Thursday, November 12, 2009

In which I finally disagree with Stephen King

He seems to be handling it well.

As I have likely mentioned before, I am a huge fan of Stephen King's On Writing. It's a fun read, it shares some fascinating personal history, and I think he's spot-on about the use of language, about how one should write first drafts "with the door closed," and about how art and writing support life, not the other way around.

Furthermore, I don't think you need to love his stuff or write like him to appreciate his insights. First of all, any time an author as successful as King talks about why writing is important to him, how he got started, and what his inspirations and motivations are, it's probably worth a read. Second, his recommendations are fungible across a wide variety of genres and styles -- I don't write horror, and I tend to underwrite rather than overwrite. If someone who struggled to get her novel over 60K words thinks she's getting good advice from a man who averages 2K words a day* and consistently puts out novels that are in the 300K-plus range, his suggestions are probably pretty darn universal.

But, as part of my November Big Think Project (which is increasingly replacing my NaNoWriMo efforts), I'm starting to realize that I must depart from King's advice about something very fundamental, at least as far as my own writing is concerned.

King says that writers should always start with story first, then progress to theme. That theme is something that can -- and should! -- be enhanced during the editing process, but that starting with these questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction.

I disagree.

I'm not a plotter. Nor am I someone who starts with a nice, clear "what if?" story question like King does. I started my first novel with a character and a life-changing event. That's it.

Now, this indeed could have made for some very crappy fiction. There are plenty of life-changing events happening every day in the world (marriage, birth, death) that do not in any way support a 200+ page story arc. But, underlying this fictional life-changing event is what King himself would probably call one of my "deep interests." It's what got me started writing the story, it's what first breathed life into my main character, and it ended up being the basis of an entire book that, damn it all, I think is really good. That is because, for me, theme IS enough to power a novel:
I don't believe any novelist, even one who's written forty-plus books, has too many thematic concerns; I have many interests, but only a few that are deep enough to power novels. These deep interests (I won't quite call them obsessions) include how difficult it is - perhaps impossible! - to close Pandora's technobox once it's open (The Stand, The Tommyknockers, Firestarter); the question of why, if there is a god, such terrible things happen (The Stand, Desperation, The Green Mile); the thin line between reality and fantasy (The Dark Half, Bag of Bones, The Drawing of the Three); and most of all, the terrible attraction violence sometimes has for fundamentally good people (The Shining, The Dark Half).
-On Writing (emphasis mine)
Obviously, such novels also need a story/plot/action, because otherwise we're not really writing fiction at all, we're writing thinly-veiled diatribes. But at this moment in my not-yet-really-begun writing career, I need to start from theme, and let the story build from the things that fascinate me. Because otherwise, why would I care enough about the damn story to bother writing it in the first place? And if I don't care enough about the story (and its underlying themes) to put not merely my time but also my heart into drafting and editing, I can pretty much guarantee that no one else will care enough to want to read it, even if I do manage to craft some technically proficient language on the surface.

Right now, theme is my engine, but that doesn't mean that story and language need to be passively riding in the novel's back seat. Story and language are the novel-car's frame and body, the beautiful lines and shape that make you want to get in and go. But theme is what drives the car, what determines how far and how fast the story can go.

So, Mr. King, I'm sorry, but I disagree. I think that for some writers, thematic concerns can and should be front and center during the first draft of a novel. Because that's what I care about, and ultimately, that may be what makes my writing worth reading.

I hope this doesn't change things between us -- I love your novels, and your short stories, and I own every audiobook you've personally narrated, plus Ron McLarty's reading of Salem's Lot and Jeffrey DeMunn's reading of Dreamcatcher... did you know that Jeff and I were in a movie together? I'm so glad you and/or your associated casting agents keep hiring him for your movies -- The Mist, Green Mile, Storm of the Century -- because he is just a spectacular talent and all-around nice guy, and he deserves far more fame and fortune than he's ever going to get... but I digress.

In short, I'm still your #1,429,517 fan. Next time you're in town for a Red Sox game, come on over, and I'll buy you a coffee.


* That's right, he lives every day like it's NaNoWriMo.


  1. " . . . let the story build from the things that fascinate me."

    THAT is what drives my writing. Otherwise, it is a waste of me.

    Excellent points.

  2. I have to laugh, I'm blogging about him tomorrow and what point I disagree with him on. It must be pick on Stephen week.

  3. Wow, writing everyday like NaNoWriMo. I can't help but be impressed.

    My manuscript is largely character based and the theme is very present every time I sit down to work. I like that type of motivation. It works for me.

  4. Wow, great stuff. I've read King also reads four hours a day. It is so important to stay surrounded by books -- not just for informing your writing, which is huge, but for informing life.

    I agree that theme can drive a story. Yes, there is the possibility you'll create a preachy manuscript with little substance, but I also believe theme can lead to more character-driven work.

  5. Inspiring the novel: Put a fresh spin on an old tale, and rob it of it's sactity (note: I am NOT picking on any known religious figure)
    Blogging: It started as promotion for myself as a writer, but it turned into a community, and I just enjoy the comraderie of it! And to promote myself as a writer.

  6. Themes definitely drive me. I usually get them (or a hint of them) before I get a primary scene.

  7. I don't think I could write without theme, because that is what is the point to me. That said, I don't mean theme should ever overshadow story. It should be subtle.
    I came over here via another blog and I love your posts on NaNo. This is my first year and I'm learning a ton about how it works, how I work. Your insights are great. Thanks.

  8. This is why every bit of writing advice has to be filtered through our own personal practices and feelings. There's always a different take on things, another successful author who's made their way using techniques another would deplore. Stephen King's great, and he gives great advice, but he's not you, is he?

    You can only write the stories that come to you, be they character-driven, theme-driven, or plot-driven. Me? I don't usually even know what my characters look like; I write situations. You? You write themes. And that's okay.

  9. I completely disagree with a lot of what King says in this book. I read it about a year ago and found it quite unhelpful. The problem is that he's only talking about plot-centered, action-driven books, not character books, and the same things simply don't apply.

  10. Y'know, for me, each novel is different. Some of them do start with a theme, others with the character, and so on. So I just kind of bow to whatever propels me to get going on a story and let it all fall into place however it wants to.

  11. I loved ON WRITING too.

    While brainstorming my WIP, the story came first. Then came the main character followed by the theme. By the time I started my sh*tty first draft, all these elements were in place. But it's funny--we're all different, and each manuscript can be different too. I didn't even realize what my real theme was in my first manuscript until after the first draft was done. Then I had to rewrite accordingly.

    What a thought provoking post! :)

  12. I think you're both right, as the previous posts also seem to indicate. It all depends on personal style and approach, what you are writing, who you are writing for, etc. Some novels can be story driven, some driven by theme, and others focused on characters or settings. I don't think there's any neat little box to put it in-- there are many different ways to approach a story.

  13. Every human being's brain is physically 'wired' differently. We all have things in common with our neighbour, but regardless, our pattern of synapses is a million times more unique than a fingerprint.

    No one has all the answers when it comes to writing; they can only aspire to figure out all the answers for themselves, i.e. what works for that one person.

    Learning other people's techniques helps each of us figure out what works for us--and that's incredibly helpful--but at some point, we all have our 'I disagree with Stephen King' moment (I think I had mine a little over a year ago.)

    That's the point when we've learned enough to start to see how certain techniques need to be tweaked to suit our unique little brain better.

  14. I've been thinking about this post ever since I read it this morning. (I read your blog regularly but have never commented before!) I would argue that you don't really disagree with Stephen King after all. Isn't a character + a life-changing event an element of story or plot rather than theme? Starting with a theme, to me, means setting out to write about "the terrible attraction violence has to good people" (to borrow King's example) and then coming up with characters and events to support that theme.

    It seems that King is suggesting you start with characters and events and let the themes you care about emerge from those organically. Otherwise you end up writing the Fountainhead or some other "thinly veiled diatribe."

  15. I start with character and the theme emerges as I write.

  16. Great post! Especially since I just got this book in the mail!

  17. I know. Stephen Kings daily word count is amazing. But then, he is stephen King. I was interested to here your disagreement, because I too wonder wether being fired up about a theme might actually work the opposite way from what King describes and actually spark some damned good passionate fiction writing. I am not a plotter either and fully relate to how King describes his process of writing, but I have to be completely sold on what is happening or the themes I am exploring. Maybe what King was getting at was that 'moralistic' type theme books (does that even make sense?) should be shelved, boxed and the key thrown into a canyon. I do so hate novels that are just trying to 'tell' me or 'teach' me something. But a novel that wrangles with a good theme- this I love.

    Good on you carrie for writing from the heart and the passions that inspire you. You are right- readers will want to read that :)

  18. Rebecca, I think I see what you're getting at... but I'd still argue that in my case, theme came first, and that I picked my character and life-changing event because those are elements that best support my authorial thesis.

    Let's take King's Bag of Bones as an example. He describes this story as "one man in a haunted house" and one of the themes underlying the story is the thin line between reality and fantasy. Now, which came first?

    Is it character and situation? For him, yes -- he created a writer character and a small town and a vengeful ghost and lots of secrets, and those are all character and story elements.

    Yet, surely he wouldn't bother to write about haunted houses at all if he wasn't interested in delving into a story in which the supernatural creeps into an everyday life. That's kind of the point of a ghost story. It usually starts out normal, after all, otherwise there's no EEK factor. Perhaps it's as simple as thinking that theme is more subconscious for him than it is for me, at least in first draft.

    Similarly, a dozen people could all write about a wedding as a main plot event, but it's the underlying themes that can distinguish them... one is about strong parental ties, one is about sacrificing freedom, one is about fear of repeating previous relationship mistakes. So, which came first? Does the wedding story support the chosen theme, or the other way around?


    Thanks for reading! And thanks for the comments today, everyone, really, this has been fascinating.

  19. Characters drive my stories to the greater extent, but theme seems to creep in even if I don't want it to. I love ON WRITING as well, but I think that Stephen's wrong on this too, anything can drive your writing, for me I start with character but it doesn;t matter what you start with as long as you do pay attention to the things you didn't start with you need to. Starting with theme doesn't make you characters bad.

  20. I really need to go back and read On Writing again! (It has been years.) It does appear to be a chicken-or-egg situation, as your examples illustrate. Also, in rereading the quotation from King that you highlighted, I see he makes a distinction between "thematic concerns" and "deep interests." Or is he saying themes and interests are the same thing? Hm. Now I'm confused.

  21. Oh, if it wasn't for the themes that I obsess over, I wouldn't be a writer. But I think that after writing a few books and seeing how the themes repeat, because that's what's fascinating for you as a writer and that's what you want to write about, you realize that when you plan a book you need to think of something else, not the theme. because the theme will inadvertently show up to play the role. I don't know if I expressed clearly what I mean. I think King doesn't say that the theme is not important, but maybe that it's not worth thinking much about it because it will show through. And once you see it came up, then you can reinforce it or whatever. Something like that. I feel dumb today and unable to express myself. Sorry.

  22. I'm going to be honest: I've never read "On Writing". I know, for shame. Slap to the wrist. I've been meaning to, but it keep eluding me.

    I also must confess that story comes first for me. I get characters, a plot, and a basic story idea and run with it! I honestly don't see my theme until long after it's written.

    I believe everyone must write the way that works for them. If theme drives you, then let it lead the way!! Whatever works, works, so why try to fix it?

    Happy weekend,