Stephen King is one of the most successful novelists in the world. He has published 49 novels which have sold more than 350 million copies. He’s worked in television, movies, comics, and even holds a newspaper column. Considering that he got his first book published less than 40 years ago, he’s been a fairly prolific writer, and a good number of his books are recognizeable by name, not just filler books in a writer’s career that end up going unnoticed (at the end of this article I list off books of his from the top of my head that I think people would most likely recognize the name of, even if they aren’t familiar with Stephen King…and it was a lot).
You can’t say that Stephen King isn’t successful. But is he good? A lot of people seem to think not. When people have qualms with King’s writing, it usually has to do with his sentence structure and verbose style. Those who love him admire his character development, ability to make the most extraordinary circumstances believable, and his knack for crafting unforgettable tales.
So, which is it? What’s the verdict? Of course, I don’t have that for you, but we can explore some of the positives and negatives.
1) Characters. King’s characters are usually complex and well-developed. From reading a lot of his books, I’ve come to think of his characters as ‘gritty.’ All of them have their problems and even the protagonists are hardly ever saints. And his less desirable characters can be real assholes, whether they’re children bullies, wife-beaters, or supernatural villains. He really goes into depth with his characters and gives them a lot of backstory. The reader is really able to get into a character’s head. This is also what can make some of his stories so scary.
2) Wordy. Though his characters are awesome, King can sometimes delve into them too much. He’ll spend pages and pages on backstory and inner thought. I remember a book like Duma Key, where the main character had so much time alone that the reader was exposed to the full spectrum of his thoughts and memories. I’m conflicted on this, because most of the time I find his run-on prose interesting enough that I don’t mind, but I’ve also read books where characters, setting, and theme have come through clearly without filling in those extra pages. It’s funny because in his On Writing book, he states that during revision of the first draft, a writer should cut out 10-15%. Either it doesn’t seem like he takes his own advice, or his original manuscripts are unimaginably thick and wordy. Maybe he should consider cutting it down by 25%?
And, c’mon, most of his books weigh 10 pounds!
3) Sentence structure. King often breaks up his sentences with parentheses and hyphenated thoughts. Despite whether you prefer it or not as a reader, I wouldn’t suggest his sentence structure as something to strive for as a writer. It’s pretty unique to him and he seems to have made it work (at least to some people), and imitating the style may not end well (trust me, I know).
Take this tidbit from one of his acceptance speeches, for example. I think it exemplifies the type of unorthodox structure he uses in his writing:
Of course, I only have my own senses, experiences and reading to draw on but that usually – not always but usually – usually it’s enough. It gets the job done. For instance, if an elevator full of people, one of the ones in this very building – I want you to think about this later, I want you to think about it – if it starts to vibrate and you hear those clanks – this probably won’t happen but we all know it has happened, it could happen.
It really stands out here because I know that this is Stephen King the person saying these things, and we can see where his thoughts are scattered or disorganized. Often when I read his works it has more of a characterizing affect on me, as I see the scattered thoughts as a reflection of the character. So, maybe I’ve been biased toward him and don’t have as much of a problem with his sentence structure as others. Still, it’s far from textbook.
4) Horror/description. This is where I think King really shines. He doesn’t rely on blood and gore to scare the reader, but emotion, build-up, and suspension of disbelief. His stuff comes alive. I don’t think I need to say much more here.
5) Endings. Let’s be honest, some of King’s endings can really suck. The Green Mile – excellent. IT – not so excellent. Sometimes it feels like he had all of these great ideas, plot points, twists, and characters and just didn’t know how to wrap them up in the end. If you’ve read IT, or Insomnia, you know what I’m talking about.
Stephen King is one of the most successful writers of our time, and he’s certainly my favorite. To be honest, it wasn’t until a very knowledgeable and experienced editor told me that he was a ‘bad writer’ that I began to look at him from that angle. Before, I had thought he was perfect (except for his endings, of course). I’m still confused on the verdict, and thought I’d open it up. What do you all think? How is King as a writer? And, most importantly, why?
(IT, Cujo, Carrie, The Shining, Salem’s Lot, The Stand, Dolores Claiborne, The Dark Tower, Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, Misery, Pet Semetary, Insomnia, The Green Mile)