What is Stephen King doing right?


I just finished Stephen King’s “Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass.” This is a huge book; a mega book at 1050 pages. I’m not going to say it was the best book I ever read, but curiously enough, I found myself reading it faster than a lot of the shorter books in my “To Read” pile. I even tend to read at least five books at once, reading a chapter or two at a time and moving through them. Even while reading other books, I found myself drawn to King’s saga over and over,and felt excited each time I began a new chapter.

I have to ask myself, why is that?

I doubt it is his prose; King has a pretty basic bare bones kind of style, one that is slightly conversational but mostly invisible. He likes to go off on tangents (heck, most of this book is one gigantic flashback of the main character’s past), and I doubt any literature classes are praising his eloquent phrasing.

Plot?  I don’t see huge innovation here. In fact, King likes to draw on cliche’s, common plot devices and other books and movies, particularly in this series. Children’s nursery rhymes (like the Little Engine That Could), Wizard of Oz, even his other books make appearances. His western town is in classic western style, but with a few additions including an evil magical ball, a witch, and fog that eats you alive. So yes, there are some creative twists, and I like the way King does incorporate a lot of modern day culture into whatever book he writes. But I don’t see any big shockers when it comes to plot.

So what does that leave? Characters are vital–without good characters, no reader is going to give a pile of beans for anything you have written, no matter how excellent the prose or the plot. I do think characters are an area where King excels. Take Roland. On the exterior, he’s like Cint Eastwood in High Noon–a tough gunslinger who is willing to cross any barrier, face any hardship, and kill anyone who stands in his way of reaching what he feels is his destiny, the Tower. Right from the first book, however, it soon is apparent that he has a softer side. He tries to teach the others in his group how to survive, and it isn’t solely about the quest. In this book, he is developed much further, with all the reasons for why he is the pained, hardened man he’s become. I love the other characters as well, particularly Susannah, a schizophrenic parapalegic who talks sass like nobody’s business. When thinking of King’s characters, they often stand out–think of psychotic fan in Misery, Randal Flagg, Carrie, the kid in Firestarter . . . the list goes on. So that’s one of his strong points, I would say.

And the other?  Suspense. Tension. When it comes to the mood that will pull in readers, this is where Stephen King is a master. Every chapter ending; hell, every line even sometimes is something to heighten the tension and pull the reader into continuing. I know this is an area I’d like to make stronger in my own works.

Some examples from the book–these are all last lines of chapters.

“Now, however, such did not matter. Now there were demons everywhere.”

“Eddie Dean blew breath into the keyhole of his memory. And this time the tumblers turned.”

“Then, in Roland’s ear, Steven Deschain whispered six words.”

and last of all,

“With Oy in the lead, they once more set out for the Dark Tower, walking along the Path of the Beam.”

This last one is the last line of the book, so it pulls you right along towards the next book (which thankfully is already written). So we have movement even at the end, with one goal achieved and several yet to come.

Another writer friend of mine gave me this advice: if you read something that really captures you, dissect it and try to figure out why. That’s how you become a better writer.

Hopefully these little thoughts help me and others as well.

One response to “What is Stephen King doing right?

  1. I forgot how much I loved this series, and I’ve never been sure why. You nailed it. The characters, I care about them, and the suspense/tension. These books declined a bit as they went along, but I couldn’t wait for the next one to come out (the series wasn’t finished when I started it). Thanks for the great post. Very informative and interesting. I’m happy I found your blog.

    Paul R. Hewlett

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