Writing

Lessons From the Sloppy Writing of The Tommyknockers

Shadow of person in green glowing woods

It’s time to tear apart The Tommyknockers, written by the venerable Stephen King and published in 1987. In his long and prolific history of writing, King has both gems and duds. Even within a work, his improvised storytelling technique tends to turn out both brilliant moments and complete head-scratchers. Tommyknockers is one of his earlier works and one of the few that’s science fiction. Based on its large collection of covers, it’s about a wooded area with green glowy stuff.

Let’s dig in.

Maybe Start With the Story

This book has enough intro pages to confuse anyone. We have some sort of synopsis framed as an advertisement, followed by a dedication, an introduction, and a nursery rhyme. Then we get to a title page for Book I: The Ship in the Earth, with some fictional dialogue including Harry Truman. What’s Harry Truman doing in here? Maybe it’s symbolically related to this book, but since I haven’t read the book yet, it just feels bizarre.

Finally we’re on 1. Anderson Stumbles, which I’ll assume is the title of the first chapter. It’s broken into even smaller sections that are also numbered.

This is the entirety of section 1:

For want of a nail the kingdom was lost–that’s how the catechism goes when you boil it down. In the end, you can boil everything down to something similar–or so Roberta Anderson thought much later on. It’s either all an accident … or all fate. Anderson literally stumbled over her destiny in the small town of Haven, Maine, on June 21, 1988. That stumble was the root of the matter; all the rest was nothing but history.

Ummm… what?

So the content is looking back on the beginning from the future, sorta like a flash-forward. It must be a prologue – a loosely-related plot hook that’s designed to make up for a slow beginning. But this is not a good hook. It’s too busy talking about vague and remote things like theoretical castles and possible fate to say anything about the actual story. It might as well just say “some really big stuff will happen later” and be done with it.

Okay, so it’s a little intriguing that a stumble is the cause of everything; we’ll see if King makes good on that promise. But that is not enough for a prologue. We need more specifics that raise tension or at least invoke more curiosity. Will there be terrifying things knocking on the doors? Does Anderson emerge from her experience a changed person?

Instead of interesting information, we have glorified gibberish. It feels like King was trying to make ART instead of just making a good story.

Dole Out Information Carefully

Now that we’re done with the pseudo prologue, section 2 gives us our actual beginning.

Anderson was out that afternoon with Peter, an aging beagle who was now blind in one eye. Peter had been given to her by Jim Gardener in 1976. Anderson had left college the year before with her degree only two months away to move onto her uncle’s place in Haven. She hadn’t realized how lonely she’d been until Gard brought the dog. He’d been a pup then, and Anderson sometimes found it difficult to believe he was now old–eighty-four in dog’s years. […]

And our actual beginning is a lump of exposition. Opening with the right exposition can be okay – particularly in short stories – but this is a pile of tangled spaghetti. The dog is a good way to get to know the main character, but what’s with this sudden insertion of Jim Gardener, the specific year of 1976, and moving to Haven during college? If King wants to talk about the dog, he should talk about the dog. Throwing in barely related information will make it hard for readers to piece everything together, especially when it’s in the opening.

His wordcraft makes it even messier. Look at this wreck of a sentence:

Anderson had left college the year before with her degree only two months away to move onto her uncle’s place in Haven.

Two halves of an idea are separated by a tangent. We can improve comprehension with some commas:

Anderson had left college the year before, with her degree only two months away, to move onto her uncle’s place in Haven.

But the two halves should be placed together with interruptions moved to the front or the back.

The year before, Anderson had left college to move onto her uncle’s place in Haven, even though her degree was only two months away.

Don’t make readers hold their thought while they absorb a new thought only to return to the first thought again. That’s a big strain on working memory.

That’s not the only problem here. Did you know who “Gard” was? With some thought it’s easy to extrapolate that Gard is shorthand for Jim Gardener, but readers shouldn’t have to stop and think, especially in the first paragraph of your story. King should have waited until after the first few paragraphs to introduce this character. Then, since “Gard” is not an expected nickname, he should have used something clear like “Jim Gardener, or Gard as she called him…”

Avoid Description Overload

We learn that Anderson feels like she’s getting old because her dog is getting old. Then we have this:

Anderson was looking for a place to cut some wood. She’d a cord and a half laid by, but wanted at least another three to take her through the winter. She had cut a lot since those early days when Peter had been a pup sharpening his teeth on an old slipper (and wetting all too often on the dining-room rug), but the place was still not short. The property (still, after thirteen years, mostly referred to by the townspeople as the old Garrick place) had only a hundred and eighty feet on Route 9, but the rock walls marking the north and south boundaries marched off at diverging angles. Another rock wall-this one so old it had degenerated into isolated rock middens furred with moss-marked the property’s rear boundary about three miles into an unruly forest of first- and second-growth trees. The total acreage of this pie-shaped wedge was huge. Beyond the wall at the western edge of Bobbi Anderson’s land were miles of wilderness owned by the New England Paper Company. Burning Woods, on the map.

What is happening? There are three rock walls at different angles with north and south boundaries, things about three miles in, and stuff somewhere near highways. I think King has a map, and instead of simply providing that map, he is trying to draw it in everyone’s head. But readers aren’t mapping programs; if you try to input that much data, the output will be confusion.

Do we really need to know the exact parameters of this pie-shaped wedge of a property? And if we do, must we know right this moment? When you are writing a novel, put off as much exposition as you can until after your first chapter. It’ll give readers a chance to find their balance before you throw more stuff at them.

And who is Bobbi? After going back to the pseudo prologue and seeing the main character’s first name is Roberta, I can guess that’s her. It could also be her uncle since she moved to his place. Is it too much to ask that King not refer to his characters by several different monikers right in his opening paragraphs?

Then there’s the parenthesis: a writer’s greatest enemy. To a writer, the parenthesis is like the one ring. With the great power of the parenthesis, you can insert any phrase wherever you want! But heed: that way lies evil. Phrases in parenthesis interrupt essential information to pester readers with tangents. The more parentheses you use, the more cumbersome reading becomes. Do yourself a favor by deleting every parenthesis you’ve written along with its contents, as King should have done here. If the contents are actually important, work them into the flow of the paragraph.

She had a Silva compass in her pocket. She had gotten lost on the property only once, and once was enough to last her forever. She had spent a terrible night in the woods, simultaneously unable to believe she had actually gotten lost on property she for Christ’s sweet sake owned and sure she would die out here-a possibility in those days, because only Jim would know she was missing, and Jim only came when you weren’t expecting him.

Wait – who is Jim? Oh, it’s Jim Gardener, the guy who gave her the dog. His first name was mentioned just once when he was introduced in the first paragraph, and then Anderson called him “Gard” for short, not Jim. King must have forgotten that, or just changed his mind, and never edited his work to make it consistent. Sloppy.

Use Details to Create Emotion

So far we know an assortment of things about Anderson. She’s lonely, she doesn’t like that she and her dog are aging, and she quit college just before graduating. This is fine to know, but it’s not emotionally compelling. It’s too distant and vague. Without emotional pull, it’s hard to become attached to the main character. Getting readers invested in the main character is critical.

Luckily, King is not a writer who skimps on details. Finally we get a paragraph that goes deeper.

Pete barked feebly, and Anderson looked at the beagle with a sadness so deep it surprised and disquieted her. Peter was done up. He seldom took after birds and squirrels and chipmunks and the occasional woodchuck these days; the thought of Peter running a deer was laughable. She would have to take a good many rest stops on the way back for him … and there had been a time, not that long ago (or so her mind stubbornly maintained), when Peter would always have been a quarter of a mile ahead of her, belting volleys of barks back through the woods. She thought there might come a day when she would decide enough was enough; she’d pat the seat on the passenger side of the Chevrolet pickup for the last time, and take Peter to the vet down in Augusta. But not this summer, please God. Or this fall or winter, please God. Or ever, please God.

Now Peter’s aging feels real and tragic. That’s because of the concrete details in here, such as the comparison between chasing chipmunks and having to stop to rest during their walks. These are things readers can directly imagine that puts them in Anderson’s shoes. The telling that King did earlier – saying the dog is eighty-four in dog years – will never measure up to this.

And yes, the dog is referred to by both Pete and Peter. For heaven’s sake. Well, you know what, Stevie? Two can play at this game.

Peter, knowing what was expected of him (he was old, but not stupid), wagged his scraggy stub of a tail and barked.

“Be a Viet Cong!” Anderson ordered.

Peter obediently fell on his side – a little wheeze escaped him – and rolled on his back, legs splayed out. That almost always amused Anderson, but today the sight of her dog playing Viet Cong (Peter would also play dead at the words “hooch” or “My Lai”) was too close to what she had been thinking about.

“Up, Pete.”

Pete got up slowly, panting below his muzzle. His white muzzle. “Let’s go back.” She tossed him a dog biscuit. Peter snapped at it and missed. He snuffed for it, missed it, then came back to it. He ate it slowly, without much relish.

This has more great illustration of Peter and his condition, but… the racism. Ouch. War or no, training your dog to play dead as a specific group of people is seriously creepy. And when a protagonist does creepy things, readers can only assume it has writer endorsement. That is, unless the writer makes it clear that it’s a character flaw – generally by making another character point out the problems with it. His Majesty doesn’t do that here.

Just Say “No” to Fancy Analogies

On to section 3.

For want of a shoe, the kingdom was lost … for the choice of a path, the ship was found.

Anderson had been down here before in the thirteen years that the Garrick place hadn’t become the Anderson place; she recognized the slope of land […]

Nooooo! Not the kingdom thing again! What does this overdressed metaphor have to do with anything? It reminds me of Goodkind’s “Trouble sires three children,” which sounded just as stupid in Sword of Truth as this does here. You can’t just stick wise and mystical sounding words in your work to create atmosphere. Substance is greater than style. Fancy words have to mean something important; readers can tell if they don’t.

Even taking out the kingdom bit, the part about the path, and the ship isn’t any better. Technically, that is literal instead of a metaphor, but it took me two reads to realize that. Other than the title of Book I, there is no other mention of a ship. It feels out of place.

Then we have a disorienting jump back to reality. Steve is writing in omniscient, so he can put whatever he feels like into his narrative, but that doesn’t mean he can do away with transitions.

On top of that, reality also starts with “Anderson had been down here before in the thirteen years that the Garrick place hadn’t become the Anderson place” – what does it mean?? Well, after the second read I figured that out too. Remember that overwhelming paragraph mapping the landscape? Stuck in there was a parenthesis mentioning people were still calling it the Garrick place even though it is owned by the Andersons. Naturally the Kinginater expected everyone to remember this seemingly extraneous piece of information stuck inside a huge information block that is now pages ago.

Cut to the Good Stuff

So far we’ve covered 1,200 words of walking through the woods and character exposition. I have cut the majority of this intro out without even mentioning it to you. That’s how unnecessary most of it is.

Finally Anderson actually stumbles, as promised in the first paragraph.

This time she followed Peter as the dog moved slightly to the left, and with the path in sight, one of her elderly hiking boots fetched up against something . . . fetched up hard.

“Hey!” she yelled, but it was too late, in spite of her pinwheeling arms. She fell to the ground. The branch of a low bush scratched her cheek hard enough to bring blood.

Was shouting “hey” supposed to prevent her from falling? Our all-knowing narrator says this statement was “too late.” Was her dog supposed to rescue her mid-fall? Okay, maybe he meant the pinwheeling arms were too late, but that is not how it’s phrased.

“Nice going,” she said, and looked to see what she had tripped over – a fallen piece of tree, most likely, or a rock poking out of the ground. Lots of rock in Maine.

What she saw was a gleam of metal.

She touched it, running her finger along it and then blowing off black forest dirt.

“What’s this?” she asked Peter.

Peter approached, sniffed at it, and then did a peculiar thing. The beagle backed off two dog-paces, sat down, and uttered a single low howl.

Using animals to signal mysterious danger is pretty passe now, about as passe as remarking how silent a forest is. But this book is from ’87, and it’s been overused because it works. People trust animal instincts, but they don’t understand them. That makes fear from animals a good way to create a mysterious threat. And there’s good showing here. Peter doesn’t “look fearful,” he backs off and howls.

The metal was a dull gray–not the bright color of tin or iron at all. And it was thicker than a can, maybe a quarter-inch at its top. Anderson placed the pad of her right index finger on this edge and felt a momentary odd tingling, like a vibration.

She took her finger away and looked at it quizzically.

Put it back.

Nothing. No buzz.

Now she pinched it between her thumb and finger and tried to draw it from the earth like a loose tooth from a gum. It didn’t come. She was gripping the protrusion in the rough center. It sank back into the earth–or that was the impression she had then–on either side at a width of less than two inches. She would later tell Jim Gardener that she could have walked past it three times a day for forty years and never stumbled over it.

We have more details designed to build atmosphere. Measurements like “quarter-inch” are too technical, but otherwise this is pretty effective. The strange protrusion is made of no metal Anderson recognizes, and it tingles – or was that her imagination? We also have an interesting metaphor of drawing a loose tooth from a gum. A little odd, but appropriately creepy. Note that Stephen doesn’t try to make everything terrifying all it once. He knows good horror needs room to escalate.

I gotta ask though: why is he narrating what Anderson will tell Jim later? Since the horror-meister is writing in omniscient, he can just say, “She could have walked past it three times a day.” Or we could see her actually tell Jim in a scene. This is strange and out of place.

She brushed away loose soil, exposing a little more of it. She dug a channel along it about two inches deep with her fingers–the soil gave easily enough, as forest soil does . . . at least until you hit the webwork of roots. It continued smoothly down into the ground. Anderson got up on her knees and dug down along either side. She tried wiggling it again. Still no go.

She scraped away more soil with her fingers and quickly exposed more-now she saw six inches of gray metal, now nine, now a foot.

It’s a car or a truck or a skidder, she thought suddenly. Buried out here in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe a Hooverville kind of stove. But why here?

No reason that she could think of; no reason at all.

She’s digging with her bare hands? I can believe the top of the soil might have come free easily,* or at least fallen needles and leaves would, but what about when she gets to the roots? If she’s really intending to dig for an entire foot with her fingernails, that could make a strong impression. A bleeding fingernail would add to the mood quite a bit. Instead we’re left to believe that maybe she has trowels for hands.

Stevo also takes a strange dip into second person, with “at least until you hit the webwork of roots.” In his defense, his style is very casual and this is something a person might say out loud. Even so, in the context of third-person narration, it’s jarring. He should have swapped out “you” for “she.”

Otherwise, we have more solid details that build the mystery further. Now we know it’s not just a can; it’s a large vehicle.

Remember to End Your Sentences

Anderson realizes she’s lost track of time, having been out on the path for over an hour. Peter, clearly disturbed, is shaking. Anderson decides it’s time to leave, and Kingly decides it’s time for a bunch of additional character exposition, including this jewel:

There had been a time when Anderson had honestly believed she would only be here a few years, long enough to recover from the traumas of adolescence, her sister, and her abrupt, confused withdrawal (surrender, Anne called it) from college, but a few years had become five, five had become ten, ten had become thirteen, and looky ‘yere, Huck, Peter’s old and you got a pretty good crop of gray coming up in what used to be hair as black as the River Styx (she’d tried cropping it close two years ago, almost a punk do, had been horrified to find it made the gray even more noticeable, and had let it grow ever since).

That is one sentence. The reader has no place to stop and rest in this huge chunk of text. Now, I’m not saying sentences should never be long. Long sentences create a breathless, out-of-control feel that is appropriate on the odd occasion. This is actually one of those occasions, but Stefan is going overboard. For one thing, this block has several natural stopping points. The most obvious is before “but a few years,” and at the end there’s also a long sentence stuffed in parenthesis.* Since these points create a rhythmic pause very much like a period, he has no reason not to end the sentence there.

For another thing, only a couple places have content that really benefits from long, breathless phrasing. When the narration shifts to a different idea, time, or place, continuing the breathless flow rarely makes sense. This is how I would break it up:

Example

There had been a time when Anderson had honestly believed she would only be here a few years, long enough to recover from the traumas of adolescence, her sister, and her abrupt, confused withdrawal from college. Then a few years had become five, five had become ten, ten had become thirteen, and looky ‘yere, Huck, Peter’s old and you got a pretty good crop of gray coming up. Before, her hair had been as black as the River Styx. She’d tried cropping it close two years ago, almost a punk do, had been horrified to find it made the gray even more noticeable. She’d let it grow ever since.

There are still some long sentences in there. But they’re intentional and not just some sloppy stream-of-consciousness that’s applied to everything.

Keep Up the Mood

All the exposition King-a-ding-ding is spouting off is breaking the mood. If this chapter was full of terror, then pausing to let readers catch their breath would be a good thing. But this subtle air of creepiness needs maintenance. By doing all this character reminiscence, he’s losing momentum. Exposition can and should keep up the atmosphere. Look at this excerpt:

She now thought she might spend the rest of her life in Haven, with the sole exception of the duty trip she took to visit her publisher in New York every year or two. The town got you. The place got you. The land got you. And that wasn’t so bad. It was as good as anything else, maybe.

Like a plate. A metal plate.

She broke off a short limber branch well plumed with fresh green leaves and waved it around her head. The mosquitoes had found her and seemed determined to have their high tea off her. Mosquitoes whirling around her head . . . and thoughts like mosquitoes inside her head. Those she couldn’t wave off.

It vibrated under my finger for a second. I felt it. Like a tuning fork. But when I touched it, it stopped. Is it possible for something to vibrate in the earth like that? Surely not. Maybe . . .

Stating that the place has a grip on Anderson gives the exposition a creepier tone, leading back into discussing the piece of metal. If all his exposition were like this, it would fit much better. But of course Steph has to go overboard. In this first paragraph, if he just cut out “And that wasn’t so bad. It was as good as anything else, maybe” it would end on a much tenser note, and it would make a smoother transition back to the metal piece.

“Like a plate” is intentionally sudden; it represents an intrusion into Anderson’s thoughts. That’s great, but Kingsby’s not getting the reader on board. It should make them think about the piece of metal immediately, but many readers will suffer from disorientation before they get it. Part of the problem is that the first phrase in this new thought feels connected to the previous paragraph. Just making it more complete, perhaps “That thing was like a plate,” could have helped.

Then we’re back to the mysterious details that are the bread and butter of a story like this. The vibrating is indeed weird. Just restating that it vibrates won’t have much effect, though. We need some new information.

Maybe it had been a psychic vibration. She did not absolutely disbelieve in such things. Maybe her mind had sensed something about that buried object and had told her about it in the only way it could, by giving her a tactile impression: one of vibration […]

Haha! Who’s she gonna call? Ghostbusters! All right, maybe I shouldn’t be laughing. Perhaps in ’87 ideas about psychic phenomenon were so widespread that this would have felt normal to readers of the time. But horror needs a serious tone, and anything out of left field will destroy that. To work today, these “psychic vibrations” would need some setup. Stephi could have established that Anderson had previous encounters with psychic things and showed us how creepy they were. Instead, Anderson feels a little vibration and jumps to the conclusion that psychic things are happening.

Cultivate Uncertainty

While I haven’t shown you much of it, our monarch has done a lot of back and forth on whether Anderson will leave or stay with the metal piece. She says she’ll leave, then she looks at it again, walks away, and then looks back, lets it go and then thinks about it. The last sentences of section three are these:

Forget it. She did.

For a little while.

This is somewhat of a tradition in horror, and for good reason. By its nature, conflict manifests when the outcome of a situation is uncertain. If we already know this piece of metal will lead to very bad things, and Anderson just embraces it, that’s not as riveting as watching her waver back and forth. And while I stand by my opinion that his kingdom analogy was nonsense, Stu’s early flash-forward was necessary to make this wavering work.

Here’s how I would create the same effect in the opening without leaping into abstract pondering.

Example

Even after everything she went through, what Anderson obsessed over was that one stumble in the woods. If she’d taken another path, or if she hadn’t stumbled, or if she’d just left the thing well enough alone, she could have avoided the haunting days and terror-filled nights. She’d be free of the knocking she heard while she wasn’t quite asleep and wasn’t quite awake. She could venture out into the woods again, enjoying the new growth or falling leaves without feeling the vibration that radiated through the ground and sunk into her bones. Just one stumble, and it changed everything.

Anderson’s pseudo-forgetting of the piece of metal ends section 3. If the chapter only ended there, it might have been a halfway decent chapter. If only.

Exposition Needs a Purpose

Content Notice: Verbal Abuse

I’m getting bored just glancing at section 4. In it, Kingsbeard continues his uncontrollable character exposition. Look, characterization is great, but how does this move the story forward?

All the same, she suddenly wanted to talk to Jim Gardener–needed to talk to him. She went in to call his place up the road in Unity. She had dialed four numbers when she remembered he was off doing readings–those and the poetry workshops were the way he supported himself. For itinerant artists, summer was prime time. All those menopausal matrons have to do something with their summers, she could hear Jim saying ironically, and I have to eat in the winter. One hand washes the other. You ought to thank God you’re saved the reading circuit, anyway, Bobbi.

Yes, she was saved that–although she thought Jim liked it more than he let on. Certainly did get laid enough.

I hope Jim is at least an important character, because we hear a lot about him for someone who hasn’t appeared on screen yet. But if he’s so important, why doesn’t he just show up? Or at least answer the phone? That way we could learn about him first hand instead of through exposition dumps.

The exposition doesn’t end there. It keeps going. And going. I’m sure you’ll be fascinated to know that Anderson and Jim have had sex, and he’s the only person that has brought Anderson to orgasm. Since Kingy took time in his tightly worded story to say that, it must be important.

Okay, I guess it does explain why she keeps him around even though he degrades the fans he’s sleeping with and even though he’s an abusive jerk. We have a whole flashback scene in exposition just so we can discover what a jerk he is. When he finds Anderson crying over a mean letter, this is what he says.

Get your mind right, Bobbi. If you want to go on doing what you like, get your fucking mind right and stop that fucking crying. That fucking crying makes me sick. That fucking crying makes me want to puke. You’re not weak. I know weak when I’m with it. Why do you want to be something you’re not? Your sister? Is that why? She’s not here, and she’s not you, and you don’t have to let her in if you don’t want to. Don’t whine to me about your sister anymore. Grow up. Stop bitching.

This was pretty shocking, but since we don’t know Jim well, it’s plausible enough. And while his abusive side should have been demonstrated in a real-time scene, I’ll give our Royal Highness his due: this character is probably intended to be an asshole, and he’s almost certainly going to die during the story.

Think About Your Story’s Perspective

In between slogging through character history, sections 4 and 5 occasionally get back to the topic at hand: the weird thing buried under the ground.

And now, with dark drawing down, that memory of vibration returned with inarguable certainty. It must have been a psychic vibration, if she had felt it at all. It –

Suddenly a cold and terrible certainty rose in her: someone was buried there. Maybe she had uncovered the leading edge of a car or an old refrigerator or even some sort of steel trunk, but whatever it had been in its aboveground life, it was now a coffin. A murder victim? Who else would be buried in such away, in such a box? Guys who happened to wander into the woods during hunting season and got lost there and died there didn’t carry along metal caskets to pop themselves into when they died… and even given such an idiotic idea, who would shovel the dirt back in? Cut me a break, folks, as we used to say back in the glorious days of our youth.

The vibration. It had been the call of human bones.

Come on, Bobbi–don’t be so fucking stupid.

I have to agree with Anderson/Bobbi, that sounds pretty stupid. Imagining bodies under there? Sure, that sounds decently creepy, especially with the interesting speculation around it. Psychic vibrations coming from human bones? I’m having trouble with that; it’s just too hokey. And while Anderson is supposed to dismiss it, we’re not. We’re supposed to be creeped out.

This is also a good example of how Stephano changes narrative distance. Notice we have close perspective, as indicated by thoughts mixed right in with the narration, “Cut me a break, folks,” and then we have thoughts that are italicized separately from the text, as is the convention in distant narration. It’s messy, and it often becomes jarring or confusing. At least his omniscient narration is focused on his main character, or else we’d be jumping in and out and to the side. But it’s a tribute to the flexibility of third-person viewpoint that he succeeds in these distance jumps as much as he does.

Next, Anderson has a dream that thankfully avoids talk of psychic vibrations. And instead of trying to trick the audience, Stufu states right out that it’s a dream. This means it won’t feel scary or urgent, but it’s still effective as foreshadowing.

She had a peculiar dream. In it she was groping in the dark… not trying to find something but to get away from something. She was in the woods. Branches whipped into her face and poked her arms. Sometimes she stumbled over roots and fallen trees. And then, ahead of her, a terrible green light shone out in a single pencillike ray. In her dream she thought of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the mad narrator’s lantern, muffled up except for one tiny hole, which he used to direct a beam of light onto the evil eye he fancied his elderly benefactor possessed.

Bobbi Anderson felt her teeth fall out.

They went painlessly, all of them. The bottom ones tumbled, some outward, some back into her mouth, where they lay on her tongue or under it in hard little lumps. The top ones simply dropped down the front of her blouse. She felt one catch in her bra, which clasped in front, poking her skin.

The light. The green light. The light –

This dream has a lot of effective details, such as the branches whipping her face and the thin, green ray of light. We even have a little body horror with her teeth falling out.

However, Stevosaurus Rex is back in distant perspective, and that dulls the effect. He narrates that she’s thinking things and feeling things instead of sharing her experiences directly. The extended metaphor of “The Tell-Tale Heart” requires a lot of thinking and takes us far out of the moment. For people unfamiliar with the classic short story, it’ll just be confusing.

And this contradiction – a wealth of intimate details to submerge readers in the moment combined with distancing terms and phrases – defines this narration style. I’ve never seen omniscient used in such a personal manner. Instead of developing characters by consistently staying inside their heads and seeing through their eyes, as with close-limited perspective, Even-Stephen is using omniscient to brute force the process. Omniscient gives him the power to put in all the exposition he wants anywhere, and instead of sharing world details like most omniscient writers in the genre, he shares an excess of character backstory.

I wouldn’t make the same choices he does; his method slows things way down. But Sovereign has a distinctive narration style that many people love, and that’s what makes this omniscient method work.

Believe it or not, that’s the end of section 4, right in the middle of a phrase. The missing piece he leaves out – “was wrong” – was just two words. Why bothering putting in a section break if you’re going to do that? My best guess is that Stephelupagus just doesn’t know how to put in a proper hook at the end of his sections, as we’ll see shortly.

End on a Tense Note

Anderson wakes up and realizes it’s three in the afternoon. There’s a little fake-out where she thinks Peter’s dead, but it turns out he’s just sleeping. She checks to make sure her teeth are still there and discovers her period came early.

Finally, we reach the chapter’s end.

But after she had showered, put a pad in a fresh pair of cotton panties, and pulled the whole works snug, she checked the sheets and saw them unmarked. Her period was early, but it had at least had the consideration to wait until she was almost awake. And there was no cause for alarm; she was fairly regular, but she had been both early and late from time to time; maybe diet, maybe subconscious stress, maybe some internal clock slipping a cog or two. She had no urge to grow old fast, but she often thought that having the whole inconvenient business of menstruation behind her would be a relief.

The last of her nightmare slipped away, and Bobbi Anderson went in to fix herself a very late breakfast.

Why this? What purpose do all of these mundane details serve? This is the least effective chapter ending ever. From here we could just assume the problem’s gone and everything will be fine, story done.

To give ourselves a tense ending, we’d have to cut out almost the entirety of section 5. Let’s say Anderson wakes up, and the light still looks wrong, leaving readers to wonder if something scary happened in real life during her dream. We could end the chapter there and start the next one with her getting up and sorting everything out.


Altogether, our suspenseful scribbler has many talents, but he also seems dedicated to spouting whatever he feels like and not fixing it later. Just one more round of editing could tame the confusion and rein in the excessive exposition. Instead, it’s sloppy.

Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.

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Comments

  1. Leo

    I think titling book 1 “The Ship in the Earth” immediately ruins whatever suspense he was going for out of the gate. We already know what she stumbles over before it happens. It also seems weird to refer to someone she’s slept with by their first and last name. Or maybe there’s a long list of Jims notching her bedpost.

  2. Erulasse Aranel

    Yess, another one!

    I really appreciate your following through with calling King Steven by a different name every time. Continue this dedication to comedy in the future… or die.

  3. Jorge

    I am sorry, but I was able to finish your critique. I will start by admitting to being a fan of King’s work, but that is not to say that he is without faults. However, your assessment is quite generic. In the first few sections alone, I have stumbled across so many writing 101 cliches. Feel free to criticize, but only if you have something new to say. And, please, realize that those platitudes you keep spouting and guidelines. If authors strictly adhered to them, we would not have most of the works popularly and academically considered as great–we would have technical manuals.

    • Max

      As a fellow reader, I’d disagree with that assessment. They’re there to be broken, sure, but you’re using that to dismiss valid criticism of King’s work. If something is confusing and overwrought, as King’s writing is in this case… why beat around the bush in inventing new ways to say that? Those rules exist in writing 101 for a reason… here, King tried to break away from guidelines and it wasn’t a good idea, in my opinion. Because it isn’t always a good idea. It can have a positive or negative impact on your work, depending on execution, and the execution here is not particularly good.

      It’s okay… he’s written a lot of books. Not surprising he’d have a clunker or two in there, based on statistics alone.

  4. Jesse

    OP, what have you ever published? — besides this expose that’s nearly longer than the book, which you repeatedly told us you haven’t read.

    • Z

      Well, what have *you* ever published? By the logic you’re implying, you shouldn’t be allowed to criticize the critic unless you’ve got a website stuffed with better-caliber literary criticism.

      We don’t tell people whose cars have mechanical breakdowns that they’re not allowed to complain or want the car fixed unless they can build a better car themselves. We don’t tell people who are frustrated with some element of a computer program’s functionality that unless they could have programmed it better themselves, they should shut up. Can we collectively agree to stop doing this thing where we tell people whose opinions on art/music/literature don’t agree with ours that, unless they are also a best-selling creator, they are not allowed to have opinions or criticisms? This is not a mean-spirited critique; the author is not attacking the King’s character, ability, or fan base. It’s a series of criticisms leveled at particularly weak elements of a particular fraction of King’s body of work. What part of this is so offensive to your sensibilities that you feel the need to imply the author of this article has no business having opinions in their own corner of the internet?

      Disagreeing with a critique is totally valid; so is adding to or arguing with the substance of the critique, or acknowledging that the critique has some points but you overwhelmingly like/enjoy the creator’s work anyway, or going off and writing an essay on your own site that does nothing but sing the critiqued work’s praises. But if you enter into a space in which a dialogue around a work is taking place, and your only contribution is “I don’t like your opinion, stop having opinions I don’t like,” maybe you’re the one who should hold back until you have something new to say. This criticism has as much right to exist as you do to disagree with it; if you think it’s off-base, you might try contributing to the discourse by explaining why you think so, instead of going after the writer’s character or publishing record as a way of circumventing the fact that Stephen King, in the process of writing an enormous number of books, has written some indisputably atrocious sentences, because he is a human being and therefore capable of imperfection and mediocrity as well as excellence and success.

      …[/rant] Sorry; this comment is quite a disproportionate response to the one it’s in reply to. But this is something that irritates me on principle, as someone who works in another creative field that attracts a lot of similar “if you can’t do [every single thing Creator X has ever done] better than Creator X, you’re not allowed to have opinions about Creator X’s work out loud” rhetoric. And the fact that two of the first four comments are jumping on the author for having opinions and expressing them in a less-than-perfectly-Pulitzer-worthy way is troublesome to witness.

      • Z

        (Also, I would like to point out that Fifty Shades of Grey is a published book with a broad commercial audience. Publication is not exactly a universal guarantee of flawless quality.)

      • Chris Winkle

        Disproportionate or not, we at Mythcreants certainly don’t mind you coming to our defense. Being at the receiving end of fan rage is a normal part of what we do, and while we’ve given up trying to tell every enraged visitor how their arguments are flawed and their anger is detrimental, it’s always nice to see our commenters do it.

  5. Jesse

    Long time reader, part time poster.

    1) the rude poster above was not me.
    2) I enjoyed your article.
    3) I imagine Mr. King looks back at his early work and shivers in dread, but don’t all artists?

    • Chris Winkle

      Thanks Jesse. I’m sure King thinks some of his old works aren’t as good, but I don’t think he’s very critical of his work in general. That’s one of things that allows him to be so prolific. He has a foreward before the opening of Gunslinger where he comments that his 19-year-old self (he started the Dark Tower series when he was 19) was full of hubris, but he doesn’t regret it.

      Writers have many different ways of approaching their work. Some agonize over it, and some just jot something down, put it out there, and move on to the next thing.

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