I’m currently about halfway through Stephen King’s Revival. In my younger days, I read a lot—let me repeat: a lot—of King. And then one day I didn’t. Part of it was my tastes changed or rather broadened. I was no longer focused so tightly on horror. And part of it was because I had read and reread his books so much, they felt like well-covered ground.
Now that I’m writing myself and in a similar genre to the great man, I felt the need to revisit him. It didn’t take many pages before I realized I had been cheating myself. Stephen King is undeniably a master storyteller. And I haven’t just been enjoying this book, I have been dissecting it and trying to learn as much as I can.
These are three lessons I’ve picked up on so far. In terms of creating an engaging story, they are incredibly obvious, but they fact these techniques aren’t more widely used shows how ingenious they really are.
Once more with feeling
It’s no secret that emotions are important, but it is easy to get caught up in the mechanics of writing and manoeuvring the characters through the plot points—I know I do. Yes, the character is happy or sad but it becomes secondary to getting her from point A to point B. One of the first things that jumped out at me was how Stephen King relates it all back to the main character’s emotion. Or to put it another way:
It’s not about stuff happening. It’s about how characters feel about what happens.
It can be about big emotions like sorrow or anger but it can also be about wonder, curiosity, nostalgia. In the end, it isn’t simply about how the main character perceives the events but the inner response to them and this gives the plot an immediacy and makes them personal.
The breadcrumb trail
Foreshadowing is a key to any novel, but (good Lord!) Stephen King foreshadows everything. Every single plot element is telegraphed ahead of time. There is more teasing going on than in a burlesque dance. These hints at future events provide a breadcrumb trail for the reader to follow. It stirs curiosity and also makes the reveals that much more gratifying.
It can be such a simple thing. At one point, while relating an incident, he drops: “This was while my mother was still alive.” Suddenly as the reader we know the narrator’s mother will die. And then a few chapters later he gives us the scene in the hospital and there’s this eager anticipation. An “aha” moment as the reader realizes that the full story is coming.
By dropping these small teases, mini-mysteries are created in the reader’s mind.
I do admit that the structure of Revival favours this approach, as the narrator is relating events that he has already lived through. I’m still trying to work out how to achieve it when events are unfolding in present rather than retrospect, but this is just too good of a technique not to put the effort into figuring it out.
Stephen King makes you want to know what’s on the last page. This is so basic. How did I not know this? Of course, you want the reader to be anxious to get to the end, right from the start. As writers, we need to find a way to get the reader to commit to the story.
It’s all about getting your reader to want to find out what’s on the last page.
Part of this is related to the second lesson. It’s about teasing the reader enough for them to want to know more. But it’s also more than that. It’s a promise—a contract. Somewhere on those pages, there is a silent promise that the ending will knock your socks off. Will it? I don’t know yet. At the halfway mark, I’m only beginning to grasp the direction of the story. But I only needed to read the first couple of chapters to know that I needed to find out what happens in the last one.
This promise comes from the confidence in his narration, between the words it says: this story is going to be worth your time and there is something amazing, thrilling, surprising waiting for you at the end.
How does he do it? I still haven’t worked that out, but my main question right now is, how can I do it?
What I believe is so beautiful about these lessons are that they should be obvious but they aren’t. I don’t see these things done that often, certainly not to the extent that it is in this book.
I started to read Stephen King again out of the curiosity of re-familiarizing myself with an old favourite author I hadn’t read in awhile. I didn’t expect to learn so much, but I did. I will be pushing myself to use these lessons in my own books.