I read my first Stephen King novel when I was 13, not appropriate reading material for the age, no, but I was not a particularly normal 13-year-old. I also started writing at 13. Coincidence? To this day, I’m still not sure.
My very first “adult” novel was Phantoms by Dean R. Koontz. Needless to say, I was so hooked on adult paranormal material I immersed myself in the world of seemingly new horror. At the time, it was peppered with Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Robert McCammon, Robin Cook, Clive Barker, and a plethora of other talented writers. My most consistent reading revolved around King, Koontz, and McCammon.
I continued reading King well into the 1990s. Much of his work was innovative and completely engrossing. His stories changed after works like Rose Madder and Insomnia. Perhaps my tastes as a reader matured, or the editor in me took over. Whatever the reason, newer writers can learn from a number of King’s consistent issues.
Note: This is not to malign or bad-mouth Stephen King. It’s simply to address common problems. Also, this article contains spoilers! Besides, it’s not like he’s going to suffer in any way for it. In the words of John Shooter, of Secret Window: “Won’t do you no good to play games with me, Mr. Rainey. This has got to be settled.”
1. Plot Holes, General Errors, and Inconsistencies will NOT work for you.
King is one of the luckiest authors in modern history. This is not to say that he didn’t work hard or that he didn’t deserve success. It’s simply to say he’s got away with a number of writing “no-no’s.” Despite a number of these problems, his work went on to be hailed as some of the most popular novels read in America. Some examples:
In The Shining, there are several puzzles. Did Charles Grady develop a fatal level of cabin fever that prompted him to kill his family the year before the Torrance family? Or did the spirits kill off the Grady family? Either way, the reader has already been told someone must dump the boiler nightly or the hotel will blow up. We’re left guessing how the boiler was dumped during the five long months between the Grady murder/suicide and May, when the Overlook reopened. Likewise, the spirits target Jack and his family without verifying who will take care of that damned boiler once they’re dead.
Dick Halloran clearly tells Danny that what’s in the Overlook can’t hurt him in the beginning. Halloran states, “It’s just pictures.” Many incidents happen as winter approaches where the family is physically attacked, such as the stinging wasps from the nest believed to be empty or the undead lady that attacks Danny.
Sometimes the spirits aren’t capable of physical manipulation and sometimes they are. The spirits couldn’t dump the boiler themselves, but they could open the pantry door and release homicidal Jack towards the movie’s climax.
In Secret Window, we eventually assume the events are all in Mort Rainey’s head. At the end of the story, a witness admits to seeing John Shooter.
In The Mist, the main character David Drayton is supposed to be worried about his wife when they’re first marooned in the old grocery store. She was alone at their house when the fatal fog rolled in. Only hours later, he’s having sex with a woman he just met.
In Thinner, why on earth would a father leave a cursed pie on the counter in a home where a child lives, regardless of where they’re *supposed* to be? Kids never stay where they’re *supposed* to be. They’re kids. They’re probably going to be crawling through cabinets, under the entertainment center, inside the closet, on the roof, and everywhere else they aren’t *supposed* to be, but can somehow explore. Why did he not leave it in the car trunk, hide it under an appliance, on one of Jupiter’s lesser moons, or somewhere safe to make sure it went solely to those he intended? He could’ve just waited up all night and watched it.
In The Dark Half, what the hell was George Stark? A ghost? Demonic bilocation? George Stark was one of King’s best villains, but also one of the most dubious in terms of origin or existence.
In Kingdom Hospital, the audience is given a grand total of three reasons why Dr. Stegman “ruined” Mona Klingerman during brain surgery. 1. Stegman operated on the wrong side of the brain. 2. Stegman cut too much brain away from the tumor on the correct side. 3. Stegman ignored the warnings from the anesthesiologist. All three are mentioned during the miniseries, but no single reason is ever maintained. It’s worthy of note that Stegman’s trouble in Boston was over the same situation with another anesthesiologist.
2. Leave Politics Alone
King has often used his work as a political tool. No matter what the story is about, if any social or political issue arises, the “goodies” are always going to be Democrats, and it’s just too bad for any Republicans, Independents, Greens, Libertarians, etc. Evidently, you are a “baddie” simply by association.
In Cell, we waded through a rant on the horrors of the NRA. In It, the entire first chapter had no real reason for being in the book, but King used it as a platform to promote his personal feelings on homosexuality, via the characters (who essentially disappear after the first chapter). There’s no literary reason for the first chapter at all.
Does this mean your novel shouldn’t touch upon social or moral issues? Certainly not, they are a part of life. It simply means most readers turn to fiction for fiction. They do not want to see rants or long-winded discussions from the evening news, social woes, or political struggles in their entertainment. They are adults and do not need teaching or condescension. We can just open a newspaper or flip on the television, without paying $15, plus shipping, for the same thing.
If you live in a world where every goodie is always in your party, you do not live in the real world. Political affiliations are deeply personal and art should never be used as elementary political propaganda. There’s a big difference in creating character depth, and using a character, or characters, as a soapbox for your own personal venting. Our job as authors is to see the world through the eyes of our character, not our own eyes. Do you really want to see through the eyes of the same character novel after novel?
In the majority of King’s works, the best Christians are not Christian at all. Those who do practice Christianity are usually “evil,” “fanatics,” or “homicidal,” as in The Mist. Be it a tired cliche, or King’s real sentiments, we can start at his earliest Carrie and move onward through works like Children of the Corn, The Mist, and more.
You may be surprised to learn that King describes himself as a Christian, but many comments, and much fiction, have created the common belief that he’s wholly anti-religious and regards those practicing a faith with disdain and contempt. Pissing readers off is inevitable, but shouldn’t be something you intentionally do. Making readers think is one thing, doing your damnedest to offend is a waste of story and your readers’ time.
Most authors respect their readers, as you should. This means the goodies will not always share your personal beliefs and the baddies will not always disagree with you, be it politics or religion. If you can’t separate the character from the author, you should look into writing op-ed or non-fiction.
4. We’re All Artists Now
A good majority of King’s works feature wealthy artists as the lead character, from Bag of Bones to The Shining, from The Mist to Kingdom Hospital. It’s often inevitable for writers to write about writers, but there comes a time when it becomes a bad habit.
Turning those writers into painters or graphic novelists doesn’t always help. King started out with characters we could all envision around us in daily life, which is one of the main reasons his early writings were so popular.
Again, this is not to do anything more than provide information on the craft of writing. We are often told to emulate our favorite authors until we develop our own sense o style or technique, but far too often new writers also incorporate those bad habits and detrimental tendencies. Aspire to be your own writer.