What I Learn About Writing When I Read Stephen King

I started rereading The Stand a couple nights ago – it’s probably the fifth time I’ve read it. The last reread was quite a while ago, maybe even 10 years, so there are a lot of specific details and characters I’ve forgotten, and I’m not bogged down with remembering too well what’s going to happen next. At the same time, I know enough about the story line that I can stop and pay attention to the prose if something catches my eye.

As usual when I read Stephen King (and other authors), part of my reading is from the viewpoint of a writer, busy analyzing something he’s done and filing away the technique in my ever growing pile of techniques-I’d-like-to-use-but-never-have. I stayed up too late reading, and woke up this morning with the thought that it might be interesting to actually write down some of these techniques.

This is neither an homage post nor a review. Some of King’s stuff I like a lot, some not so much. On the whole I think he’s a pretty good writer, or I wouldn’t still be reading him. I admire his imagination and productivity; on the other hand, sometimes I wish an editor had reined him in more. He can go a little overboard in the prose department and fall back on formula instead of stretching, and I much prefer implied bad things to lots of gore. But there are a few things he pretty consistently does well that I wish I could do better.

One is his ability to describe mechanical things clearly. I kid you not. The scene that prompted this thought was the scene in The Stand where we first meet Trashcan Man, on top of a gas storage tank, ready to blow it sky high. King writes,

A large pipe projected out of the tangle of pumping machinery, its bore better than two feet, its end threaded to take what the oil people called a clutch-hose. It was strictly for outflow or overflow, but the tank was now full of unleaded gasoline and some of it had trickled out, perhaps a pint, cutting shiny tracks through the light dust on the tank. (182)

He’s got me there, standing on the gas tank, looking at the mechanical stuff. I can see it. And I suck with mechanical visualizations. Further, not only does he describe the pipe clearly, but he knows it’s there in the first place. Remember, this was written before the Internet, when to do research you had to go to a library or get some sort of personal experience. King does this with other mechanical things too – gas pumps, motorcycles, power plants. These are things that are present in day to day life but that we don’t really look at unless we have a specific interest or reason to. I wouldn’t know how to go about describing them without it sounding like a manual.

He’s also really good at juggling a large set of characters and giving insight into even the minor characters. I can step back after I read something by him and say that X character was kind of flat or Y character is just like So-and-so in a different book, but while I’m reading them, I completely believe in them and their world. He’s really good at giving the minor characters a back story which, even if it’s stock in general (e.g. abused child in working-class culture), has specific details that make it that person’s. I still, after all these years writing, find it hard to create multiple characters without it cluttering the narrative, especially if I give them all points of view. The omniscient narrator is tricky to wield, and King does it really well.

The third thing I like about him is his ability to create a sense of place. Not just a setting, but a landscape that is part of the narrative. Whether King is describing a made-up town, a real city, or a secondary world location, I experience it. This is partly a result of his good use of detail and of his characters’ interactions and perceptions, and partly I think because it’s something he cares about. When I read ‘Salem’s Lot I was struck by a paragraph describing the town and the telephone wires humming with gossip – there was a love for place in that, an enjoyment of being there. It reminded me then and still does of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Imaginary, but utterly real, with a history of years and years and years of intersecting stories. Even when King is writing about places that aren’t small towns in Maine, he can still make them integral to the narrative. His best places aren’t wrappings on the story box; they are part of the story box.

Place is hard for me because I moved around a lot as a kid – I went to 3 different elementary schools and 2 different high schools. Western Pennsylvania is the place I am most familiar with, but it still doesn’t feel like home the way it would if I had lived there my whole childhood. This is one of the reasons I write fantasy – I don’t have a Maine or a Mississippi to anchor myself to, so I create one. I think I’ve become reasonably good at this, and I think a lot of that is because of how much work King does with place. While I haven’t consciously modeled my writing on him, King’s Maine is up there with Middle-Earth and Earthsea as examples of worldbuilding.

No one is ever going to call me the next Stephen King. Nor would I want them to – I want to be my own writer. But parts of his work are continual challenges to me to focus on my own writing, to make the style tighter and the content larger and more vivid. And there aren’t a whole lot of other (living) writers out there who do both for me.