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Stephen King, Characters, and Endings

This blog post was originally published on the old Word Foreword May 6th, 2017. A change was made to the title of this post adding a fucking comma after 'characters' because I'm no longer a monster.


About 8 years ago I wrote a short story called Stephen King is the Anti-Christ. I wrote it on a cruise during my first honeymoon. I had brought one of his short story collections to read with me on the plane. The story came to me as sort of a meta-poke at King in his Dark Tower series and the book Misery. It was a story about an author who tried over and over again to get published and when it eventually happens he is drowned in popularity and keeps pumping out books at an unreal rate.

The catch is that the writer has sold his soul to the devil to become insanely popular, but now his books are coming true and coming to haunt him. At the end of the story the writer takes his place at the right hand of Satan to become the anti-Christ and begins writing the events from the Book of Revelations. It was a lot longer than most of my other short stories (about 40 pages), and the name of the character in the book wasn’t named Stephen King (admittedly it was something like Steve Krall).

I want to love Stephen King. I’ve read his On Writing a dozen times. I’ve read the books in The Dark Tower series a few times (except for The Wind Through the Keyhole and The Dark Tower, which I’ve only read once each). I still work my way through his other works, I follow him on Twitter and Facebook and I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am for his upcoming Hulu show Castle Rock.

But, if I’m being honest with myself, his writing varies so wildly that I find myself curious how he got so popular. So I’m going to dissect a lot of King elements, and I’m going to start with what he does best: unparalleled to anyone else in the industry, characters. For the most part, King can make some killer characters. They’re super deep and have these absolutely stellar conversations, ticks and backgrounds. There are a few exceptions (I’m lookin’ at you Wendy Torrence you boring old bat) but for the most part King crafts so many great and wonderful characters that you feel like you could know them.

What is King not good at? Info dumps. One of the reasons some of these characters are so well crafted is because King will often pause the main narrative to force feed you facts and histories. Often paragraphs at a time. A lot of his post-2000’s books minimize this, but it’s still present.

As a matter of fact The Shining is one of the biggest culprits of this and it takes thirteen chapters for the family to actually arrive at the hotel. That’s right, the first thirteen chapters are mostly comprised of Jack interviewing, coming home, talking to his wife briefly - and King telling you about his characters. Does this work? Yea, sure. It’s King, he can break the rules, right?

We were listening to The Shining on Audible on our way to a book signing (I hope you got out for Bookstore Day last weekend), and about 2 hours in I paused it and had a discussion with my wife. The crux of the conversation being: if King’s name wasn’t on this, would you still be reading it? The clear answer was no.

The last thing that King does that I’m going to talk about is something that I do. It’s something several agents that I’ve queried and submitted to have said I’m doing wrong, and it’s something I’m very mindful of. Head hopping. This is a term that writers (and agents, and editors and publishers) use when they refer to changing point of view in writing without some kind of break.

King is the king of head hopping. It can happen a dozen times or more per chapter and without any kind of word break (like a page break, switching chapter or anything) if poorly done it can leave the reader confused. I’ve been told this dozens of times in the last ten years. When asked what point of view, I used to always say ‘third person’, but after the first few times I changed to be more specific: ‘third person omniscient’. Omniscient points out that the piece of work doesn’t have a single narrator, but instead encompasses multiple narrators, that the narrator is all knowing somehow or (more commonly) the narration of the story is not limited to a single point of view.

And here’s the catch. Even after that change agents will still ask for my submission and be caught off guard, or turn me down based on the fact that there’s head hopping. I’ve been pretty upset by this, but I’ve also asked a few agents about this and had some really thorough discussions on this - some have been able to say that head hopping isn’t for them and it’s just a taste thing (which I respect), while others flounder with their response or just don’t answer at all.

So to wrap this long winded post up I want to share the only bit of advice that King has in On Writing that matters: not everything works for everyone, find what works for you and stick to it.

Will Sobel