It’s Mother’s Day (in the UK) today, and in honour of my mother, I’m going to talk about Stephen King. King is her favourite author, and she introduced me to him when I was maybe 8 or 9, giving me a copy of The Eyes of the Dragon. I didn’t really read King again until I was much older and picking up a copy of The Stand. After that, I was hooked.
Here are 5 things the great story teller taught me.
1. Your Story is only as good as your bad guy(s)
Your heroes can be so damned heroic that Bruce Willis would have to play them in the movie adaption, but they’re boring without a good villain to challenge and undermine them. However competent your good guys are, the bad guys need to be better. Otherwise, there’s no tension. It’s too easy. If the reader doesn’t fear that your protagonist isn’t good enough to win, or left wondering how the hell they are going to get out of their predicament, then the story isn’t as compelling as it could be.
2. Your bad guy has to have humanity, or at least a human face
Thinking about The Stand, the bad guy – the real bad guy – is unknowable, and his motives for his actions are unclear. It’s sort of played as a ‘man vs the devil’ sort of deal, but that on its own is no good. This is why King gives us characters like the Trashcan Man and that guy who gets broken out of prison (Lloyd? I can’t remember his name). The unknowable evil of the guy pulling the strings is boring. The human evil of the characters he manipulates? That provides plenty of opportunity for conflict, and the delicious reader predicament of feeling for a character you find horrible.
3. Sometimes, dropping a bomb on your manuscript is the best thing for it
I think I read this in ‘On Writing’ but it’s something that’s always stuck with me, wherever I got it from. In The Stand, there’s a pivotal moment where a load of the characters get killed off by a bomb. King says that he was stuck with the story, had been struggling with writer’s block for a while. He almost didn’t finish writing The Stand, until he had the idea to just blow everything up. For one, I take it as great consolation that a prolific storyteller like King struggled from time to time with his work, but also, it’s great advice. Get stuck? Do something totally unexpected, then see what happens.
4. Horror is in what humans do to each other, not monsters
In Under the Dome, mysterious forces have dropped a dome over a small American town, isolating them from the rest of the world. You’d think the story would be about whoever did that to them, but it’s not. The Dome is just a catalyst really, an excuse to tell the story of a town unravelling. The horror comes from the actions of the characters and what they do to each other. Particularly Big Jim, the town Mayor, who is one of the most compelling, horrendous and interesting bad guys I’ve read in a long, long time. Monsters? Aliens? Ghosts? It’s Big Jim who keeps me up at night.
5. You should use cold water to get blood out of clothes
I genuinely didn’t know this before reading Stephen King. Super useful life hack tip. What? I get a lot of nosebleeds…