Wondering how to make your writing like Stephen King? One does not simply become, “The King of Horror,” because their surname is King, and their preferred genre is horror.
No, King earned his title and a spot among the best horror authors by having over 60 books published, 350 million plus copies sold, and 12 Bram Stoker Awards in six different categories. But how?
What makes this man’s writing so grand that he deserves a royal title and a kingdom all his own within our nightmares?
Did he make some deal with the Devil that granted him incredible talent? Did he find a bottle washed up on Maine’s rocky shore, wipe the dust off the glass and unleash a djinn to grant his greatest desires?
No, those tales are for the likes of fantasy.
King, much like the majority of his work, took a realist approach towards success in his early years: He wrote every day. He stuffed countless rejection letters on a railroad spike as a reminder of his goals. He murdered his darlings with the pen as his scalpel. He left droplets of ink for us to follow, so that in five steps we could eke out our own existence in the grim dark world of nightmares to come.
Step 1 to Writing Like Stephen King: Write It Out, Then Pry it Out
If a word is there just to dress up the page, rip it out. If you see an adverb, carve it out. If your voice becomes passive, shock it until it’s forced to stand out. King has a low tolerance for lengthy exposition with flowery prose, but that is because he prefers to tell it like it is, leaving none of the gritty details out.
Don’t believe me? Then check out his memoir.
In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King states adverbs pave the road to hell, passive voice makes him want to scream and one of the worst things you can do for your writing is use large unfamiliar words that require the reader to pull a dictionary out. Therefore, the first step to learning to write like the King himself is taking the advice he has already doled out.
Step 2 to Writing Like Stephen King: Actively Read
King is a big proponent of reading often and reading actively.
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
Stephen King, On Writing
However, how does a writer read a book any differently than a voracious bibliophile who devours pages during all their waking hours?
Did you notice that every sentence in the previous step ended with the word “out”? Did you ask why, or did you consider it a lack of foresight on my editor’s part? What if I told you that I crafted the repetition on purpose and with purpose?
There is a literary device which specifically addresses the use of repetition denoted earlier. This obscure device, an epistrophe, is defined as the use of repetition at the end of a clause or sentence meant to further enhance the author’s idea, and King is no stranger to it or the many other literary tools that are planted throughout his books.
Before he became a bestselling author, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in English in 1970 from the University of Maine, and in 1971 he began teaching English at Hampden Academy.
During this time and onwards he observed what the novice, the up and coming and the best of the best printed out. He asked questions about what he witnessed. He kept what he liked and tossed out what he didn’t. Armed with newfound wisdom his writing style from the 70s shifted, and he gave up the role of an outsider in exchange for the knowledge of an insider who understands what makes a literary work a masterpiece.
Step 3 to Writing like Stephen King: Don’t Steal the Reveal
Of course, sometimes it’s not about what you see on the page, but rather what you don’t see on it that creates all the difference between writing that is good and writing that holds majesty. The King of Horror understands this, and it is something you can witness in all of his work whether you are reading his first book, Carrie or his latest novel Fairy Tale.
What is this invisible force that slips between words and hides in the subtext?
What keeps you reading this line and then moving on with haste to the next one?
Tension is part of what makes great horror, and King is a master at implementing it. He stays in the present, occasionally visits the past but never rushes beyond a logical assumption when it concerns the narrative’s future.
Then to move the story forward he shows rather than tells through the character’s dialogue, actions and perspective of the environment. In other words, he understands how syntax correlates to pacing, and how word choice influences perception.
Step 4 to Writing Like Stephen King: Create a Relatable Protagonist and Promising Antagonist
Notice I didn’t say likable.
Let’s face it, everyone has flaws, and our flaws don’t necessarily make us the greatest people to be around. But our stress, our wrath, the skeletons in our closet which we prefer nobody knew about are more visible than we care to admit, especially when desperate times call for less desirable measures. The same should be said for our characters.
What pushes the protagonist and antagonist to the end of their rope? What does the protagonist do that makes the reader say, “I would too?” How does the antagonist promise to retaliate?
The grotesque only appears when the audience relates to the character who is suffering. Give your protagonist relatable qualities, like David Drayton in The Mist, but also make sure they have whatever it takes to get through the hellscape the antagonist creates.
The tension unfolds between the antagonist and protagonist when each character has a good reason to commit to their action. Make sure the antagonist follows through with their threats when their boundaries are pushed, like Annie Wilkes in Misery, but also make sure that those promises are founded in the logic of their pain.
King doesn’t hold back the punches, the amputations, or disembowelment. He tells it like it is in every detail. There is no such thing as mercy when it comes to the undoing of his characters.
Horror reveals what our characters would do in the worst of times. We as authors, through our unapologetic hands, must break down the relatable image our characters have worked so hard to preserve, and shred the fibers beneath their facade to the point they can no longer deny the pain. Once they are stripped to the bare bones of their essence, then we get to see just how important society’s ethics and morals are. Then we get to address the real horrors of the world.
Step 5 to Writing Like Stephen King: Find the Grit in Reality
Forget the rainbows and the sugar-coated crap of other genres. King’s work is littered with profanity, sardonic remarks, and dry wit. Page after page, he never lets you forget the copper taste of blood or irony that comes with the hard facts of what it is to live with a monster in your head.
There is a little bit of ugly in everyone and everything, and with the right motivation anyone can do horrible things.
King is a realist and no matter how you slice and dice his prose this is a truth he never shies from. Don’t coddle the audience, don’t think they can’t handle the truth. Rather document reality’s grit in all its shades of Gray, and let the page reveal It.