Showing posts with label The Dead Zone. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Dead Zone. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 23

The Magic Of Stephen King: A Sympathetic Character Is Dealt A Crushing Blow They Eventually Overcome

The Magic Of Stephen King: A Sympathetic Character Is Dealt A Crushing Blow They Eventually Overcome

How To Write A Bestseller

If anyone knows, please do tell! Of course part of it is luck. Getting your content out in front of the right people at the right time.

Topic counts too. Writing about something--whether it be hobbits in Middle Earth, buried silos, or kids finding a body--that will grab the public's attention, something they will be intrigued by enough to both read and recommend.

So, other than that, what's the secret to writing a bestseller?

Of course I know there's no secret, not really, but I do think there may be rules of thumb.

When I read Stephen King's work--and I know I keep mentioning Mr. King--but he has had an enormously successful career and his work has been used as an example of how to write in many of the writing workshops I've taken as well as in many of the books on writing I've read.

Dig Deep And Go For The Emotional Jugular

When I read Stephen King's work what has struck me is this: the emotional connection.

Always, always, always I feel for the characters, there is a part of me that emotionally connects with them, their successes and their failings. It's not a thinking thing, this connection, it's an emotional thing. It's not a matter of the head but of the heart.

Right now I'm reading Dean Koontz's novella, What The Night Knows. His opening paragraphs paint a picture. It's a beautiful, compelling opening that does a good job of both drawing me into the story and creating an atmosphere, a feeling.

But it's a different feeling from that created by King. It is more about thinking and looking, about understanding the characters. I like the characters, I'm interested, I do care about them, but I'm not emotionally invested in them they way I get when I read a King novel. I feel protective of those characters the way I feel about my good friends.

Of course, I'm talking about my responses. You may have had different responses. In which case, I'd love to hear from you in the comments!

An Analysis Of Stephen King's Misery

I will talk about Misery but first I'd like to backtrack a bit.

I've previously written about It and The Dead Zone, two of my favorite books by Stephen King (It is one of my favorite books by any author). Another book King wrote, and that sold well, and that was said to be, by some, one of his best books, was Misery.

Misery begins differently than many of Stephen King's other books, with a man struggling to regain consciousness. But, in each case (The Dead Zone, It, Misery) there is a dilemma, almost a contest, that starts things off. Always, this dilemma/contest is intensely personal for the main character.

The Dead Zone

In The Dead Zone Johnny, a six year old boy, goes down to the local pond to ice skate. He's good at ice skating, better even than the other kids his age. The contest is between Johnny and the other children as well as between Johnny and himself.

Specifically, Johnny wants to do something he's never done before, something Timmy Benedix could do: Skate backward. King writes:
[Johnny] skated slowly around the outer edge of the clear patch, wishing he could go backward like Timmy Benedix, listening to the ice thud and crackle mysteriously under the snow cover farther out ... He was very glad to be alive on that cold, fair winter day. Nothing was wrong with him, nothing troubled his mind, he wanted nothing ... except to be able to skate backward, like Timmy Benedix.
.  .  .  .
"Timmy!" he shouted. "Watch this!"
He turned around and began to skate clumsily backward. Without realizing it, he was skating into the area of the hockey game.
.  .  .  .
[H]e was doing it! He was skating backward! He had caught the rhythm--all at once. It was in a kind of sway of the legs ...
Just then, in the midst of his six-year-old elation he receives the injury that will change the rest of his life.

The Dead Zone: Analysis

So, what do we have? A sympathetic character achieves a personal goal, does something, accomplishes something, that gives him a great deal of satisfaction and that readers can relate to (a lot of kids have strapped on ice skates and done a few laps around an ice rink).

Then the sympathetic character, through no fault of their own, receives a crushing blow that will transform the rest of their life. As a result of this blow they have a challenge: Give in or overcome.

Stephen King's It

The Dead Zone was published in 1979 while It wasn't released until 1986 (Stephen King Biography). But, still, these books open in remarkably similar ways.

At the beginning of It we meet George who is, like Johnny, age six. George is "a small boy in a yellow slicker and red galoshes" who runs along beside a boat made out of newspaper.

George is adorable.

The boat was made by his brother, Bill. Bill loves George and would have played with him but he was ill and confined to bed.

This is the 'through no fault of his own' part. Bill couldn't help being sick and not being able to help his brother. Yes, he made the newspaper boat for his brother, and yes George probably wouldn't have died that day, that way, if he hadn't been playing with the toy Bill made for him. But still it wasn't Bill's fault. Though, of course, we understand that Bill wouldn't feel that way about it.

When the newspaper boat goes off the side of a "deep ravine" George laughs aloud, "the sound of solitary, childish glee a bright runner in that gray afternoon".

George's "strange death" is the crushing blow life delivers to Bill the way falling on the ice, the injury he received, was Johnny's.


What I've talked about so far are openings, just openings, and that's all I'm going to do because, really, those first few paragraphs are the most important determiners of whether your book will sell, whether the person reading your work will buy it.

The rest of the book sells your next book, or perhaps one from your backlist. It's the first few paragraphs that sells the one a potential fan, a potential buyer, opens up and starts to read.

At least that's how I look at it.

Stephen King's Misery

So, let's look at Misery now. What's the setup here?

A man, Paul Sheldon, gets into a car accident while driving under the influence. He is rescued by Annie Wilkes and nursed back to life in her spare bedroom.

For the first few paragraphs Paul is fighting for consciousness. Here's King's first mention of Annie Wilkes:
His first really clear memory of this now, the now outside the storm-haze, was of stopping, of being suddenly aware he just couldn't pull another breath, and that was all right, that was good, that was in fact just peachy-keen; he could take a certain level of pain but enough was enough and he was glad to be getting out of the game.

Then there was a mouth clamped over his, a mouth which was unmistakably a woman's mouth in spite of its hard spitless lips, and the wind from this woman's mouth blew into his own mouth and down his throat, puffing his lungs, and when the lips were pulled back he smelled his warder for the first time, smelled her on the outrush of the breath she had forced into him the way a man might force a part of himself into an unwilling woman, a dreadful mixed stench of vanilla cookies and chocolate ice cream and chicken gravy and peanut-butter fudge.

He heard a voice screaming, "Breathe, goddammit! Breathe, Paul!"

The lips clamped down again. The breath blew down his throat again. Blew down it like the dank suck of wind which follows a fast subway train, pulling sheets of newspaper and candy-wrappers after it ...
There's a lot to say about that passage. Yesterday I wrote about Ray Bradbury and mentioned what he had said in Zen In The Art Of Writing about it being important for writers to read poetry. I'd wager that Stephen King reads his fair share of poetry! It's a beautiful example of poetic prose.

Anyway, that's not what we're discussing right now!

This passage seems to follow the previous pattern, though not as obviously. No, we don't have a six year old child, but we do have someone vulnerable. Helpless. Sympathetic.

The crushing blow is Annie Wilkes; Paul's car accident and being rescued by her--if one can call it a rescue!

The rest of Misery is about how Paul deals with the crushing blow. Does he let his situation get the better of him or does he fight like hell and overcome?

That, I think, is a common setup for King's books.

The Pattern

I'm not saying that Stephen King has a formula, not at all. I'm just saying I've noticed a certain pattern to a few of Mr. King's openings and the pattern goes something like this:
A sympathetic character under stress (they have either achieved something or had something important stripped away from them) receives a crushing blow that will transform the rest of their life. As a result of this blow they have a challenge: Give in or overcome.
This is the last installment of my series, The Magic Of Stephen King, but I want to write other articles that look at what makes certain stories--fictional or otherwise--work. What makes certain videos, certain news stories, go viral? What makes certain books bestsellers? But that's for another day!
What other stories--they could be Stephen King's but they don't have to be--fit this pattern? Have you written a story that fits this pattern?

Other articles you might like:

- Ray Bradbury On How To Keep And Feed A Muse
- Fleshing Out Your Protagonist: Creating An Awesome Character
- Dean Koontz And 5 Things Every Genre Story Needs

Photo credit: "Another day in paradise" by CptHUN under Creative Commons Copyright 2.0.

Tuesday, January 1

The Magic Of Stephen King: An Analysis Of The Opening Paragraphs Of The Dead Zone

The Magic Of Stephen King: An Analysis Of The Opening Paragraphs Of The Dead Zone

I loved The Dead Zone by Stephen King. I read the novel, watched the movie and then, much later, the TV series starring Anthony Michael Hall.

What's that advice writers are always given? We are urged to read the best, read what works. I shared a quotation of Stephen King's yesterday and one part of it stayed with me. King wrote that
[R]eading offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn't, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. (Stephen King, On Writing)
As I mentioned the other day in my post (The Magic Of Stephen King: How To Write Compelling Characters & Great Openings) the hallmark of Stephen King's writing (for myself) was its ability to (metaphorically) grab me by the throat in the first few paragraphs and drag me, at times kicking and screaming, through the novel.

I say 'kicking and screaming' (this is along the lines of the confession of a deep, dark, secret) because I don't like horror! Well, no, that's not true. What I don't like is a certain kind of horror, the nails on a chalk-board kind of psychological horror that Stephen King so masterfully produced in, for example, Misery.

I loved Misery. I read it cover to cover in a couple of days and then never read another King book for years. I was too scared!

Think about that. Stephen King got me to identify with John Smith so strongly I spent upwards of 8 hours of my life reading something that genuinely horrified me, and not in a good way. That, ladies and gentleman, is character identification on steroids. (Stephen King is also a master at generating narrative drive. See: Writing: The Starburst Method, Part 8: The Rough Draft & Narrative Drive)

So now to the question: How does Stephen King do it?

An Analysis Of Stephen King's The Dead Zone

I know I've been talking about Misery, and I will get to that analysis one day soon, but today I'm going to discuss The Dead Zone.

The question: How does Stephen King do it? How does he create that kind of Krazy Glue-like attraction, that bond, between the reader and his creations? His characters?

A few days ago I analyzed King's book, It, and, in that post, mentioned Michael Hauge's 5 ways to create character identification and attempted to use Michael's categories to analyze how King was able to weave his magic. If you're unfamiliar with Michael's 5 ways or what I mean by character identification, you might want to take another peek at it: How To Get Your Readers To Identify With Your Main Character.

The text: the first three paragraphs of The Dead Zone

By the time he graduated from college, John Smith had forgotten all about the bad fall he took on the ice that January day in 1953. In fact, he would have been hard put to remember it by the time he graduated from grammar school. And his mother and father never knew about the fall at all.

They were skating on a cleared patch of Runaround Pond in Durham. The bigger boys were playing hockey with old taped sticks and using a couple of potato baskets for goals. The little kids were just farting around the way little kids have done since time immemorial--their ankles bowing comically in and out, their breath puffing in the frosty twenty-degree air. At one corner of the cleared ice two rubber tires burned sootily, and a few parents sat nearby, watching their children. The age of the snowmobile was still distant and winter fun still consisted of exercising your body rather than a gasoline engine.

Johnny had walked down from his house, just over the Pownal line, with his skates hung over his shoulder. At six, he was a pretty fair skater. Not good enough to join in the big kids' hockey games yet, but able to skate rings around most of the other first graders, who were always pinwheeling their arms for balance or sprawling on their butts.
I usually don't use extensive quotations but since we're examining Stephen King's writing it helps to have the text before us.

First paragraph

In the first paragraph Stephen King starts introducing what I'm going to call "The Threat". I'll talk more about this in another post, but I'm fairly sure that some version of The Threat appears in most of his stories. In The Dead Zone we learn of a 'bad fall'. That we're hearing about this in the first paragraph and that King spends the entire paragraph on it tells us this is something important.

So what is paragraph two about? That's right! The fall.

Stephen King doesn't tell us in the first paragraph that the fall is a terrible thing but, well, it's a bad fall and, besides, when are falls ever a good thing? King does a lot of work in this first paragraph. We hear about The Threat right away, first thing, and we know who The Threat endangers: John Smith.

Second paragraph

Another thing I've found in most of Stephen King's stories is vulnerability. There is a threat and he introduces us to characters who are vulnerable. In It the paper boat was vulnerable to the water it sailed on just as the little child was vulnerable to the conditions the storm left in its wake.

In the second paragraph of TDZ King starts to build up our picture of the child John Smith once was by telling us about his world. Look at his language:

- bigger boys
- little kids
- old taped sticks
- potato baskets for goals
- their [the little kids] ankles bowing comically in and out

The language is nostalgic. "Remember when we were kids?" he is saying. Even myself--I never skated on pond ice and rarely skated in a rink and never, ever, took part in a game of hockey--I can picture this. I wish I had been there.

King's language is vivid. Evocative. I've seen the scene he's painting/creating. It's true that I never did any of those things but I'd seen kids out on the ice, even wished I was one of them. So I guess one reason it's easy for me to identify with this nostalgic vision of yesteryear is that I'd like this to be true/real. I'd have liked my childhood to have been like this.

Third paragraph

Now we're tying things together. The first thing I'd like you to notice is the first word of this sentence. Stephen King is no longer talking/writing about "John Smith" he's writing about "Johnny".

Also notice there has been a considerable amount of movement. The first paragraph--the feeling, the mood--was detached. Almost distant. Then we got all sticky and nostalgic about 'the way it was' and now SK is showing us the protagonist again, but we're not seeing John Smith, we're seeing Johnny. We're seeing the protagonist when he was an innocent child before anything bad happened to him, the child living in this lovely nostalgic world.

The second and third paragraphs show the child, and the child's world, before The Fall. (Now that I've written the words, I realize again how powerful imagery can be.)

- Johnny is a "pretty fair skater". He's "able to skate rings around most of the other first graders."

Recall that one of Michael Hauge's 5 points was to make your character good at something. And not just anything, something--a skill--that is valued in the character's world. If your character is a football player and he's great at chess it's not going to help!

Also, notice that Stephen King maintains--perhaps even steps up--building his evocative, nostalgic, image of childhood. King writes that the other first graders "were always pinwheeling their arms for balance or sprawling on their butts". Now THAT I remember! I remember ice rinks and being bundled up in layers of winter clothes until I looked like the original Michelin Man--and I had about the same mobility! At least the falls didn't hurt as much.

What Does This All Mean?

I'd like to stress that what I've done here, the analysis I've made of Stephen King's work, isn't meant to be in any way authoritative. If you agree with something I've said and you think it may make your writing stronger then that's wonderful! Use it. But if you don't, or if you see something completely different, then go with that.

I do think reading great writing, writing that moves you, and then attempting to analyze what it was about the writing that created that effect in yourself, can help a writer become better at her craft. Perhaps in the final analysis it's the only thing that can.

But everyone, every single person, is different. What I find emotionally compelling might not seem so to you, what turns me into the proverbial puddle of tears may leave you cold.

That's why it's important for each of us to read what works for us, as well as what doesn't, and then examine each story to see why the one gripped us emotionally and the other didn't.

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Who is your favorite writer? What is it about their prose that hooks you? That produces that can't-put-it-down quality which drags you, willing or not, through the book?

Other articles you might like:

- The Magic Of Stephen King: How To Write Compelling Characters & Great Openings
- How To Sell Books Without Using Amazon KDP Select
- Edward Robinson And How To Sell Books Using Amazon KDP Select

Photo credit: "Stephen King" by robbophotos under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.