No reader in the horror novel scene would have missed a Stephen King in their bookshelf. An aspiring writer, wanting to break in the industry through suspense and fantasy, would love to know how Stephen King does his magic.
Luckily, Stephen King recognized the influx of would-be authors wanting to follow his footsteps, so he published a memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which not just details his life but also his fond advice for writers. If you can’t seem to catch that book anywhere, however, we’re here to fill you in and teach you how to write like Stephen King.
Stephen King’s Style
Stephen King’s writing is quite unlike the styles of J.K. Rowling and Brandon Sanderson, who are well-known plot-driven writers. King blatantly rejects the concept of a “plot,” and prefers to “discover” the story. King is what we call a “gardener;” he doesn’t plan his stories ahead as he finds those kinds of stories “predictable.”
King also finds outlining boring, and that you are also likely to lose the passion for the story planning for it instead of just putting it down to words. Outlined stories, he feels, are artificial and forced.
For new writers, letting go of the outline, especially if that was what you have been taught by your English teachers, can be scary. However, if you are of King’s people, who feel imprisoned and intimidated by a premeditated story, then you can heed a few of Stephen King’s wise words.
Writing like Stephen King: The Basics
Stephen King identifies only three things in a novel: narration, description, and dialogue. We’ll talk about each item, starting with the narration.
The lack of “plot” in King’s checklist of novel parts can be obviously prominent, but King substitutes it for a “situation.” He says that most of his stories come out of putting a character or several characters into a situation. The concept is to watch how these characters weave themselves out of the situation. As an example, King defines the situation in a “what-if” question:
- “What if vampires invaded a small New England village?” (Salem’s Lot)
- “What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog?” (Cujo)
This is where King’s gardener nature comes out. In his case, he develops the situation first, then he develops the characters next. With these two ingredients, he can begin narrating what happens. Whether you’d like to narrate what happens before or what happens after is up to you.
The idea of writing in King’s style is to define a situation, then a character, albeit loosely. Put yourself in the shoes of that character, then envision what the natural reaction this character would have toward the situation they’re presented in, and follow this course of thought until you reach your end. Avoid thinking about what happens to the plot, and let the character do what they do.
A great source of inspiration for characters is, of course, the real-life characters that you get to meet everyday. Observe them, and maybe someday they might make out to be the main characters of your novel.
Although description is often about the poetry that you mix in with the prose, as the most technical part of the three, we feel compelled to talk about the technical requirements of being a writer as well in this section.
Vocabulary, grammar, and sentence/paragraph construction are the foundations in being able to develop the beautiful art of writing descriptions. Although discussing them is not part of the scope of this article, we believe that these are the tools that a writer will need throughout their journey. Hence, mastering these to a certain degree is important, so that you don’t get held back by the technicalities, especially in the editing phase.
Descriptions are obviously a technical skill to be learned, but writing good descriptions in a novel is a separate skill in and of itself. Many writers can write good descriptions for a place, but the bigger question is how much of the thing you are supposed to describe.
Description invokes an image into the reader’s image, so that the reader gets to immerse into the story. However, a scene should not break into adjective galore describing everything in the vicinity; write enough to create a familiar image of the setting. You can put your similes, metaphors, and other figures of speech to work in this part.
Many writers would be stuck in a reverie of sprinkling too much grotesque and Shakespearean words into descriptions of a simple room. Do not fall into this sweet trap. Describe only what you can see (in your mind), and use simple words if they work well. Quoting King, “The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary. “
Dialogue is important because this is one of the places where a character reveals their personality unhindered by their own bias. However, to write good dialogue means you also know how a real-life conversation works.
A conversation is often an exchange between two people, and unless one of them is extensively explaining something, these messages are often concise. There should be a cadence of who does the talking: it’s an interaction between two or more people, so make it apparent that there should be those people in that interaction.
Dialogue is also one of the parts where the golden rule of writing, “show, don’t tell,” applies well, and often fails, too. It’s tempting to say outright that a character is filthy rich by making them say that they are. However, letting them say something like “My dad’s about to come around from the marina. Seems like he’s finished checking up on his yacht” can fit more naturally into conversation yet it sends the same message.
Letting your character do their thing also includes letting them talk the way they do. Include the special mannerisms or imperfect grammatical errors in a character’s speech, and let them be truthful to their personality. This can make them more interesting to the readers.
The Importance of Honesty
Stephen King often draws out inspiration from his daily musings in his life. He often emphasizes that he writes out the truth: exactly as what he sees in real life. If the character is profane, he writes that character out with as much profanity as the character demands. Be honest about the words and actions of your characters, and they will not lead your story astray.
If you need to keep notes on a character, whether it be their peculiar idiosyncrasies or physical appearance, you can do so in a simple piece of paper. Or, you can just pull LivingWriter and have your character notes right at your side.
LivingWriter’s Story Elements can store information about any story element, especially for characters. Character Story Elements allow you to keep a reference image, nickname, and basic description of that character. Keeping notes of a character can help you keep track of what they truly are, which is more than enough help in staying honest to your characters.
Writing like Stephen King means writing and following the beat of the story that you are telling. You are uncovering a treasure that is there, and as the excavator of these stories, you hold a responsibility to tell it as accurately as possible. This is King’s motto, and if you feel like writing like this, then heed his advice and write your story today. Of course, if you do need a great writing companion to start your journey with, try out LivingWriter today!