I remember one class on my Creative Writing Degree where a group of my peers were slagging off Stephen King. I can’t remember exactly what they said – it was a woefully long time ago, now – but the general gist of it seemed to be ‘commercial, low quality writing, hasn’t won prestigious literary prizes blahblahblah.’
Er… That ‘low quality writing’ has earned him millions of dollars. Millions. I would love to be in a position to support myself with writing full time, but I’m not there, and probably won’t be for some time. I haven’t got a book deal or an agent or anything, really – just a passion and a general sense that each story I write is better than the last.
The other day I finished reading Under the Dome by Stephen King. It was brilliant. Five stars. Six, only my scale doesn’t go up that high. It reminded me of those arrogant students and their assertion that writers didn’t ought to read Stephen King if they actually wanted to learn something.
Millions of copies of On Writing sold kind of defy this anyway, but for what it’s worth, here are the things I think Stephen King does so brilliantly, that I only wish I could emulate in my own writing:
1. Creating characters that are scary as hell without being flat out evil
To use Under the Dome as the example (as I read it most recently – mild spoilers), Jim Rennie, second selectmen of Chester’s Mill is one scary ass dude. But he genuinely thinks that everything he does is for the greater good, and you believe that he believes that. And you sort of, kind of, almost agree with him. Right up to the point where he beats the face of Paster Coggins with a gold baseball. Then you realise you almost saw eye to eye with a psychopath. Dracula and Alien and that creepy girl from the Ring scare you, but it’s the ones like Hannibal Lecter – the ones you almost sympathise with – that haunt you. King has a particular genius for creating these.
2. Making you care for a character just enough that it shocks and hurts when he kills them two pages later
King’s books are often full of characters. So full of characters that when they adapt them for television or film, some characters are morphed together and combined to cut down on them. King’s particular genius is the way he uses little day to day details that sometimes leave you wondering ‘why is he telling me this?’ But two pages later when their guts are ripped out by a bear, or something and your heart is breaking over a character you’ve know for TWO WHOLE PAGES, you realise that those little details about their shopping habits and their aunt in Sacramento were enough to get you invested.
3. Upping the stakes so high that you’re four chapters in and hanging from the top of the Eiffel Tower without a parachute
Many, many times reading Under the Dome, I found myself thinking ‘NOOOOOO JUST LOOK UNDER THE TABLE YOU STUPID WOMAN!!’ or some equivalent. King is masterful at dangling what the characters need in front of their faces without making it seem contrived or forced. You know what needs to happen, but King makes sure it doesn’t – making sure you keep turning pages to find out how they’re going to get round the problem now.
4. Creating kids that you can really root for
Children in the context of an adult story are so often really annoying. Usually because they’re a device, used to propel the adult players into certain situations a la Ripley’s final showdown with mama Alien in Aliens. Or those two kids in Twenty Eight Weeks Later who are central to the plot on account of the kid having heterochromia but DON’T ACTUALLY DO ANYTHING. Kids so often don’t have a function of their own and frequently fail to accrue enough personality along the way to make them likeable in their own right. King remembers that there are kids in the worlds he creates, and that they need to have personalities, and that they can be useful to the plot in more ways than just spurring someone else on by saying, ‘SAVE ME! SAVE ME!’ Look at Joe McClatchey in Under the Dome. He’s thirteen, but that doesn’t stop him figuring stuff out, coming up with good ideas and generally being a great character. But he doesn’t stop being thirteen, either – he still has awkward feelings for the girl and needs his mother. He’s believable and relatable, but also awesome.
5. Scaring the sh!t out of you
Did I ever tell the story about the time I read IT? Probably, but I’ll tell it again. I was reading IT. On the train. On the way home from Uni. I’d been reading it for a few days before that, so I was properly into it. Now, I’m the biggest wuss in the world, and won’t watch a horror film unless pretty much chained to the sofa with my eyelids held open by toothpicks, but I do read scary books, because books don’t bother me so much. IT though… The idea of a creature that manifested as your worst nightmare was scary enough, but the whole book just built up tension (see point 3) until I was completely living the world and the creature and the terror. Then a tree blew down on my train tracks and the train got delayed for about three hours. So I read more while I was waiting. By the time I got to the station, it was obviously late, I’d missed my lift back and so I had to catch the bus home. Which took another hour. Meanwhile, the extreme weather that blew a tree onto the rails was still pretty bad. The bus was being buffeted all over the road. Then I got back to my hometown to find it in the midst of a black out. Literally the whole town was blacked out. It was like coming home to a post-apocalyptic world. It was probably about nine o’clock by this point, and I’d been on the road for close to twelve hours. I had to walk home from the bus to my mothers – 0.2 miles (I just measured it on Google Maps) – in the pitch black.
0.2 miles. That’s about a four minute walk. LONGEST FOUR MINUTES OF MY LIFE. With only an old Nokia to light the way, the shadows were full of killer clowns. I made it home safely, but I was so freaked out I had to go to the loo with someone else in the room because I couldn’t handle the dark on my own for another second.
I’ve never read another book that scared the hell out of me quite so utterly. I know it was partly situational, but if the book hadn’t been getting under my skin, the situation wouldn’t have had anything to exacerbate.
The long and short of it is, though Stephen King may not be a high-brow literary genius, he is certainly a writing genius, and there’s plenty that other writers can learn from him and his incredible books.
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