Recently, I finally got round to reading Stephen King’s famous book On Writing. The book is part memoir, with King describing the life events that made him the writer he is, and partly instructional, offering tips and advice about writing.
After reading it, I can see why this is a book often considered to be essential reading for writers. It’s inspirational, informative, and infused with enough humour to make it entertaining as well as instructive (and that’s a lot of ‘i’ words!). Whilst a lot of the writing advice is the same old, same old that writers always hear, the way Stephen King illustrates this advice with anecdotes, humour and examples, really drives home what he is trying to say, and helps it stick in your mind as you sit down at your computer (or notebook!) to write.
I was originally going to just review On Writing as I normally review books (and would without a doubt have given it a five star rating!), but decided instead to compile a list of some of the pieces of advice that I found most useful. However, my list really doesn’t do justice to the amount of advice and good sense packed into the book, so I would highly recommend that you read it!
So here are eight things that On Writing by Stephen King has taught me about writing:
1. If you want to be a writer you should read a lot, and write a lot.
So this seems kind of obvious, but I like how King puts it. According to him, good writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum and reading widely and seeing how other people write is akin to coming to the ‘country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order.’
2. Stories consist of three things: narration, description and dialogue.
The three vital aspects of storytelling according to King are narration, which drives the story, description, which creates the world of the story, and dialogue, which helps builds character.
3. Adverbs are not your friend.
An overabundance of adverbs is a writing crime that I know I have a tendency to commit, and after I read the section of the book about adverbs I found myself going back over a lot of my own stories and getting rid of 90% of them. And you know what? I feel like it was a massive improvement! As King says, in most cases adverbs are redundant, and just slow down the story (and apparently the road to hell is paved with them!).
4. Don’t over-describe.
Getting the balance between using too much or too little description in a story can be tricky, so I liked King’s solution: just use a few well-chosen details. He suggests that before you try and set a scene, think of the first four things that come to mind when you think of the place and emphasize those.
5. The best stories are character driven.
I definitely feel that some of the best books I have ever read have been character driven: Wolf Hall for example springs to mind, as Thomas Cromwell’s strong character drives the narrative. Therefore I particularly like something King says in On Writing about how some of the ideas for his famous novels came about through throwing characters together in a situation and asking ‘what if?’ For example, his novel Misery asks, what if a famous author was trapped in a house with a crazy fan? Rather than starting with plot and then adding characters, putting two characters who will have a strong reaction to each other in a claustrophobic environment is more likely to create tension and suspense than a story that is clearly just trying to reach its destination plot-wise.
6. Work on creating naturalistic dialogue.
One of the hardest things to do in fiction is create realistic, believable characters (as I look at in-depths here), and one of the things that can make or break this is dialogue. In On Writing King takes some example of both good and bad dialogues and explains a little about what worked or didn’t work, which I found really helpful. Apparently the key to getting it right is honesty. Dialogue must ring true, and the example that King uses is swearing: if a character would swear in the situation they find themselves in then have them swear. Don’t worry about offending the reader, worry about making the character’s speech realistic!
7. Don’t get bogged down with ‘themes’.
According to On Writing ‘good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme’. Basically don’t decide first off to write a story about a certain theme and then come up with a story that fits: it can come off as forced, or even preachy. By the same token, let any symbolism arise organically. If you spot a pattern when revising then enhance it, but don’t purposefully set out to put it in as it can be too obvious.
8. Leave your finished first draft for at least six weeks before you revise it.
I have heard this kind of advice before and I think it’s a pretty good idea. I know when I have read back stories I wrote ages ago, it can seem almost as if it was written by someone else, which helps me be more critical about what has worked and what hasn’t.
So that’s just a handful of the useful advice I have garnered from On Writing. I really can’t recommend this book enough, as it not only offers a lot of practical advice, but also makes you just really want to go off and write!