On Writing by Stephen King

July 3, 2008
5 min. read

Recently I’ve started writing again. In the last few years, all my writing was on screenplay style for short films. Some of these we actually shot and produced, most just sit on my computer in final PDF form. Writing in screenplay format is different than novel, novella, or short story forms. Screenplay is all about dialog and character actions. There is no exposition of character thoughts. I think this experience makes you a stronger dialog writer, when you switch to fiction. I decided to read a few books on the subject of writing fiction before starting up again. Seeing good reviews on Stephen King’s On Writing, I decided to read it. I’m glad I did.

The book is broken into a few sections: C.V., Toolbox, On Writing, On Living: A Postscript, and a final edit example. C.V. or Curriculum Vitae is normally a list of job experience and education for use in an interview. At first, this seemed like a strange title for the section. After I finished reading, it was a logical name. The section is split into 38 mini-chapters or “snapshots” of times in history, as Stephen puts it. Descriptions of points in his life, which influenced his focus and style as a writer, help give perspective on all the rest of the book. King is very open with his battles with drugs and alcohol over the years. He laments about those books written while under the influence, with no lasting memory of the creative process.

Toolbox describes all those tools that you need in your collection as a writer. It isn’t a boring grammatical lessons, but covers those differences between what your English teacher tells you is correct grammar and how a novelist should actually write. One subject that King admits is more of a do what I say, rather than do what I do, is limiting adverbs. “I have a problem with this,” Joe said admittedly. Screenplay writing is actually a negative in the regard, especially when you are directing or at least participating on the crew side of something you write. I tend to see it in my head the production of the piece and write more stage direction than I should. This is even easier to do if the location is known while you are writing. These stage directions are the adverbs of a screenplay. Stephen states that this is just a sign that your writing isn’t strong enough for the reader to understand how a character would do something. There are many other worthwhile tips and some just opinions. But they are good opinions. I enjoyed the idea of writing as telekinesis. Your mind is controlling this little cast of characters. Just write down what they do. A very interesting perspective on the art of writing.

On Writing deals with using those tools and good habits to create a work. It is interesting to learn processes from different prospectives. Some use plot visualization or something like the snowflakes method, to complete the entire plot before they start writing. While this outline isn’t binding as to the direction the writing must take, I’m sure it has some limiting pull, if only subconsciously. King admits to having plotted once and hated it. He now just writes and lets the story take him where it will. The two styles yield different books. I have no doubt that a technical thriller, such as Tom Clancy, is well plotted and definitely well researched. The book is about the story. King’s books are more about the characters first, and story second. Perhaps that is the difference between the two methods. As King puts it, he just gets characters in a predicament and watches as they work themselves free. His plot for most books start with a simple What if? question. Taking two ideas and putting them together for a unique situation. I thought the idea of a book as a fossil was interesting. You can slowly brush away the dirt and find all the pieces unbroken, or use the plotted jackhammer to see what the fossils are faster, possibly breaking some. Interesting comparison.

On Living is a section about being hit by the van and nearly killed. I have not followed Stephen King very much at all, so the most I knew before this book was that he had an accident. I did not realize how close to dying he actually came. This is an appropriate book to hold this information, as the composition of On Writing bookended the accident. He had gained momentum on finishing the book, after a sizable delay, when the accident occurred. This was the book he worked on as he allowed writing to bring him back into life again. The very last information in the book is valuable as King shows the reader an original, first draft section of 1408. Then gives an corrected version, showing markup and giving references to why changes were done. A very good lesson in revision.

While I have not read many Stephen King books, this was a worthwhile read. It would be enjoyable for those who are not writers, but just want to become better readers. I’ve found the same thing with films, after becoming a filmmaker. Fully understanding that art can allow you to enjoy it better, if it is good. It also allows you to notice when it is done poorly. My girlfriend is slightly annoyed when I dissect poor film making choices while watching a movie. Luckily, dissecting poor writing will only be done quietly inside my head.

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