Monday 12 March 2012

How To Start A Story The Stephen King Way

Carrying on from my last post, (Chaper One: 11/22/63), I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s really important in those first few pages of a novel.

If you didn’t have to worry about what agents and publishers think are the vital elements to a first chapter (and let’s face it, more and more of us are finding other ways to get stories out there), what is it a reader is looking for?

As I’ve gone through the openings of well-written and very successful novel (for a full list check the Ch.1 Analyses page) it’s become increasingly clear to me that things like action, plot, inciting incidents etc, all the things we’re taught to get into as quickly as possible, are not necessarily the most important parts of the starting moments of a novel.

They are, of course, important, but I’m talking about their placement, where they should come in the structure.

Stephen King opens 11/22/63 with a prologue full of backstory and no indication of where the story is going. And while King is not just another writer and can do as he pleases and still sell millions of novels, he also gains readers with every publication. In short, he must be doing something right. My question is: What is it, and how can it be of use to me in my own writing?

Going over a few of his other books I’d say I do start to see a pattern.

11/22/63 — Jake is a lonely high school teacher who is moved by the story of how the janitor’s father murdered his mother and sister when he was a kid. He isn’t a very emotional guy, but he’s moved by this.

Duma Key — a successful man recounting how he made his money and everything was fine until an accident took his arm, which left him prone to rage and cost him his marriage.

The Stand — a bunch of men lamenting the state of their rundown town and the difficulty they and their families have in coping.

Bag of Bones — Mike Noonan recounts how his wife died in a traffic accident (in great detail) and how he coped with the aftermath (lots of tears) and with the news that she had been pregnant (more tears).

Cujo — a four year old boy is scared of the monster in his closet.

The Shining — Jack in a job interview with an officious prick. He is embarrassed and humiliated to be taking this job, but bites his tongue because he needs the job.

Carrie — outsider Carrie get embarrassed when she has a period in the school showers.

This was just a random sampling using Amazon’s look inside a book facility. I haven’t read these books, I just wanted a quick idea of how King gets into the swing of things and if there were a pattern I could identify.

What I noticed, in my own highly unscientific way, was that the stories start at various points before the main plot kicks in, sometimes just before, sometimes years in advance (the older books tend to start much closer to the main action of the story, not sure if there’s a pertinent reason why that's changed). But they all have one thing in common: They all attempt to make an emotional connection between the reader and the people in the story.

Once you read enough of his openings it becomes quite hard to not notice this. Usually it’s about a moment of change that was emotionally affecting.

The cause of the change usually doesn’t have anything to do with the premise of the book (although it may become embroiled into it later on), its main purpose seems to be to make you aware of the emotional condition of the character.

That moment of change can be a divorce or a loss of life or loss of employment, but it’s a painful experience, and that pain is made very clear in the text. No hinting or subtext. This is what happened to me and this is the effect it had. Telling, showing, first person, omniscient — the method varies, but what we end up with is pretty emphatic.

What we get is emotion. What state of mind are the characters in? How did they get that way? Usually they are damaged by something that’s happened, but it’s not related to the main plot, just normal life sticking it to them. However, it’s always sincere and you can feel that this person was hurt by it.

Does he do this to make the reader feel sympathetic? Possibly, but more importantly, I felt, was the need to make the character appear as a feeling person, one affected by circumstance. We are given an awareness of his sensitivity. The things that upset these people are varied and not necessarily all that grand. Normal things. And the events that then happen to them in the book are generally not very ordinary at all. So it’s almost like setting a base line for you to see where we are, so we have a better context for where we end up.

I thought this was an interesting element of his opening strategy. I’m not sure how useful this is to different genres, but I used to think if I had a character going through various problems, then that process, if I realised it well enough, would engage the reader in my character’s trials and tribulations. Now I’m thinking, before things get crazy, maybe I should take a moment to establish where his head is at. And that place shouldn't be calm and settled.

Of course it still takes skill and imagination to write an emotionally effective scene about something that messed up your character’s life, but it could turn out to be the key to grabbing the reader’s attention, and, more importantly, their emotions.

The question is, what emotional state is your character in at the start of your story? Even if you don’t start with your main character (maybe you start with a prologue or backstory), is there emotion in the scene? And have you found a way to impart that emotion to the reader? 
 If you found this post useful, interesting or bordering on intelligible, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Unknown said...

I tweeted...very interesting. I enjoyed your scientific research.

mooderino said...

@V - thanks. it's all go here at Mooderino Labs.

Lydia Kang said...

OMG, I think you scarred me for the rest of the day with those two photos. Mr King is so good at creeping me out, even in movie form.

Well said re: the emotional aspect of our characters.

Allie said...

Whoa, way interesting. I'm glad you did that case study! I added you to my blogroll. Looking forward to reading more!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That's good to know! I was beginning to wonder if I started my stories out right.

Unknown said...

Beginnings!!! The bane of my (writing) existence. A necessary evil that stalks me from revision to revision. Thanks for the tips on taming the beast.

Stina said...

Brilliant as always!!!! I just reworked my first chapter and the mc's emotions are now very clear. It makes a huge difference.

mooderino said...

@Lydia-it does help if you can come up with iconic characters. If I could figure out how to do that...

@Allie-thanks, following your blog too.

@Alex-of course, I could be talking absolute nonsense.

@Jenn-me too. That and middles and endings are the parts i find tricky.

@Stina-I'm going through my opening at the moment too.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I have a quote by King that sums it up for me - "...I'm much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers."

If I can't relate to, or if I don't care about, the characters, then when the "action" starts it's not going to affect me, as a reader, nearly as much if I'm worried about these people I've just met.

Anonymous said...

I recently read On Writing from Stephen King. Love most of his books. Have to admit I found Cujo extremely boring. Nothing much happened and I'm mad I spent the time reading it.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I think that King has more to offer in the absolute creativity department than he does in actual story structure. He has for decades been way too powerful to edit (and he needs an editor). No one could write huge books like his, load them with prologues, and expect to get picked up by an agent or a publisher. He flat out is everything that a writer shouldn't do yet at the same time everything that the best writers in the world already are.

H.E. Roulo said...

Openings are the most difficult, and what everyone wants to look at first in order to judge the manuscript. Thanks for looking into it.

Anonymous said...

Great piece, I enjoyed your approach to the topic. I enjoy looking at groups of books and trying to figure out how other authors approach things.

mooderino said...

@Madeline-Selling that emotional content without coming across as hokey or melodramatic is the hard part (for me anyway).

@Stephen-I always thought it was his oddest idea.

@Michael-I think he's also terrible at endings (It's a giant psychic spider. Of course, so obvious now that you say it.)

@H.E.-thanks for reading the post.

@scotzig-I enjoy it a little too much. I should really be writing.

Julie Daines said...

This is actually something I've been thinking about a lot lately--how to hook the reader. I do think there is sometimes too much emphasis on the opening hook and many writers come up with contrived situations that they hope will be exciting and intriguing but which in the end don't feel organic to the story. I don't think a book needs to open with explosive action and peril, but, as you mention, it should open with emotion. Meaning an emotional connection to the main character.

I even wrote a post about this on Monday where I include some great advice from Writer's Digest:

mooderino said...

@Julie-I think I just need the start to be interesting. The focus on getting to the main plot as quickly as possible is nonsensical. It works for some stories, but not all.

Deborah Walker said...

A very interesting post. Thanks. It's got me thinking.

mooderino said...

@Deborah-glad to be a catalyst.

Beth said...

This is a good post. I've never actually read a Stephen King novel but love his writing advice. If you haven't done it yet, you should read On Writing.

Traci Kenworth said...

Brilliant observations. Stephen King must be doing a LOT of things right to gain readers with each book. He does have a certain magic in relating the reader to the ordinary people who become extraordinary in the circumstances they're part of.

mooderino said...

@Beth-done and done.

@Traci-I don't think we all need to write like him, but his ability to keep readers reading is worth a closer look, I think.

Marie Loughin said...

Thanks -- you solved a problem for me. I was trying to start my new novel close to the inciting action. Although the scene is colorful, it felt flat and unhook-like. An anti-hook. Now I know why and it was easy to figure out how to fix it.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Sometimes I feel like there's pressure to get things "rolling" right away, even when you'd like to develop intimacy with the character(s) first. It's nice to see one of the greats does it the opposite of how people tell you to. Just goes to show, if you can break the rules with panache, you get away with it every time. ;)

Anonymous said...

it's changed because the man is getting older, is quite crazy, and one man can only write the same thing so many times before it starts to get a bit tattered and torn up.

bill said...

I'm starting a story itself thanks for the tip. try said...

Thanks for the insights!

Rinelle Grey said...

Interesting research! I think I might have to check out a few opening chapters myself in my own genre! I'm working on improving the beginning of my story now, and getting it just right is hard! I agree though, that emotion is the key.

Gail said...

I am a King fan and have almost rabidly read every thing. With King as with many authors, when I read one steadily, I saw different periods of his personal life reflected in his writing. With King I could say, this was his mid-life crisis book, this was his religious revelation book and so on.

I wish I could write as well as I could read.

chazalou said...

Yeah emotional openers can be a good hook, prob work better for a thriller, horror or mystery though, maybe not womens lit so much, but I agree that breaking the rules is ok sometimes, n emotional scenes deffo create a connect between the audience n the characters. I think emotional dialouge, monologue or perhaps a diary entry, telling the back story would be better than an emotionally charged dramatic scene though, so it still eases the reader in…interesting post though :D

mooderino said...

@Gail - I know what you mean. My reading skills are excellent, sadly not many jobs require more than adequate reading skills.

@chazalou - I would think it'd be just as effective in women's fiction. Women tend to quite like emotion. You can ease into an emotional scene, doesn't have to be highly charged emotion. Backstory or monologue rarely work at the start.

chazalou said...

Of course , silly me, was reading this late and assumed u meant prologues only :D chapter one of my stories emotional, but I'm a newbie with lots to learn :D will be sure to follow, you have loads of good tips and advice :D Thanks !

Tony McFadden said...

You wrote: "the older books tend to start much closer to the main action of the story, not sure if there’s a pertinent reason why that's changed"

I think I do. Early in hs career, when he wasn't as well known as he is now, he needed to hook the reader early (as do all of us, unless JK Rowling is among the audience).

Now that he is a known element, he knows his readers will stick with him until he gets to the point of the story. I estimate I'm about 2,000,000 written words away from being in that position as a writer yet.

Thanks for the post. King is an inspiration to me as a writer.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for such an honest and interesting post. It's nice to see an author blogging advice they've learnt alone through reading and thinking, rather than just recycling all those writing ideas that people repeat until they become gospel. Nothing is gospel. The only way to really find out what works for you is to read and write. I think the acceptance of that is one of the things that makes this blog such a gem.

At the moment, I keep trying to start this novel, and then backing out. I wrote most of a first draft pantser-style, realised it weren't goin' nowhere, and started planning. Finding the beginning is by far the biggest obstacle at the moment. In light of this post, since it isn't action-based in any way, I think I do need to start with a big emotional wrench for my MC. Somehow I've known that for a while, without really looking into it. Thanks for providing the spark. I'll go now and get my planning cap on. :)

mooderino said...

@holly - glad you found the post useful!

IRTE said...

Hi Moderino,

I thought your article was really interesting and spot-on! I was wondering if you had any further thoughts about how Stephen King

IRTE said...

Typically structures the rest of his novels? I'm actually structuring a show in which we improvise a "Stephen King story." Your observation of the prologue with backstory gave me great idea to start the show with the "hero" pr main character

IRTE said...

Beginning with a monologue. I'd love to hear more of your ideas on his structure?


Unknown said...

I've been doing the EXACT same thing for the past week. I read "Hooked" by Les Edgerton about two months ago and have been struggling with my beginning ever since. Starting with the inciting incident and avoiding backstory is HUGE in his book. So, I've been reading other books on how to write and came across "On Writing". Impressed, I also went through all the King openings just as you did on, also never having ead one of his books before. Now I' wondering if there is a way to start with back story. My novel starts with a nerd sitting in class pining over the girl he wants to ask out. What really makes this scene (I think) is the flash back to 4th grade when something hugely emotional and embarrassing happens to him, setting him on the course to nerdsville. Then we're back to him in class looking at his crush again. To me it ties him to the reader because of the emotion. But Les would disagree I'm sure (he's really helpful actually... I had a few emails with him before I felt like I was monopolizing his time). Not sure what to do here. My other problem is... should I be opening with one of the murders? But this is difficult b/c the protagonist (nerd) and the killer don't meet until much later in the book so the protagonist wouldn't even be in the opening of the book if I went that route (although it would be a nice hook--just not to the protagonist). The more I read the more confused I get on where I should start. SO many questions.

mooderino said...

@IRTE - if you do a search of this blog you'll find a number of posts about Mr King's writing style *there's a search box in the next column).

@Trevor - there's nothing wrong with starting with backstory as long as it's interesting and the reader gets something out of it that affects them. The reason to avoid backstory is just that it's very easy to not make it interesting and that's what you usually see when someone tries it. As long as you're aware of this and avoid being 'informative' rather than 'engaging' you should be fine.

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