Learning from Stephen King

If you read this blog with any kind of regularity you know I’m a Stephen King fan. Not so much of his recent works—Duma Key is one I have a hard time remembering the title, let alone the story, and Under the Dome was something of a disappointment as well—but when it comes to his older stuff… well, that’s where my heart is.

The-Stand-Book-CoverFirst off, there’s The Stand, probably his magnum opus, at least in my opinion. It is a close second, and a novel I love to revisit on occasion. And ’Salem’s Lot will always hold a special place in my heart as it’s the first Stephen King novel I ever read—after seeing the second half of the miniseries back in the day and wanting to know what happened in the first half. In our book-poor county, I had a heck of a time finding a copy, but once I’d read it I was hooked.

There’s no way I can count up the pleasurable hours I’ve spent lost in Mr. King’s worlds, from his Dark Tower series, to The Dark Half and his short story collections (he’s one of the few authors I’ll read when it comes to shorts), his words played a big part in my decision to be a writer.

Now, whatever you may think of Mr. King and his works, I think we can agree on one thing: he’s a good benchmark when it comes to a writer’s dreams of success. He’s a regular bestseller, and even he has lamented on more than one occasion that he could probably publish his laundry list and it’d be a hit.

Mr. King is good for inspiration, and I won’t dissuade you from reading him. He knows how to string words together in a way that usually makes you want to keep reading (I’m in the middle of Finders Keepers, his newest, as I write this, and it has me reluctant to put it down), andfinders keepers his nonfiction On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is pretty much at the top of my list when it comes to recommending books, well, on writing.

But you don’t want to follow Mr. King’s methods too closely.

As Inigo Montoya said, let me ’splain.

Stephen King began his writing career in a day when the standards were different. For instance, author intrusion was an accepted way of storytelling that it would be hard to get away with today. The literary landscape has changed, and I won’t get into an argument as to whether it’s for the better or not, because I can see it from both sides (note to self: this might make a good post in the future).

Back in the seventies, when Mr. King and his contemporaries such as Dean Koontz and Peter Straub (neither of which I’ve ever been able to get into nearly as much as I did Mr. King) started their careers, author intrusion was normal, even expected. Let me give you an example from page 126 of Finders Keepers:

Pete lay awake for a long time that night. Not long after, he made the biggest mistake of his life.

It’s that last sentence I want you to pay attention to, because it breaks deep POV, and that’s a no-no these days. Writers like Mr. King can get away with it for a few reasons. His readers expect it. It’s how he learned to write, and he became a bestselling author writing that way, so why fix what ain’t broke? And probably most important, see the aforementioned reference to his laundry list. It don’t matter what the boy writes, his fans is gonna buy it.

Why change?

But I have a news flash: You’re not Stephen King. Or Dean Koontz. Or Peter Straub. You don’t have decades of bestselling books on your résumé. Your name isn’t a virtual guarantee of being on the bestseller list.

You don’t got clout, man.

foreshadowingI know, too, why Stephen King does things like he did in the example above. It’s a form of foreshadowing that heightens the tension a bit. You’re given a tidbit that bodes ill for the character, and that’s why we read books, isn’t it? To see what happens to these poor people and how they deal with it. And we really want Mr. King’s characters to get out of their predicaments because his strength is in his characters. Story is almost second in importance in a Stephen King book. We care about the characters because Mr. King rounds them out so well we can’t help but care about them—even the bad guys, in a lot of cases.

But in today’s publishing atmosphere, if this was his debut novel, an editor would tell Mr. King to go back and find another way to tell us that foreshadowing detail, one that doesn’t tell us something Pete couldn’t possibly know. Because, as much as that little detail heightens the tension, Pete can’t know it, so you can’t tell it to us that way. Mr. King can, because he got that clout I mentioned above.

The clout you ain’t got none of.

And that means you can’t get away with it, unless you find some old-school editor, and I think there must be a lot of them out there, from what I’m seeing in some published works.

And here’s the thing: if you use deep POV properly, the fact Pete doesn’t know he’s about to make the biggest mistake of his life can be used to heighten tension just as much as Mr. King’s little snippet of author intrusion does. One method might be to drop little hints, small clues, that the character (and, by extension, the reader) would see as signs of danger if only he were paying enough attention. And even if the reader sees these things and Pete doesn’t, it still heightens the tension because the reader is screaming at him to wake up and pay attention already!

There are some other authors who break these rules as well—James Clavell and Mario Puzo come to mind, as they do what is commonly called head-hopping, a huge no-noShogun these days—but you’ll notice they, too, are from the seventies.

I’m not suggesting you can’t learn anything from these authors. You can learn from any author, and there’s some merit to the argument you can learn more from a bad author than from a good one (if you can get through the book, that is), because a good one makes fewer mistakes. But you don’t want to mimic them too closely (for one, that would be plagiarism) or you’ll be making mistakes that won’t fly with most publishers these days.

And, hey, like I said, Finders Keepers is a good book so far. Last thing you want to do is ignore pleasurable reading, and there are a lot of good things you can learn from Mr. King. Such as excellent characterization.

Just don’t follow in their footsteps exactly.

Later,
Gil

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Learning from Stephen King

  1. veldabrotherton

    Excellent explanation of not only POV but why we can’t do it just cause so and so did maybe ten years ago or now. Thanks. I hope this finally gets through to writers who are having problems with deep POV, or even going so far as to say they “ain’t gonna do it.” Well, lots of luck with that. Thanks, Gil.

    Reply
    1. gilmiller Post author

      Thanks very much. It just occurred to me that, as much as I love reading Stephen King, and as good as his book on writing is, people should know that not all these authors—especially the ones who got their start so many years ago—are perfect examples we should still emulate.

      Reply
  2. Lori Ericson

    I’m a huge King fan myself and agree about his On Writing book. It’s awesome. However, the sentence of foreshadowing in Finder’s Keepers you mention absolutely pulled me out of the story to the point I put it down for the night and thought to myself, I’ll see what he does tomorrow. But he’s so skilled I didn’t mind his internalization that said stuff like “he thought to himself,” etc. A new author cannot do that and shouldn’t. Good post, Gil!

    Reply
    1. gilmiller Post author

      Thanks Lori. Stephen King is the author I read and then said, “I wanna do that.” If I can do even a quarter as well as he has, I’ll be successful.

      Reply
      1. Lori Ericson

        I felt the same way! And still do. I love his Facebook posts even. Molly, the thing of evil, is a very spoiled dog! That makes me like him even more.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s