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Weaving Plot and Prose: A Lesson From King

This past week, I finished Stephen King’s latest book: 11/22/63. The week before that, I read King’s mid 90’s serial novel The Green Mile. The week before that, I read King’s late 70’s horror masterpiece The Shining.

You could say I’ve been reading a lot Stephen King lately.

One of the things I noticed when reading 11/22/63 is that King finally seems to have figured out how to write fiction. He simply knows what words to put where to keep you reading. But that doesn’t mean his work is good. Now, I really liked 11/22/63. But I loved The Green Mile. And I will forever be affected by The Shining.

In The Shining, King is still figuring out this whole writing thing, and it’s apparent on the page. The writing is awkward and clumsy at times. King takes chances with unique phrasing

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and  narrative techniques. He wrestles with the possibilities that are available to him, and it works. The Shining is the most terrifying book I have ever read. After reading thirty pages on the subway, I was unable to order coffee or read submissions. I was shaken.

In The Green Mile, King tackles a very serious challenge – a literary and suspenseful story about an older man looking back on his past. There isn’t much action in it, but I was on the edge of my (subway) seat the entire time. Again, King’s prose here really helped accentuate the right aspects of the book.

In 11/22/63, King’s writing has become formulaic and universal. There are parts of 11/22/63 that are truly gripping and very, very real, but there are other parts of it where the story fall flat because King is utilizing his perfect writing. And while that may work all of the time, it’s not necessarily appropriate every time.

So what I’m learning from diving headfirst into the deep, deep pool that is The Works Of Stephen King is that prose and plot must always be dancing with each other. When King adapts his writing to suit his story and vice-versa, the effect shines. When he doesn’t, when he sticks with his tried and true prose style, well, it doesn’t fall flat – it is Stephen King, after all – but it simply doesn’t work as perfectly.

But, of course, everyone has their own opinion on craft vs. plot. What about you? Would you endure a terrible plot because the writing is beautiful? Would you drag through clunky prose because the story is great?

10 Responses to Weaving Plot and Prose: A Lesson From King

  1. Judy Post says:

    Loved this! My friends and I debate what makes a book great, but never thought of it as a dance between prose and plot. Awesome!

  2. Tamara says:

    When I read The Shining, I thought, “This book is well edited.” By that, I mean that it’s tight and well paced, though the writing may be clunky in places. It’s one of my favorites of his, along with The Stand. I think I’d just read another of his more recent ones (Lisey’s Story, maybe), which was slow and sprawling, and the contrast in pace was enormous. I don’t generally read horror, but I’ve always had a soft-spot for King because of the way he creates his characters – flawed but sympathetic, just trying their damndest to get through this weird situation.

  3. Tamara says:

    When I read The Shining, I thought, “This book is well edited.” By that, I mean that it’s tight and well paced, though the writing may be clunky in places. It’s one of my favorites of his, along with The Stand. I think I’d just read another of his more recent ones (Lisey’s Story, maybe), which was slow and sprawling, and the contrast in pace was enormous. I don’t generally read horror, but I’ve always had a soft-spot for King because of the way he creates his characters – flawed but sympathetic, just trying their damndest to get through this weird situation.

  4. Megan B. says:

    I have put down books with lovely prose because the plot just wasn’t going anywhere. I simply could not get into it, had no motivation to pick up the book. On the other hand, I have endured so-so writing for an engaging plot, and come away with an overall positive impression of the book. I think, ultimately, readers remember the characters and story more than the writing. Only the most amazing turns of phrase stick in my memory (and I’m a writer myself), but stories stay with me.

  5. Andrea says:

    What I remember from books I´ve read is not the amazing prose they were written in, it´s the characters. My favorite books are those that manage to make me believe the characters are real, and those characters live on in my head even after I´ve finished the book. (If I can ever achieve that effect with my own writing… fantastic!)

    On the other hand, if a book is badly written, I remember that and tend to avoid other books by that writer. So far, my experience has been that books which are badly written, usually don´t have a good plot either, or characters with depth. O.k. plots and mildly interesting maybe, but not very good plots which can make up for bad writing.

    A good writing style combined with a story which lacks any kind of depth annoys me. It comes across as if the author tries to hide the fact that he/she hasn´t got anything to say with fancy words.

    My favorite stories have a writing style that does not distract from the story. It doesn´t have to be fancy language; it puts me off when I feel writers are showing off their vocabulary. To me, a true word-artist can express something of the truth in the most simple line. Language is a tool after all, not a goal in itself.

  6. Lauretta says:

    For me,it’s all about characters. If a book is populated with unlikeable characters, the writer can try and distract me with beautiful words and lyrical phrases until the cows come home, I won’t care. I have stopped reading DOZENS of books midway, simply because I asked myself this one question: Do I care enough about these characters to give up hours of my day? Sadly, the answer is often, no, I don’t. So why keep reading?
    I’m not saying the characters can’t be flawed, I’m saying I must like them, or they must have some redeeming quality. And yes, I will overlook some clunky phrases here and there if I’m enjoying the journey the writer has taken me on.

  7. Nathan says:

    If either of the two are strong enough, I can enjoy the book. For example, I think the story of “Twilight” is…well it’s twilight. Despite the trivial plot, the author’s writing kept me interested enough to get through the book.

    At the same time, I have to force myself through Tolkien’s dry and over-detailed writing because his stories are among the greatest ever told.

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