got it.
Writing the whole series was a journey, I get that.

I also understand that Roland, The Last Gunslinger, is part of the Campbell's monomyth, the Eternal Champion, along with Elric, Frodo, Conan, Gilgamesh, Jesus, and the thousand other faces of the hero who set out to restore balance and the divine waters of life to the world.

It's a great concept that has worked since time immemorial. 

Still, I don't understand the need for the chiding. Did King know it was going to be a terrible ending and knew people would howl? Shame on you, he wrote, for only reading for the ending.

I thought it was a terrible ending. King resorted to time travel with a dash of "and then I woke up." I consider both literary cop-outs reserved for beginning writers and Star Trek. Maybe I shouldn't be so criticising (after all, where's my magnum opus of literary awesomeness?)

But what else can I say?

I finished the Dark Tower series sometime in 2007, and because of that ending I haven't read any of Stephen King's fiction since. In my mind he'd lost a lot of his authority.

How's that for resonance?


  1. My biggest problem with Stephen King's writing has always been his endings. I don't want to do a list, but at least three novels of his that I can remember have continued waffling away for 2-3 chapters after the conclusion. It adds nothing, and has turned me - like yourself - off reading books by him. His short stories and novels still keep me coming back on occasion though...

    1. Yeah, his short stories and novellas are usually pretty good, usually having a decent conclusions.

      I don't think I'll be picking them up to read them in the near future though...

  2. You stopped being a fan of King's work because of the Dark Tower ending in the final book?

  3. If you liked his previous books, why would a mistep (in your opinion) on a subsequent publication taint previous conclusions? Was Dark Tower's conclusion so extremely egregious as to shadow his previous accomplishments? Or do you see Dark Tower as the proverbial straw breaking the camel's back? That is, the conclusion of a long-line of diminuitve novels failing to live up to the likes of Carrie, The Stand, and Salem's Lot.

    As a fan, I'm curious why you'd jump ship.

    1. You've brought up some great questions.

      The short answer to your all three of your questions is: "Yes, the Dark Tower was the straw that broke the camel's back, and it shadowed King's previous accomplishments, and it did taint previous conclusions." Horror is tragedy, you don't often get a happy ending. People often expect happy endings, and perhaps that why King felt the need for a warning. Still, I felt insulted it by it. I felt that, for a "magnum opus", King resorted to some sneaky tricks (see my time travel statement) that would only be found in lesser works.

      I actually have a much longer answer that I'm working on--much too long to share here. Look for an upcoming post in the next couple of days titled "Why am I no longer a Constant Reader?"

      Thank you for your questions.

  4. Nice article, very concise and well articulated. I don't necessarily agree with all of it, but I respect your reasoning. I have to admit, as much as I love The Dark Tower and King in general, the ending was a little weak, but it was somehow appropriate. I would have liked a little more information about the horn and Jericho Hill and why it mattered so much.

    Believe it or not, I don't read King for the horror aspect of his work. I happen to think he's a brilliant and funny social satirist.

    By the way, the bit you mentioned about the man having eaten in the womb his own twin brother, that came, if I recall correctly, from The Dark Half, essentially stating that George Stark was, symbolically at least, the ghost of the eaten twin.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...