There are numerous pop culture icons synonymous with a late 1980s/ early 1990s childhood – but none are as traumatic as the memory of poor Georgie being sucked down a bloody drain by Pennywise, the terrifying antagonist of It. (I still haven’t grown out of my fear of clowns!)
For over forty years, American author Stephen King has been the king of horror fiction (pun intended). From a haunted hotel and a nightmare prom, to rabid dogs, vampires and killer clowns, to clever jail escapes and angels on death row, King’s novels and short stories have simultaneously horrified and intrigued more than 350 million readers worldwide, proving that deep down, we all have a fascination with the darker side of life.
As an aspiring novelist, it would be irresponsible of me not to include Stephen King in Fan Girl Corner – indeed, there is not a writer alive who hasn’t taken on board at least one tidbit of King’s advice on the craft. Below is an examination of the skills and techniques that make King one of my writing role models. Warning: may contain spoilers.
In addition to horror, King’s writing ranges from supernatural fiction, suspense, science fiction, and fantasy. But King’s crossover appeal doesn’t soften the impact of his humanistic themes.
Obsession, isolation (both physical and mental), the importance of hope, family, alcohol and drug abuse, the painful transition from childhood to adolescence, sacrifice, overcoming our deepest fears, the subjective perception of time and reality, and the existence of evil are among the themes that can be found in King’s writing.
King is seemingly partial to children as protagonists, and this could be for one of two reasons. Firstly, the greatest evil that humans are capable of, is the victimisation of the innocent by the corrupted; this usually manifests as abuse against children, animals and the disabled (The Body, Pet Cemetery, It and The Shining). Secondly, the innocent can be unexpectedly powerful, and adolescence is a time when the innocent are most vulnerable to corruption, when their powers may be turned to evil, such as in Carrie or Firestarter.
King also often uses authors as the main character, such as Paul Sheldon in Misery, Jack Torrance in The Shining, and Morton Rainey in Secret Window, Secret Garden.
The universal appeal of King’s writing is also notable in his numerous book-to-film adaptations, which are among the most successful adaptations in film history. The Shawshank Redemption, the Green Mile, Misery, Carrie and the Shining all have their own respective places on various notable film listings, It was responsible for an entire generation of coulrophobia and watching Stand By Me was basically a childhood right of passage for Generation Y.
2. METAPHORS & SYMBOLISM
If you’re going to write about the supernatural and the macabre, it is only a matter of time before metaphors and symbolism will become an integral technique to your writing style.
Symbolism is the use of symbols to signify ideas and qualities by giving them symbolic meanings that are different from their literal sense. For example, in King’s debut novel Carrie, blood has major symbolic significance – Carrie’s first period triggers her telekinetic powers, and the infamous prom prank in which Carrie has a bucket of pig’s blood dumped on her triggers her murderous rampage.
Metaphors are literary devices used to make implicit, implied or hidden comparisons between two things that are unrelated but share some common characteristics.
King is particularly a fan of the extended metaphor, which is a metaphor that encompasses an entire body of work. This technique is evident in novels such as The Green Mile, in which the angel John Coffey dies because of the sins committed by other men and It, which focuses heavily on thematic layers about trauma and overcoming wounds that seek to weaken or destroy us.
3. WRITING ADVICE
King’s memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is almost like a Bible for aspiring and established authors alike. Published in 2ooo, a year after King received extensive injuries after he was struck by a car, the memoir/reference guide begins with an account of King’s childhood, adolescence, and the struggling years that led up to the publication of his first novel, before turning to the basic tools of the writing trade and how to sharpen them through consistent use.
King’s advice ranges from the practical:
- Don’t use a passive voice
- Avoid adverbs
- Eliminate all distractions
- Don’t obsess over perfect grammar
- The research shouldn’t overshadow the story
- Read, read, read!
To the inspirational:
- Don’t write to make others happy – “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”
- Write one word at a time – “Whether it’s a single page or an epic saga, the work is always accomplished one word at a time.”
- Take risks; don’t play it safe – “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. Try any goddamn thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it.”
- The scariest moment is always just before you start – “You can. You should. And if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”
King’s work schedule reportedly includes four to six hours of reading and writing, and a daily quota of 2000 words – and he doesn’t stop writing until this word count is met. An idealistic formula, sure, but King claims that if you cannot make the time, you can’t expect to become a good writer.
King is one of the few bestselling authors whose novels and short stories can actually live up to their own literary merits. If all the terrifying and twisted plot devices were stripped away, King’s brand of genius storytelling would still be at the core. Snobby academics might claim otherwise, but in the art of communicating profound ideas in an entertaining manner, Stephen King deserves to be ranked beside the finest literary minds.
© Tara Jenkinson 2017