Thursday 8 March 2012

Chapter One: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

Usually I use my Chapter One series to look at the opening of stories by debut novelists, with a view to working out how they caught the interest of readers who had never heard of them. This time I thought I would look at a big name author and use his most recent best-seller.

It’s all well and good impressing a readership who already have a good idea of what kind of story/writer they’re dealing with, but when you’re the new kid on the block you need to win people over, and the first chapter is where the battle is fought. Or so the conventional wisdom says. What I discovered with this book was quite eye-opening.

Stephen King is obviously a household name and his books have been selling well for decades. On top of that, he is well known as someone very vocal about how a book should be written. Could his approach cast some light on how to keep ‘em coming back for more?

11/22/63 is about the Kennedy assassination, involves time travel and an attempt to change history. That was about as much as I knew going in. I wouldn’t say I was particularly excited by this premise, I’ve read/watched a lot of time travel stories and they tend to have very similar themes, mainly about how you can’t change the past, or at least not without dire consequences and some kind of butterfly effect.

I have never been what you’d call a crying man.

The book starts with a prologue. The prologue deals with backstory, including the main character’s childhood. Personally I don’t believe prologue, or even backstory, are inherently bad, or that they should be avoided at all costs. 

I do however believe bad prologues (or any bad writing) should be avoided, and prologues and backstory are hard to write well. But in King’s case, I doubt anyone is going to stop reading because he decides to provide a little set-up.

The story is written in first person, often addressing the reader directly, like the narrator is telling you what happened in a letter (or a confession). 

The  prologue deals with the narrator’s wife leaving him for being emotionally unavailable—a charge he denies. He admits there have been times when you might expect tears that did not have that effect on him. When his father died, for example. He then goes on to mention those times in his life when he did cry. As a boy when his dog died. As an adult when his mother died. And, most relevant to this story, when he read a story written by one of the students in his adult literacy class.

By the way, the narrator is a high school English teacher, and there are numerous instances of him opining on the poor writing abilities of students, with specific examples reminiscent of the author’s views in his book On Writing.

Back to the prologue, it's clear the main reason for having it is so we have a handle on the kind of man we’re dealing with. He’s not an emotional man, but some things touch him very deeply, and the story he reads, written by the school janitor, about a mindless tragedy that left the janitor with a limp and no family, is one of those things. 

Did any of the information feel important or necessary? Not really. It could all have been threaded through the first chapter or even later.

Did it set a tone? Yes. However I would very definitely expect any critique of this story, if it were presented as a first book by an unknown writer, to suggest cutting the prologue. I’m not saying that would be a good thing, just that a lot of editing advice tends to be a one-size fits all approach.

About the first chapter proper, I would say the pace is quite slow. It is split up into four numbered sections. Number one is very short and is about the narrator attending the GED presentation of the janitor mentioned above. They go for a burger at a diner. Not much is said, a little sketch. He is the only one there for the janitor, which pushes us to like this caring and noble teacher.

Section two (also short) is two years later (!) when the same janitor is retiring. A few words are exchanged between them, nothing dramatic. Then our hero gets a call from the owner of the diner (the one they went to in the first section, of which he is a regular patron). Al, the owner of the diner (are all guys who run diners called Al?) asks him to come by. They need to talk. It’s all a bit mysterious.

Section three (still very short) is at the diner where Al looks very ill (surprising because he seemed fine the day before, we are told). Still no indication of what he wants to talk about.

Section four is much longer, maybe longer than the other three combined. Al says some things that don’t make sense and then asks our hero to take a good long look at him. He notices that Al has aged what appears to be a substantial amount in the last 24 hours. Al refuses to explain but convinces the narrator to step into the pantry to see for himself.

At the end of the chapter we still don’t know what’s going on—only of course we do. The reader knows time travel is involved, so the stuff that makes no sense to the narrator does to us, and the big cliffhanger at the end of chapter one is pretty obvious.

Not that it doesn’t make you want to turn the page—it most definitely does—but it’s more to see if you’re right than to find out what’s going on.

My overall impression of the start of this book is that it is written with expectations of the reader: that they’ll be patient, that they’ll stick through the slow bits, and that they’ll trust the parts that seem random or vague to makes sense later.

It’s one of the advantages of being Stephen King. And maybe an aspiring writer might read this book and think, I can do that... but of course expectations for people who are not Stephen King tend to be of a  different nature.

I’d say the writing during the long lead up to the moment of time travel is very readable and unless you stop to think What is the point of telling me all this? you wouldn't naturally notice his choice to take the scenic route. I don’t think most readers think that way, but the current climate is to push things on quicker and get into the meat of the story as soon as possible. It’s sort of like insisting every movie should start off like an 80s action flick.

And this is when I started looking at the start of this book in a different light.

The opening, as I see it, has one main purpose: to make us identify with the main character. We are given access to his emotions, and shown his caring side for the people others might ignore. The underdogs in life.

King takes his time to do this, and possibly he could have done it quicker and more efficiently. But what I noticed was that at no time while reading the prologue or start of the story did I feel bored.

I read and critique a lot of writing. Easily more than 50 pieces every month. And while most aspiring writers make a lot of basic mistakes, by and large the most common problem is that the story they’re telling isn’t very engaging.

Details about the characters, settings, events, tend to be clear and sort of relevant to the general narrative, but not to each other. What I mean is there’s no flow. This character was born here, works at this job, finds out this new thing, decides to act in such and such a way. But you don’t feel compelled by one piece of information to want to know the next.

What King does very well is to keep the information rolling. You learn one thing, and it makes you wonder about one aspect of it, and that’s the aspect he mentions next, which brings up another point, and (you guessed it) that’s what he talks about in the next line. And once you get on that ride, inciting incidents and plot points don't really figure.

Whether he genuinely is reading your mind, or just making it feel like he’s telling you what you need to know, I can’t really tell. But the cause and effect link is so tight that you have to keep reading.

This is my conclusion: No matter how interesting and relevant the information you’re giving the reader, if it’s disparate and just thrown at them, it won’t flow. Without that flow from one thing to the next, you won’t hold the reader’s attention.

But, even if the information isn’t all that relevant or exciting, if you do get it to flow, you will engage the reader.

That ability to tell somebody something that keeps them waiting to hear what happens next, not by using cliffhangers and huge mysteries, but just by how you structure information and making sure there's a built-in human interest in what you're talking about, is something very hard to teach (I  certainly wouldn’t know how) and rarely mentioned.

Maybe I’m overstating the case, but it’s something I will be looking at more closely in my own work for sure. Ultimately though, what I learnt is that good writing isn't pretty words and a nice turn of phrase, it's the ability to make what you say seem interesting. Storytelling, I guess it's called.
Check out the other posts in this series on the Chapter One Analyses page. I do detailed breakdowns of opening chapter for various genres (YA, MG, Crime, Sci-fi etc.) using popular debut novels (Hunger Games, Harry potter, Fight Club et al).

If you found this post useful or interesting or mildly arousing, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Suze said...

If I were on Twitter, I'd retweet this. Excellent post.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Keep the information rolling. Check!

mooderino said...


@Alex-rolling, rolling, rolling.

Cornell DeVille said...

Very astute post. I enjoyed the book, but I definitely think he could have cut several hundred of the almost 900 pages. He's a very good yarn spinner.

Golden Eagle said...

Of the one book I read by King, I agree, there is something compelling about his writing; one thing leads to the next, even if the overall structure isn't spectacular.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Great blow-by-blow analysis of Stephen King's book. I can't say that I've read much King...the usual stuff. The Shining, Dark Tower, but what I've read, I've liked. He's not my favorite author, but I do recognize that he is one of the more creative ones out there.

Anonymous said...

Excellent take on this book, probably one of the best I've read to date. You're right, what works for Stephen King wouldn't necessarily work for the average writer, but even the smallest bits of information led somewhere within this story. I do however agree with Cornell, the same story could have been told in substantially fewer pages (I believe I may have even stated that in my own review of the novel).

But overall, in my opinion, another fine work by Mr. King.....

Deana said...

I guess Stephen King has earned his way in the writer world to let the reader do some expecting in the first chapter. Good for him:) I have heard a lot about this book and being a big time travel gal I think I will have to try and read it. Thanks for the breakdown!

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Whenever I pick up a new Stephen King book, I know it's time to settle in to the story. I'm going to be there awhile - meeting new people, seeing new places, being carried along on the story.

It's not so much about grabbing you by the throat and yanking you into the story. It's more like waving you in, offering a seat, pouring a cup of coffee, then sitting across from you for a nice long chat. :)

Margo Berendsen said...

it does kinda seem like a good author can read your mind, keep feeding you the information you want without giving too much away. I'm always fascinated when I get sucked in without any noticeable devices - just that excellent human interest factor

mooderino said...

@Cornell-he certainly likes to make them long.

@Golden-I don't really like his books, the endings are usually especially bad, but they're so easy to get into and I can't tell how he does it.

@Michael-he's certainly managed to stay on top for a long time.

@Kathy-I wonder if his editor has the guts to tell him to cut 500 pages. Probably not.

@Deana-you're very welcome.

@Madeline-he's not one for the quick read.

@Margo-unfortunately they don't teach you how to do that part in their how-to book. It's all adverbs and passive writing.

Twisted said...

Excellent bit of insight mood. Cheers.

mshatch said...

Exactly. That's why I don't always boo a longer introduction (to story/character). I'm looking forward to reading this book.

Sarah Allen said...

Very eye-opening and thought provoking post. Even the big timers definitely have lessons for us aspiring writers, and you've shown us some good ones. I'm not a big fan of prologues either.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Lydia Kang said...

Human interest and well-done structure--seems like simple, important things but still hard to do well. Great post!

mooderino said...


@mshatch-i think readers are a lot more patient than publishers make out.

@Sarah-many ways to skin a cat, it would seem.

@Lydia-the simple things always turn out to be the trickiest.

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