I’ve got something special for you today. The awesome Becca Puglisi, co-author of the The Emotion Thesaurus and the awesome writing blog The Bookshelf Muse, stops by to tell us about a writing master, Stephen King.
The Bookshelf Muse is one of my go-to sites for writing, and The Emotion Thesaurus has been an amazing asset. I love having the book at my fingertips when I’m writing a tough scene. Take it away, Becca!
My Favorite Teacher? Stephen King
I read my first Stephen King book when I was 14, in the back of a travel bus on a youth mission trip (hiding under the sheets, no doubt, because my reading material would not have been approved). Night Shift, it was, and honestly, that story about the mutant rats in the sewers scared me so bad that I gave the book back to my brother and didn’t revisit Stephen King for ten years. But when I did…The Shining. Oh my, yes. And that was the beginning of my stalkerish writer-crush on Stephen King.
He’s a polarizing author—either a writing genius or a hack. People moan about his craft, the shock value, and the content. But in many ways, King is a masterful writer whose techniques can benefit us all. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned:
- The Importance of Tapping into Reader Emotion. Want readers to connect with a story? Make them feel something. King is clearly an expert at writing in a way that makes readers share his characters’ emotions. If fear and unease aren’t what you’re going for, what is? Know which emotion you want the reader to feel, and convey it through your character.
- Don’t Hold Back. One reason I think King is successful at evoking emotion is that he goes all out to get it. He puts his characters in the most awful situations possible. And then he makes it worse. Look at poor Carrie. Her life is a nightmare. She lives with a religious freakshow of a mother who abuses her and undermines any chance she has at normalcy. That’s bad enough, right? Apparently not. Prom + pig’s blood + spontaneous combustion = annihilation and self-destruction. If there’s anything we can learn from King it’s that we can always make things worse for our heroes. Always.
- Make your Characters Real. Take away their circumstances, and King’s characters are fantastically relatable. A frustrated writer struggling with alcoholism and personal demons. A group of boys on the verge of manhood, seeking adventure. The grieving father who would do anything to get his son back. Readers respond to these characters because they recognize them in themselves and the people they know. However unique your story circumstances may be, make the characters regular people and your readers will warm to them.
- Keep at It. King survived a life-altering hit-and-run accident in 1999 that nearly finished his career. But he recognized that he had a choice: give it up altogether or adapt. He chose Door #2: writing less prolifically than before, but still writing. If writing is your passion–what you were meant to do–then figure out a way to make it happen, no matter your circumstances.
- Be True to Yourself. Stephen King has withstood his fair share of derision. He’s gifted, no doubt about that. He could most likely succeed at writing any genre he chose. But he remained true to himself, writing the stories he loved without caving in to the criticism of others or taking it too much to heart. Don’t give in to the naysayers and ambulance-chasers who tell you to write what’s mainstream or profitable. Stay true to yourself. Write your own stories.
Any Stephen King fans out there? I’d love to hear which of his stories are your favorites, and why.
Becca Puglisi is one half of The Bookshelf Muse blogging duo, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. Listing the body language, visceral reactions and thoughts associated with 75 different emotions, this brainstorming guide is a valuable tool for showing, not telling, emotion. The Emotion Thesaurus is available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Smashwords, and the PDF can be purchased directly from her blog.
I love King’s stories, love his characterization–I don’t know anyone who does it better. And yes, I agree that it’s due in large part because we relate to them. King’s characters ARE us. WE are the misunderstood kid (don’t all kids think they’re misunderstood?), and the shouda-coulda-woulda success “if only” and even the person who makes a one-time bad choice that destroys them (“Thinner” from Richard Bachman). I think my all time favorite King story is The Stand. So many characters, so many interwoven stories, that resonate as a whole. Awesome!
M-O-O-N, that spells The Stand. That one’s my favorite, too, but it’s so epic. It’s hard to break it down into a manageable blog post. 😉
His characterizations are amazing. King is one of those writers whose books teach you something new every time you read them. Thanks, Amy!
My high school librarian introduced me to Carrie and that started it all for me. He is the KING. There is not a writer in this world that I’ve found who does characters better. We FEEL for them. They are real to us. King grabs us from the beginning and captivates us until the end. He has been my favorite since I read Carrie. 🙂
Great comment, Lauralynn. He’s also one of the very few authors who makes backstory interesting enough to keep reading. I don’t care if it’s an info dump. It just works.
He is absolutely a master at characterization. I read Carrie, not really expecting to get into it because of the format, but oh my gosh. So incredibly awesome. And to think he threw that manuscript in the trash. Thanks, Tabitha King, for fishing it out so we could all read it!
I’m coming out of hiding. Gulp. My mother would be horrified to learn I read “Cujo” in the closet as a teen. Stephen King is a master whether you like his subject matter or not.
Great post, Becca. And nice to meet you Stacy.
Loving the Emotion Thesaurus!
Hi Tracy! Thanks so much for stopping by. So glad to hear your thoughts on King and The Emotion Thesaurus. It’s a huge asset for a writer.
My pleasure, Stacy. And I wish the Emotion Thesaurus had been available a few years ago.
So glad you’re enjoying The Emotion Thesaurus, Tracy!
My first King book was “Carrie”. I got in trouble at school for reading it! Of course that made me want to read more of his stuff (who are THEY to tell me what I can and can’t read!). The Shining really had a lot of influence over me. I loved the book (scared the heck out of me) and couldn’t wait to see the movie (which disappointed me). BUT, the setting for The Shining (Colorado) so influenced me that I chose my career in the military because of it! True story. I met King when I was 16. I was working at a party that he hosted (yeah, I live in Maine and only a few miles from his residence here!). He was very nice, kissed my soapy wet hand (I was washing dishes when he came in the kitchen to meet his fans). I was so impressed with how he took time away from his party to chat with me and my friend (her father owned the place where King held his party). I loved The Stand, couldn’t put it down! But, my favorite book is Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s an awesome book and all writers should read it! Great post. Thanks!!
Oh, I love On Writing, too. Such a great book for writers.
The Shining is just a masterpiece. The setting is perfect, the description, the characters, the suspense. How very cool you got to meet King! I love hearing how friendly he was. Thank you for sharing!
The first book I read of King’s was IT. I couldn’t sleep and wondered if the man who wrote the story wasn’t off his rocker but I LOVED it too. I have a collection now, but can’t seem to catch up on reading them all. So many books and so little time. (to cliche I know, but true.)
Oh my gosh, IT. Pennywise = Creepiest. Clown. Ever.
Pennywise is scary as hell. You’re right about the cliché – it’s the absolute truth. Thanks for commenting!
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I really enjoyed reading this. Stephen King is one of my favorite authors. I read his books even when the back cover blurbs fail to entice me. The reason for that is I know the characters are going to be great. Stephen King has a keen eye for observation. I became most aware of this when I read On Writing and he talked about some of his childhood memories. He must have been watching, observing, and remembering from a very early age.
Thanks Becca! I’m loving your book. I’m a Dean Koontz fan, but I’ve read the early Stephen King. I think both do a great job sucking you in with real characters and real emotion.
I love Stephen King 🙂 My favorite is his Dark Tower series, because it’s more fantasy than horror, and I scare myself easily enough when I’m home alone in the dark. No help needed there! But the concept of doorways to other worlds, and the beams, and nineteen, and all of it – I love it so.
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