Master of horror, supernatural fiction, suspense, science fiction and fantasy and any combination thereof. And author of On Writing, an invaluable source of straightforward advice for writers on their respective journeys, with generous stories about his own.
If anyone had told me I would become avid reader of Stephen King’s novels and novellas, I would never have believed them. One image would have come into my mind – horror – and since horror didn’t interest me, and because I had certain preconceptions about the genre, I never read any Stephen King until…a course book I was using recommended The Stand for illustrating how an author can introduce many disparate characters and their points of view, one by one in separate story strands, then can weave or splice them together as the characters meet each other through the course of the narrative.
As The Stand seemed, primarily for me, a post apocalyptic fantasy novel, I was willing to give it a go because I enjoy films of this genre. I was suitably impressed, then very quickly hooked and never wanted this epic to end. After that, I ventured further down the dark path of Stephen King fiction, tackling The Dark Tower series, before going on to face the horror, finding to my delight a wicked sense of humour and sense of the grotesque and macabre that I can honestly say has never given me any nightmares. Why? Well, I think it must be the exaggerated nature of it, where it’s obvious King is having a lot of fun, whilst still keeping the reader in a state of suspenseful dread at what they suspect is about to come, then King delivers and never disappoints. And the horror takes on the aspect of tongue in cheek entertainment for me.
Having now worked my way through half of his oeuvre (as they say in the art world), for me, King is a magical realist in that he creates a highly believable detailed real world with ordinary people and humdrum concerns which is invaded by the supernatural and inconceivable. It’s a complementary relationship where each quality marks out the other to enhance the dramatic effect.
I know that since having become a devotee, and despite writing in a different style and genre, reading King has resulted in my sitting down to write with more freedom, more confidence and has enabled me to allow my creative impulses a much looser rein…and most importantly I’m having more fun.
So lets have a look at his magic and what we can learn:
Believable characters – they are introduced fast, cleanly, with little pre-ambling or fuss. They live in real places which he details carefully, he gives them convincing regional language in their dialogue, and rather than giving lengthy visual descriptions, he comes up with a few memorable characteristics, behaviours or appearance idiosyncrasies to fix them in the reader’s mind. Eg Like the woman in The Stand with the white streak in her black hair, the wild hair perhaps serving as a symbol of her inner despair and hinting at the violent act she succumbs to , and the policeman, Alan Pangborn, in Needful Things, who does shadow puppets with his hands on his office walls, who likes to get himself thinking outside the box. This treatment is reminiscent of the parody of Dickens in keeping characters highly memorable.
His characters are also flawed human beings, villains do good turns, good guys do bad things or have ‘bad’ thoughts. We can relate to them all, because we recognise them as innately human, and in the supernatural events or horrors he explores the dark side of human nature with great relish.
Inner Voices – as well as the conventional conveying of inner thoughts (he thought, she thought) he frequently gives his characters an inner voice or sets of competing inner voices, giving them their own dialogue for when they are under stress, which more dramatically demonstrates inner arguments . I love this, because it shows how complex our psychology is, shows inner conflict, and is real in the sense that we know how this works in ourselves in certain situations, when we try to keep ourselves right or how we decide to do one thing, then end up doing another. What he’s doing here is a creative form of stream of consciousness.
Plenty of hooks for the reader – Mmm, lovely aren’t they? We know about writing into the first chapter or first few lines of a story a big hook for the reader, and maybe about other softer hooks that can be popped in as foreshadowing events, symbols or repeating phrases to plant seeds or connections in the readers mind. But what about playing with time? Specifically a kind of ‘spoiler’ about the future, given in the present to make the reader want to know how the event/situation comes about. King does these ‘little did they know’ types of hooks which allude to the fact that if this character right now, knew what the result of their next action was to be, they would never do it. Eg When she let go of his hand and edged through the door, despite how close they were, she hadn’t the slightest intuition that she was never to see him alive again. Another eg. I slept deeply that night – it was to be a long time before I ever slept that well again.
You are hooked because you want to find out how the future events pan out to fit in with this fortune telling information.
The occasional direct address to the reader – not currently fashionable, but works for me to draw me in further to that special relationship between the author and the reader. I love it, but it’s to be done with care.
A seemingly endless supply and variety of metaphors and similes which give a richness and vivid intensity to the fictive world, and are woven in just where you want them, where nature or setting reflect the psychological reality of what’s going on. And as I take a special interest here, I’ve noticed he certainly never keeps repeating the same illustrative language phrases like some authors do.
A long stretched out dramatic arc to the whole structure, where the rising action is by his own admission in On Writing slow to start with, as the characters and place are established, which makes the big dramatic climaxes more effective in the time taken to get there. He also provides many mini dramatic arcs along the way to keep up the suspense. As a reader I enjoy this more stretched out form and as a writer it’s what I prefer too. For me, writing is not just about plot and page turning qualities, it’s about the whole ‘read’.
A freedom and great enjoyment in the writing. This is perhaps the biggest influence upon me personally, as I tend to edit as I go along. It’s obvious that King allows his imagination to be in full flood, not over thinking it too much, yet he remains in control at the helm. So for me this reminds me to open up the floodgates more, so I can have fun too.
In conclusion, I’ve got no hope of even trying to emulate Stephen King, but I can honestly say, his writing, far more than ‘how to write’ books, or courses (by nature having to compartmentalise the various aspects of writing), or other authors I admire, has resulted in my freeing up and enjoying the process of writing with more confidence. I suspect that having learned the basics already, he came along just at the right time for me.
Is there any more magic anyone else out there has learned from him? I’d love to know.