Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What I Learned From Stephen King

Of all the books I've read about writing, Stephen King's no nonsense, common sense book ON WRITING was the one I credit with giving me the kick in the ass I needed to get published.  I think it should be required reading for every aspiring writer.

I also think his book UNDER THE DOME should be required reading, but for wholly different reasons.

Out of mutual writerly respect, I don't usually review books negatively, but in this case, I think Stephen King can take it.  And, for the record, there was way more to like about this book than dislike, but there were two glaring problems with this book that I think those aspiring to publish a book will appreciate.

I'm going to do my best to avoid spoilers but they may happen.  I'll try to keep my brief discussion as vague as possible.

The short short version of the book is this:  A dome suddenly appears in the town of Chester's Mill cutting them off completely from the outside world.  Chaos ensues.

What I liked about this book was that King set up a huge cast of characters.  He wove in wonderfully unique backstories and built up each event so that all the threads came together in ways I hadn't thought of.  I also loved some of the language.  Simple stuff really.  The way King described these characters, as if he had known them his whole life.

But then came the problems.  King was trying to set up the idea that people, in a situation like being trapped under a dome, would slowly go mad.  Rational people, good people, would stoop to committing horrendous acts, cruelties they'd never before considered, and that it was only a matter of time before those things occurred.  And I agree with his sentiment.  People in groups become irrational mobs.  However, King moved at an accelerated pace in less than 7 days.  It only takes 2 days before the citizen police force, made up of mostly former juvenile delinquents, to begin abusing their power.  Raping and killing and acting like a brute squad rather than a police force.  It only takes 3 days for the resident sleazy politician to gather all the power to him and become a de facto dictator.  And it only takes about 5 days for the climax of the book to occur.  If this book was only a few hundred pages long, I could understand the accelerated pace, but UNDER THE DOME was well over a thousand pages.  If King wanted to show us the deterioration of a society cut off from the rest of the world, he should have used his book's length to show a realistic timeline.  The way the town unravels–even accelerated at they were by the novel's main bad guy–was simply too unbelievable in the length of time of the story.

The sad part about this is that the things that did happen, I could see happening.  I could see riots.  I could see people committing suicide out of a sense of hopelessness.  But not after 4 days.  After 4 days trapped under the dome, people begin killing themselves.  At that point, there was no shortage of air, food, water. They simply lost hope and killed themselves.  And I call bullshit on that.

My second major problem was that the good guys were too virtuous and the bad guys were too vile.  King hinted at flaws in our heroes, but never took the time to develop them...which is a real travesty in a book of this size.  But worse than overly virtuous heroes are bad guys that are practically twirling their mustaches.

A great bad guys is someone we feel pity for.  Someone we can relate to.  Someone whose actions we can watch and think, "There but for the grace of God go I."  King's villains were so douchey that I felt nothing but relief when they were foiled.  They were so ridiculously over the top that I groaned when they did something else.  Not content to be corrupt, they have to be the MOST CORRUPT EVER!!!  Not content to be bullies, they have to be SUPER BULLIES.  In one scene, the earlier rape I mentioned, one of the citizen officers involved was a girl...a girl who egged the rape one.  Which I found so utterly unbelievable, I nearly quit the book right there.  Now, had King taken the time to show us why a young woman might enjoy watching the rape of another woman–say she hated the girl in question or she herself was raped once and no one helped her and now wants other women to suffer as she did–I might have understood the motivations behind it.  But there were none.  This character was simply imbued with a boundless cruelty for no other reason than King decided it should be so.

A third problem I had, which related to the character issue above, was that characters often acted in such a way that I could see King pulling the strings.  Characters withheld vital information from other characters for no discernible reason except to push the plot in a specific direction.  It was maddening to say the least.

At the end of the day, UNDER THE DOME was interesting.  It was enjoyable.  It also taught me a lot about what NOT to do in a book.  Timelines and chains of events must follow believable patterns.  A society can break down in under 7 days, but only under very extreme pressure...and King just didn't earn the kind of breakdown he wrote.  It was too much too soon.  And it's okay to have nuanced characters.  Good characters can sometimes be bad and bad characters can sometimes be good and bad guys need to have MOTIVES.  Bad for the sake of being bad is sloppy, lazy, and just plain wrong.

So read it if you have time.  If you don't, read ON WRITING instead.


  1. Great post, Shaun. It's funny, but I didn't hate the book for all the things you mention (even though I agree with you, thinking back over it all). No, the thing that bothered me the most was the abrupt ending and the way King ended it. It just felt cheap, juvenile, and made absolutely no sense in the grand scheme of things. At that point, it felt like King had just gotten tired of writing the story so he just ended it. You are right though; there is a lot you can learn NOT to do in that book.


    LOL. That's another good lesson: The things that some find problematic, others won't. Books are so subjective.

    Between you and me, I hated the Rennie character. He wasn't just a dirty politician who embezzled funds and tried to make money on the side selling drugs...he was the biggest meth distributor in the country. I think King went way overboard. In my opinion, keeping him a big fish in a small pond, a legend in his own mind, would have made him more dangerous. But I failed to accept that the Rennie we saw, was running the largest drug operation in the country. It sat wrong with me, and made him too over the top.

    On the ending: I agree. I actually wish King hadn't gone the alien route. I wish he'd simply left the origin of the dome an enigma...something that appeared suddenly and disappeared just as suddenly. The addition of the aliens and the way in which they left, was an attempt to create a moral message that didn't quite work for me.

    Overall though, there was SO much going on in the book. I loved a lot of it, hated some, and it made an entire month of my commute totally bearable.

  3. Eh, I haven't read a new King novel in a decade, but I used to be a fanatic fan. I have Duma Key on my shelf, but I have no idea when I'll get around to it.

    I don't really have a problem with super bad bad guys, like Sauron, as long as it's built into the world, that there is a reason.

  4. Matthew: Sauron, yes. But even he was just the unnamed evil...the real bad guys were the Nazgul and Saruman–both of whom were totally superior baddies because they were fractured characters. The Nazgul were human once, but were seduced by the power of the Ring, and Saruman was a victim of his lust for power and penchant for making bad decisions.

    Which is why people outgrow authors like Stephen King and move on to books with multifaceted, complicated characters.

    Actually, that hits it right on the head. My problem with King's antagonist was that he was one-dimensional. He was a cartoon bad guy. Hell, I've seen bad guys on Captain Planet with more depth. In the end, King's bad guy was tragically uncomplicated, and it detracted from the story for me.

    I never read King as a kid. In fact, the first book I read of his was a book called Eyes of the Dragon or some nonsense and I read it in 6th grade. I didn't read another until college when a professor assigned Salem's Lot. And I woudln't have read UTD either except that I had a gift card and needed a long audio book to fill the time.


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