What I Learned from the King

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* What I Learned from the King
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

Quotes of the Day

“Reading fiction not only develops our imagination and creativity, it gives us the skills to be alone. It gives us the ability to feel empathy for people we’ve never met, living lives we couldn’t possibly experience for ourselves, because the book puts us inside the character’s skin.” Ann Patchett

“The intellect has many wonderful uses—categorizing and sorting (and revising, oh so much revising.)—but it’s a terrible writer.” Sarah Chauncey

If the “intellect” is such a terrible writer (and it is), why in the world would you ever want to allow it to revise what you’ve written? H

What I Learned from the King

No, not Charles III. Stephen.

I was going to split this into two posts, but I don’t like “to be continued.” Bear with me. For some of you, this will be important.

And I’ll say right up front, this applies equally to short stories, novellas, novels and series.

Two days ago in the comments section on the website, Sebastian asked me to “advise us on … advanced techniques from Stephen King’s fiction that you have puzzled over, decoded, and successfully applied in your own fiction.”

That is a tall order. Here’s my response, reparagraphed a little and considerably expanded:

My first impulse was to talk about a character awakening from a dream sequence. In conveying that awakening, King actually broke the last (partial) sentence of a chapter with an em dash and continued it as the first (partial) sentence of the next chapter.

In my 71 years, that is the only time I’ve witnessed a writer creating a brilliant cliffhanger AND the hook for the next chapter all in the same sentence.

Consider, the sentence had to make sense on its own as a whole (as usual) but it also had to provide enough tension and suspence in the first part to force the reader (me) to turn the page to the next chapter to find out what happened. And it did.

But then the remainder of the sentence had to provide enough enticement to force me to continue reading into the excellent chapter opening that followed. Again, it did.

For a few days straight, I kept coming back to and studying that overall passage (maybe 200 words) and the effect the technique had on me as a reader. I kept at it until I finally realized what he was doing to me as a reader, and more importantly (as a writer) HOW he was doing it.

But I won’t talk more about that right now because unfortunately, I don’t remember the title of the specific novel. Without the specific reference to spur further thought, it’s difficult to talk about or try to explain what I got out of it.

But I’m certain that segment stuck with any readers who read that novel, so if you know which novel it was, please don’t hesitate to email me.

I’d rather be able to point the “student” to the particular novel and passage. If you read a lot of King’s novels, you will come across it eventually.

I will briefly discuss one tiny but massively important part of that passage: the em dash, King’s use of which created part of the tension and greatly enhanced the tension in the words of that last-first sentence:

In every case, the em dash displays an interruption of the character(s) and forces that same interruption on the reader. In doing so, it creates immediate tension and introduces a certain level of authentic drama and suspense.

The em dash is your friend. Those who tell you not to use it don’t know what they’re talking about. That said, if it is overused, the effect (tension, drama, suspense) is watered down. So use it only where it will deliver the desired affect and where that effect will have the most impact.

I most often overuse the em dash in my own writing as I’m racing through the story with the characters. Then, while cycling the first or second time, I replace the less-necessary em dashes with commas. (Commas force the reader to pause for a shorter time and thereby remove the tension added by the em dash.)

For a great deal more you have never heard about punctuation, see Punctuation for Writers (2nd edition). It’s only $10. You won’t regret it.

But the biggest thing I have learned from King

boils down to taking my time when writing.

First, taking your time is valuable for conveying the physical setting and any physical action in the story. You slow down to be sure the reader will experience the same physical sensations the POV character is experiencing in the story.

So anything from the chipped, peeling paint on the doorframe to the tree growing to the left of the driveway to the slighly cool breeze and the low streak of clouds in the distance to the character noticing an untied shoelace and bending to retie it to the explosion that reaches the character’s ear in the same instant the doorframe splinters above him or her.

And it continues with whatever s/he does next. And next. And next.

The point is this: The reader cannot see (hear, smell, taste, or feel (physically) the details of the scene that is playing in your head unless you slow down and put them on the page.

If you don’t take the time to do that (yes, even in the short story you’re writing), the reader will see, etc. a different story in his or her head than the one you are actually writing.

Instead, the reader will “make up” some of those missing details him/herself. Later, s/he will be annoyed to learn s/he was wrong. S/he will believe the annoyance is the writer’s fault, and s/he will be correct.

And take your time too, in how you put the details on the page. Take the time to be certain you are conveying precisely (and I mean precisely) what (and in what order) you want the reader to see, hear, smell, feel (physically) or taste.

This is not easy at first, but even then it is a great deal of fun, and it becomes more readily available to you if you practice it. It quickly becomes part of your creative subconscious and in that way becomes available to your characters.

Second, taking your time is especially valuable for conveying emotion.

Not only the POV character’s emotions in the moment but the emotions of any other characters in the scene, albeit as they are observed and experienced by the POV character. Even though the non-POV character might not realize s/he is displaying any emotions at all.

Again, you can ensure the reader will experience those emotions by slowing down and making sure everything you experience in your head and emotional heart makes it onto the page.

Sometimes, physical actions (hailing back to the first segment of this topic) are also indicitive of or introductory to emotional responses.

Does one eyelid flutter? Include it. (If it wasn’t important, the POV character and you wouldn’t have seen it.) Does a finger twitch? Does a single tear appear on a cheek? etc.

Again, this is not easy, but it’s a great deal of fun, and it is available to you if you practice it.

Notice that ALL of this is also part of grounding the reader, pulling him or her more deeply into the story and into the scene. Into the moment.

As for whether these are “advanced” techniques, that depends on your perception from where you are now as a writer. But rest assured, I’ve been there. So has Stephen King. But you don’t have to wait. can do this from the very beginning if you want to. And any writer who is serious about the craft should want to.

We advance through various stages as fiction writers based only on the techniques we become aware of and when we become aware of them. Now you are aware of this one. If you use it, your writing will seem “advanced” even to many writers who manage to sell more than you do (marketing is a whole different skill set from writing).

In the book I’m currently writing, in three different places (two are related to the same event and one is an event of its own), What Happened to my POV character and her initial reaction to it literally brought me to tears. While I was actually writing it!

And then Witnessing Her Emotions brought me to tears again. More than once I had to stop typing and take a short break to get myself under control.

All of that was a direct result of not only WHAT I was putting on the page (the character’s authentic story) but HOW I was putting it on the page (my awareness ot technique).

That was the level of clarity not only with which she initially expressed the depth of her surprise and grief at what happened, but with which she fine-tuned it during the two cycling passes.

For eventual readers, the character and I will have helped them experience those same emotions. But only because I took my time to be sure what the character gave me actually made it onto the page.

In another place in the same book, the POV character first experiences and endures her own emotions immediately after something happens with the other character in that scene.

Then she also witnesses (and experiences in the same way any other observer, for example, the reader, will) the emotions of the other character, which of course causes other, stronger emotions (and physical reactions) in her. This technique is almost surreal, or it seems so to me even as I’m using it. And more so when I cycle back over it.

Yet you control all of it with what the character gives you to put on the page, and then with how you put it on the page.

How you put it on the page includes the phrasing, sentence length, paragraphing, expletives (hinted at or expressed) and physical actions that illustrate the character’s frustration or exultation, anger or joy, sadness or excitement or a sudden realization or epiphany, etc.

And you determine all of those things by observing them in your character and by feeling them yourself.

Two More Brief Notes

1. Often a physical reaction is the best way to illumate a strong emotion, either at the time or later. Perhaps a character is angry or frustrated and slaps the steering wheel of his or her car. Or out of the blue, a character who hasn’t uttered a curse word through the entire story says Damn it! Or a tear seeps out, seeming for no reason at all.

2. Strong emotions also are often tied to other emotions and are likely to continue beyond the event (scene, chapter), so they will usually crop up occasionally for some time through the rest of the story. Just as if the characters notices storm clouds building in the distance early in the story, probably it will rain later in the story and then stop raining (or turn to sleet or snow, etc.) sometime after that.

As Sebastian pointed out, all of this goes hand-in-hand with the idea of focusing down to pull the reader more deeply into the story.

I hope this will help with your own writing.

And thanks, Sebastian, for suggesting the topic. This was great fun. Now I’m gonna go play.

Also see the first link in Of Interest. And if you go to the Search box at the Journal websitehttps://hestanbrough.com and key “Focus Down” into the box, you will find many more posts on that closely related topic.

Of Interest

Take Your Time A much earlier and a bit shallower (or less in-depth or less specific) take on the topic.

The Numbers

Obviously my Fiction for January and Fiction for 2024 numbers were flawed yesterday, a pair of severe typos. They are correct today. (Thanks, Russ.)

The Journal……………………………… 1980

Writing of Blackwell Ops 18: Soleada Garcia: Settled

Day 1…… 4078 words. To date…… 4078
Day 2…… 4194 words. To date…… 8272
Day 3…… 4277 words. To date…… 12549
Day 4…… 4916 words. To date…… 17465
Day 5…… 4613 words. To date…… 22078
Day 6…… 3017 words. To date…… 25063
Day 7…… 6560 words. To date…… 31623
Day 8…… 3213 words. To date…… 34836
Day 9…… 4227 words. To date…… 39063

Fiction for January……………………. 68401
Fiction for 2024…………………………. 68401
Fiction since October 1…………… 371446
Nonfiction for January……………… 18240
Nonfiction for 2024…………………… 18240
2024 consumable words…………… 86641

2024 Novels to Date……………………… 1
2024 Novellas to Date…………………… 0
2024 Short Stories to Date……………… 0
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………… 83
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)…………… 9
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)…… 238
Short story collections…………………… 31

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Disclaimer: I am a prolific professional fiction writer. On this blog I teach Writing Into the Dark and adherence to Heinlein’s Rules. Unreasoning fear and the myths of writing will slow your progress as a writer or stop you cold. I will never teach the myths on this blog.