I was a faithful Stephen King reader in my teens and twenties — I’ll prove my bona fides by noting that I trekked down the hill to Waldenbooks in Andover, Mass., to buy Cycle of the Werewolf the day it came out in paperback. Besides being an avid reader, I learned an enormous amount from King — It, “The Jaunt,” The Stand and Pet Sematary still rattle around in my subconscious, and every writer should have Danse Macabre and On Writing on the bookshelf.
Plus Pet Sematary led to what might be my favorite reader reaction ever. I lent it to a friend unacquainted with King, and he came back a few hours later, looking pale. He dropped the book on my desk, then said “the cat just came back” in a curiously flat voice. After a moment he shook his head, said “nope,” and skedaddled, still obviously disturbed. It’s hard to imagine an author enjoying a reaction from a reader who didn’t finish his book, but I think that one might qualify.
And there was The Shining, of course.
Truth be told, by now I have King’s book and Kubrick’s movie hopelessly entangled in my head (a reaction the author would definitely not like), but I read the book first, and it’s never left me. I wasn’t much more than a child myself when I read it, but its evocation of the secret, alternately powerful and vulnerable world of a child stripped of the assumed protections of childhood reached me … and rattled something in me. And of course the almost palpable dread of the book has stayed with me, too. The Shining is a book about cabin fever, but what’s terrifying about it isn’t the isolation, but the space. In The Shining empty space and its possibilities are the stuff of dread — all those rooms, unregarded, in which terrible things are waiting.
I left the fold after The Tommyknockers, not because I’d changed my mind about King as a writer, but because I got busy. Reading him ceased to be a habit and gradually became something I’d used to do. It wasn’t personal; stuff like that happens.
But I heard about Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining, and had to find out what happened to Danny Torrance and the ghosts of the Overlook. I devoured it in two days flat, which could serve as a review in its own right.
Reading King after so many years was interesting. The dialogue doesn’t work — everyone in Doctor Sleep talks more or less the same way, and none of them sound convincing. And while King has a feel for American sprawl’s rhythm of repeating franchises, his tossing out of commercial/cultural references often feels like shorthand, like he’s hurrying ahead a couple of paragraphs.
I suspect I could re-read early King novels and feel the same way. But I also found a lot that had impressed (and taught) me then and still impressed me now.
King doesn’t get in his own way as a stylist, which sounds like faint praise but isn’t meant to be. He writes simply, clearly and without a lot of fuss and bother. A lot of writers — myself most definitely included — load up the stylistic shotgun and then aim it at their own feet. Less is more, dammit.
He might have grown even better as a storyteller — he’s a master of setting up a few elements that will power the story, getting you to care about each of them, and then tying them together and pulling everything tight, until you’re flying through pages trying to read faster, fueled by equal parts excitement and dread. It’s not just the juggling that’s impressive, but the confidence with which he introduces each element and makes you care about it.
Then there’s what he chooses to reveal. This is particularly interesting, because King might not agree with me about this one. In Danse Macabre he delved into the old horror writer’s question of whether or not to open the door — a storytelling decision I talk about in this post — and decried not doing so as playing for a tie. Which is ironic, because at his best he opens the door just enough to let the reader fill in the rest, to terrifying effect.
Two examples from Doctor Sleep:
1) The history of the True Knot — the ancient, monstrous “steamdrinkers” who haunt the story — is presented through judicious bits and pieces of an evocative backstory. We get just enough about Rose the Hat to find her a fascinating villain; delving deeper into her backstory would have drained the mystery from the character.
2) I initially ducked Doctor Sleep because the True Knot hunt and torture children, and becoming a parent has made me shy from such things even in fiction. We watch this happen in Doctor Sleep, and it’s a horrifying and deeply upsetting scene. But King handles it with the writerly equivalent of careful editing — a few searing details convey the horror far more effectively than choices that a lesser (or younger) writer might have made.
And finally, King has always been a horror writer with a deep sympathy for people — he can be pitiless in chronicling the awful consequences of people’s weaknesses, struggles, and failures, but he has great sympathy for those weaknesses, struggles and failures. He brings an unsparing eye to Danny Torrance (now Dan) “hitting bottom,” an episode that leads to the death of a child, and returns again and again to how the memory haunts Dan, and warps him.
But the episode is also what might save Dan. This is a book about the torment and death of children, but it’s love for children that drives the book’s heroes as they engineer a showdown with the True Knot. (There’s a twist that King should have reconsidered because it makes this too literal, but the story still works.)
And that sympathy for people and love for children drives one truly shattering sentence, a few words that contain oceans and abysses, and were shaped by everything King was born good at and everything he’s learned: “His daddy had been a scary man, and how that little boy had loved him.”
The man’s still teaching me.
Bet you didn’t see the reference to The Chris Isaak Show coming….
These visits have been enormous fun — it’s great to raise awareness of one’s own book, of course, but seeing kids light up about a story they’ve concocted or a way to connect their own lives with storytelling is far more rewarding than that.
I’ll be in Charlottesville next week and Louisiana next month. If you’re interested in a visit to your school or library, drop me a line.
(Photo courtesy of Kiri Harris)
I chatted with Stephanie Whelan from the blog Views from the Tesseract about Jupiter Pirates. Fun discussion — we cover favorite childhood authors, world-building, the perils of continuity, families and more.
If you haven’t read this already, please do — it’s by Cameron Crowe, and it’s simultaneously a sad farewell to Philip Seymour Hoffman and an interesting analysis of how a great actor is able to not just bring a scene to life, but also transform it. (I’m linking to New York magazine’s version because they included the video.)
Film isn’t my medium — I’m a words guy. But as I get older, I’ve developed what I think of as a storyteller’s radar for aspects of filmmaking. I enjoy analyzing great (and not so great) movies to see why their storytelling choices work (or don’t) and how filmmaking can express character (either individually or as an ensemble).
But here’s the thing. Writing is fundamentally and irreducibly solitary. Yes, I work with an agent and editors and design folks, and their contributions to books can be enormous. But the writing itself? That’s just me and a keyboard and a screen. That part’s not collaborative. The collaboration is serial, on either side of long stretches where you bring the story out of your own mind and onto the page.
Which brings me to Crowe’s appreciation of Hoffman, and how he shaped the key “Uncool” scene:
My original take on this scene was a loud, late night pronouncement from Lester Bangs. A call to arms. In Phil’s hands it became something different. A scene about quiet truths shared between two guys, both at the crossroads, both hurting, and both up too late. It became the soul of the movie.
That’s a pretty amazing collaboration. As the writer, I have to play all the characters. An actor plays only one — and a good actor finds something the writer may have missed, or never thought of in the first place.
World-building is really fun for readers and writers alike. Special effects are awesome whether you see them on the screen or in your mind. But the secret to stories that work is that they’re about people.
That’s key to the success of Star Wars, and something I kept firmly in mind while plotting and writing The Jupiter Pirates. I talk about that in this blog post, which I think is a good introduction to the series.
Thanks to NYMetroParents for giving me the pixels. If you want to know more about The Jupiter Pirates, the official site is here and you can read (and download/share) the first five chapters for free here.
Disclaimer: I don’t know anything about movies. I mean, I watch them and even manage to do so without talking or texting or kicking the seat in front of me, which shouldn’t be grounds for praise but means I’m better behaved than about half of today’s moviegoers. But I don’t know anything about film technique, and perilously little about movie history — there are huge, embarrassing gaps in what I’ve seen.
But I do know a bit about storytelling and creating character, and I’m always trying to get better at those things. And so that’s the perspective I’m going to take in occasional posts about movies. (I’ve taken old posts about Alien, Oz the Great and Powerful and The Adjustment Bureau and retitled them to match this one — you can find them by clicking #movies below.)
I don’t know if this will work or not, but what the heck, let’s try it.
Today’s movie: Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
Let’s start with movie history. (Since we’ve already established this isn’t what I’m good at, I’ll be brief.) Kurosawa’s epic, set in 1587 Japan, is famous or should be for a host of reasons: It’s the blueprint for tons of assemble-the-crew capers, was remade as the Yul Brynner western The Magnificent Seven, was a big influence on Star Wars (you’ll get premonitions of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn and Yoda), and was revolutionary for the messy, improvised chaos of its battle scenes. This was even more true in Japan, where Kurosawa was deliberately undermining a tradition of stylized, choreographed fight scenes.
Indulge me for one more paragraph outside my expertise: The movie’s a more satisfying experience if you understand some aspects of Japanese culture, which I didn’t when I first saw it. Read Philip Kemp’s essay and you’ll have a better understanding of 16th-century Japan’s feudal caste system, the tensions and occasional explosions between peasants and samurai, and just why the crowd is so amazed to see the samurai leader Kambei allowing his topknot to be shaved off.
OK. Here’s what jumped out at me, in terms of storytelling and character:
1) Similarity is the enemy. Seven samurai is a lot of similar heroes to keep track of, so Kurosawa wisely makes them quite different. As the elder and the leader, Kambei is obviously different than the young apprentice, Katsushiro. And of course Toshiro Mifune’s volcanic Kikuchiyo threatens to walk away with every scene he’s in. But also note how different the joking and rotund Gorobei is from Kyuzo, the angular and laconic master swordsman. A lesser storyteller would have let these samurai in the middle blur together.
Kikuchiyo’s role, in fact, was substantially changed because as the filmmaker himself noted, “six sober samurai were a bore.” This is a basic lesson of ensemble casting in the movies, but it’s important to keep in mind for every medium. Characters should be rich and complex, but the reader will engage with them much more readily when there are obvious differences — whether it’s appearance, manner, speech patterns or something else. Those differences give the reader something to grab onto until they get their bearings and are willing to follow you deeper into character, plot and setting.
2) Character emerges from details, which can speak for themselves. In idle moments of Seven Samurai we see Kambei rub his head, where the topknot emblematic of his status as a samurai was shaved away. Kurosawa never stops to have a character remark on this, but the repetition registers with us, and eventually we come to our own conclusions about what it means.
At the beginning, Kambei’s willingness to lose his topknot to save the life of a child tells us something critical about the character and his view of his society. (Again, it’s helpful to know the cultural context.) The way his hand returns to his head tells us something else about him. Is it that he regrets being symbolically shorn of his status? That he’s bemused to find himself stripped of that status while defending peasants? That he hopes his defense of the village will allow him to renew his claim to that status? We’re never told for sure (which is fine), but we know the gesture’s important.
Ditto for other moments, whether big or little. There’s Kikuchiyo’s massive sword, which first strikes us as comically oversized but comes to seem right for the character’s enormous personality. There’s the aura of danger that surrounds Kyuzo even when (especially when) he’s motionless. There’s the way young, overeager Katsushiro oscillates between frantic attention and exhaustion during the more-experienced samurai’s conversations and planning sessions.
3) Characters unlock themes. The best storytelling is personal but works on a broader canvas — heroes are transformative, and bear the burden of that transformation. This is a resonant chord in Seven Samurai: the samurai defend the peasants against bandits, but the peasants also have a history of killing wounded samurai for their gear, and since the samurai code forbids getting paid for menial labor, samurai often slide into banditry. (Sorry, more cultural context.) There’s a seasick tension within the movie among the samurai, the peasants and the bandits, their actions and their obligations.
We learn this not as some kind of social treatise, but through character and storytelling. There’s Kambei allowing his topknot to be shorn. There’s our first sight of the samurai Heihachi chopping wood (with Gorobei cheerfully accepting this violation of the samurai code). And most importantly of all there’s Kikuchiyo, who we learn is actually a peasant’s son with stolen credentials. It’s Kikuchiyo who discovers the peasants’ cache of purloined samurai gear, and who delivers an explosive rant about how peasants have suffered at the hands of samurai, thus tipping off the others to the truth about his own parentage. The themes are interesting, but they’re driven by the characters who embody them, or resist them, or are consumed by them.
4) The audience needs someone to identify with… No one who watches Seven Samurai is a battle-hardened ronin, or a subsistence farmer on the verge of ruin. But nearly everyone understands being young and eager and wanting desperately to earn respect and acceptance from one’s betters. The apprentice Katsushiro is the audience’s eyes and ears, learning about the other samurai, falling in love with the villager Shiro, and discovering the bandit scouts.
This seems obvious, but lots of stories flub it, leaving the viewer/reader floundering for someone to identify with and forcing the story to work a lot harder.
5) …but the audience also appreciates a good badass. Toshiro Mifune is a force of nature as Kikuchiyo, his rage and pain and lust and humor all but boiling out of the TV. Kurosawa appreciates him as much as the audience does, which is great — if you’ve got a character like this, give that character room to roam. We may identify with the tortured protagonist, but we love a secondary character whose solution to a Gordian knot of a problem is applying a really big sword.
6) Beauty, tension and pace are your tools too. Seven Samurai is full of jaw-dropping shots: a rejected Kikuchiyo squatting in a road beneath his sword, Katsushiro reclining in a field of flowers, Kambei coolly nocking an arrow and drawing back his bowstring. Don’t assume such striking compositions are reserved for movies — or that only filmmakers can accelerate or slow down the pacing or ratchet up the tension. Think visually, and figure out the writer’s equivalent of jump cuts or pregnant pauses. Is there a bit of description in your head that will surprise, delight or frighten the reader? Can you get a different effect by writing long, languid sentences or brisk, choppy ones? Can you make the reader take a deep breath by putting a line break in the middle of a scene even if there’s no chronological gap?
It’s a challenge, but try it — and keep your eyes and ears open for lessons about storytelling and character, whether you’re reading or listening to music or at the movies.
The Jupiter Pirates is today’s Big Idea over John Scalzi’s rather awesome site. (Thanks John!) I explore how the story came together and give some hints about the future of the series.
I’ve been working on the story treatment for the third Jupiter Pirates book and am trying out a new technique.
(See here for my discussion, presented with a convert’s zeal, about why a detailed outline/story treatment makes writing much more efficient and less prone to derailments.)
When my HarperCollins editor Andrew Harwell and I were working on revising the second Jupiter Pirates book, Andrew pointed out that there were four plot strands at work, which he ranked from primary to secondary and then tertiary. That was a helpful way for him to get his arms around a complex story and for me to see where the storytelling was and wasn’t delivering.
As I began crafting JP3, I thought back to that discussion and had the primary, secondary and tertiary plot strands mapped out before I started writing a synopsis.
That synopsis went pretty well for about the first 60% of the story. And then I ground to a halt. I couldn’t figure out the right order for a couple of twists and turns. I kept changing my mind about the book’s ending. And there were a couple of places where characters were advancing the plot instead of behaving like people, which I regard as one of the worst writerly sins.
Enter the index cards, and a new technique. (Well, undoubtedly not — in movies, games and plenty of other pursuits it’s called storyboarding. Better to say it’s new to me.)
The yellow, blue, green and red cards correspond to one of the plot strands I talked about above. (This isn’t absolute, of course.) The white cards are actions that change things.
This let me do two things:
I’m not home-free just yet — I’m still struggling a bit, and pieces of JP3’s story are still “cooking” in my brain during idle moments. I may have to set my story treatment aside for a bit. But the index cards have helped me understand why I was stuck, and pointed the way to get unstuck.
If you’re trapped in a storytelling box canyon, give storyboarding a try.