Stephen King is a name that needs no introduction in the literary world.
With over 60 novels and 200 short stories, he’s a prolific powerhouse whose works have been adapted into films, TV shows, and even stage plays.
This article aims to break down his writing style and techniques, offering you actionable tips to apply to your own writing.
As Stephen King himself once said, “The adverb is not your friend.”
In line with that, this article is a no-nonsense guide that gets straight to the point. We’re not here to waste your time but to enhance your writing skills by learning from one of the masters.
Why should you learn to write like Stephen King?
You might wonder, “Why should I aim to write like Stephen King?”
First, let’s talk about his versatility. King has penned everything from horror to science fiction to drama. This means you’re not just learning how to write in one genre; you’re learning how to tell a story that can span multiple genres.
Second, King is a master storyteller. His narratives aren’t just compelling; they’re often emotionally resonant, gripping readers from the first sentence to the last.
And finally, let’s talk about impact. King’s stories linger long after you’ve closed the book. Whether it’s the unsettling horror elements or the profound life lessons, his storytelling has a staying power that every writer should aim for.
Understanding Stephen King’s writing style
Descriptive Yet Concise
Stephen King knows how to paint a vivid picture without dragging you through a thesaurus. The trick lies in being descriptive enough to build the scene but concise enough to keep the story moving. So, when you’re setting the stage in your writing, focus on essential details that add to the narrative. Eliminate the fluff.
Characters are the lifeblood of any King novel. They’re well-rounded, flawed, and incredibly human. You can’t just create a cardboard cutout and expect your readers to care. Invest time in building your characters, give them depth, and allow them to evolve as the story progresses. Their decisions should be driving the story, not just plot mechanisms.
Setting as a Character
In many King novels, the setting isn’t just a backdrop; it’s a character in its own right. Think of the hotel in “The Shining” or the town of Derry in “IT.” These settings have personalities, histories, and even agendas. When working on your own pieces, consider how the setting interacts with your characters and affects the story’s outcome.
Mastery of Pacing
One of the most crucial elements in King’s writing is pacing. He knows when to ratchet up the tension and when to give the reader room to breathe. Effective pacing is a balancing act that keeps your reader engaged without exhausting them. Vary your sentence lengths, focus on the rhythm of your words, and remember that not every scene needs to be a climactic showdown.
Stephen King’s key writing techniques
Show, Don’t Tell
• Character Emotions: Instead of saying “John was nervous,” describe his shaky hands or stuttering speech.
• Environment: Don’t just say it’s a gloomy day. Describe the overcast sky, the constant drizzle, and how it mirrors the protagonist’s mood.
• Action: Rather than stating “the car chase was intense,” describe the screeching tires, the near-misses, and the adrenaline rush.
• Conflict: Avoid stating the conflict directly. Show it through clashing dialogues, characters’ actions, or situations.
• Backstory: Instead of a blatant info-dump about a character’s past, weave it subtly through flashbacks or dialogues.
• Internal Thoughts: Showcase what a character is thinking by their actions and decisions, not just internal monologue.
• Relationship Dynamics: Show relationships through actions and dialogues instead of stating, “they are best friends” or “they didn’t get along.”
Dialogue in Stephen King’s works is often as revealing as it is engaging. King crafts dialogues that sound real, full of dialects, slang, and even incomplete sentences. It’s not just about what is said, but also what is left unsaid. Subtext plays a huge role. In your own writing, aim for dialogue that not only sounds natural but also serves a purpose, whether it’s revealing character traits or advancing the plot. Cut out filler conversation that doesn’t serve any function in your story.
Themes and Symbolism
• Good vs Evil: This is a recurring theme in King’s works. Identify your story’s core conflict and make it symbolic of a larger issue.
• Isolation: King often isolates characters to heighten tension and focus on internal conflicts.
• Childhood and Innocence: Many of King’s stories explore the loss or corruption of innocence.
• Humanity’s Dark Side: King frequently delves into the darker aspects of human nature.
• Fate and Free Will: These themes often intersect in King’s stories, providing layers of complexity.
• Society and Class: Consider how societal norms and class dynamics can serve as a backdrop or even a character in your story.
• Supernatural Elements: Often, these aren’t just for scares but serve as symbols for deeper issues.
Practical Tips to Write Like Stephen King
Read a Lot, Write a Lot
King’s advice here is straightforward— you can’t be a good writer if you’re not a good reader. Expose yourself to different genres, styles, and formats. This isn’t just about enjoying a good book; it’s about analyzing what makes it good and applying those lessons to your own work.
Revise, Revise, Revise
1. First Draft: Write your first draft without obsessing over imperfections.
2. Step Back: Take some time away from your draft. A few days to a week should suffice.
3. Read Aloud: Reading your work aloud helps catch awkward phrasing and rhythm issues.
4. Peer Review: Get feedback from others, preferably those who have an understanding of good storytelling.
5. Cut and Edit: Remove redundant points, fix grammatical errors, and ensure your narrative is tight.
6. Repeat: This isn’t a one-time process. You may need to go through multiple cycles to get it right.
Kill Your Darlings
This means you have to be willing to cut out parts of your work that don’t serve the overall narrative, no matter how clever or well-written they are. If a sentence, paragraph, or even an entire scene doesn’t contribute to character development or plot progression, it has to go.
Find Your Writing Routine
• Time of Day: Identify when you’re most productive. Is it early morning or late at night?
• Writing Space: Create a dedicated space for writing that is free from distractions.
• Tools: Whether it’s a specific software or good old pen and paper, figure out what tools make you the most productive.
• Word Count Goals: Set achievable daily or weekly word count goals.
• Breaks: Don’t underestimate the power of short breaks to clear your mind.
• Exercise: Physical activity often helps in overcoming writer’s block.
• Reading: Incorporate reading into your routine. It’s part of your job as a writer.
By following these guidelines and incorporating them into your writing regimen, you’re well on your way to crafting stories that could make Stephen King himself proud.
Common Mistakes to Avoid
One glaring mistake you might make when trying to emulate Stephen King is over-description. Yes, King is known for his vivid settings and detailed character sketches, but every word serves a purpose. Overloading your writing with adjectives and adverbs dilutes the impact and slows down the pacing. Be descriptive, but keep it tight and relevant.
Another pitfall is forcing suspense. King’s mastery of suspense comes from careful pacing and building tension naturally, not from a constant barrage of shocking events or plot twists. If your story is a non-stop thrill ride with no room to breathe, you’ll exhaust your reader and diminish the impact of genuinely suspenseful moments. Less can often be more when it comes to creating tension.
Lastly, don’t neglect character development. A common misstep is to focus solely on the horror or suspense elements and overlook the people these events are happening to. Readers need to care about the characters for the stakes to matter. Investing time in developing relatable, multi-dimensional characters will pay off in reader engagement and emotional impact.
In sum, writing like Stephen King isn’t about copying his style but understanding the techniques and principles that make his work compelling. By paying close attention to description, dialogue, pacing, and above all, storytelling, you can elevate your own writing. Now go ahead, apply these insights and start crafting stories that not only entertain but linger long after the last word.