“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” Stephen King
Our boy Stephen as given plenty of people plenty of scary moments: He’s written more than 50 novels and a raft of them have been turned into movies. His stories are deftly plotted, his plots and characters are definitely inventive, and he has a way with words. In short, he’s a storyteller.
So when a few of us from my reading group sat down at a local bar for beer and some book talk, it was Stephen we chatted about, specifically, what craft tips we might glean from it. The Gunslinger, the first in a series called, The Dark Tower, is, well…strange. How to describe it? A dystopian Western? Well, I’m not going to spend any more brain cells trying to figure that out. Let’s just say it’s dark. What craft musings did we mull over while chugging our beer?
Opening line: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” This is about as lean an opener as you’ll find: It captures the whole arc of the novel – it’s a chase, a quest — and it sets the tone for the story: , intense, grim, relentless. Far from flashy, it’s got dash and energy. It pulls you in.
Backstory: Tons of backstory here and Stephen uses different techniques to relay it. Sometimes he simply tells a fragment. Sometimes he drops hints about past events and then picks up the thread later. Sometimes it emerges from two people talking. Sometimes the main character falls into a reverie and it just floats onto the page. In short, King uses a lot of different ways to give the reader windows into what’s happened without cloggy information dumps. Mmmm…useful!
Fracturing: Stephen fractures his story by not telling it chronologically, which forces the reader, like the characters themselves, to dip back and forth between the past and the present. This keeps you off balance and impelled to keep reading to catch up and figure out what’s happening.
Telling: Stephen is as big a teller as he is a “show-er.” Example: He makes no bones about telling you straight out that the gunslinger is “not a man to dwell on the past,” and that he has only a “shadowy conception of the future” (welcome to the club!). There are plenty of points in the story where Stephen tells, though he also uses lots of sensory clues to show: His landscape and character descriptions are highly visual and evocative.
Play: Stephen likes to play with words, which is always fun. He uses lots of triplets: “The split, scabbed, gangrenous hand” (Yuk!). He also uses two words to capture persona: “Marten, that incomplete enchanter.” And he’s not afraid to use oddball words that don’t trip off the tongue: drumlin (a drum, or long, narrow hill).
Craft decoding can be fun and instructive – especially over beer. Write on!