Monday, April 28, 2014

Stephen King Breaks the "Writing Rules"

You heard that right -- Stephen King, gazillion-seller, award winning author, household name, breaks the rules. The "writing rules," that is. 

Last year, I finished King's opus, "The Stand." One of the takeaways, to my shame, was how often I noticed King violated some of the most basic writing rules. Namely in his use of passives and head-hopping. Lots of jumping from one POV to the next in the same chapter. And then there's the "had been's" and "was's." This book would drive some of my old mentors crazy. 

More importantly, however, King's infractions haven't kept me from enjoying the story. That's the weird thing about it. 

Like many writers, I spent the first couple of years learning about the rules. Show don't tell. Avoid passives. Maintain POV. Stuff like that. I took it as gospel and worked darned hard to apply it. Now, some six or seven years later, I'm trying to unlearn them. If my reading of The Stand is any indication, I've got a long way to go. It feels like a bad hangover -- only time and abstinence will cure it. 

I can only imagine how many other writers have been ruined by the "writing rules." No, I'm not suggesting there are no rules or that teaching them is wrong. Fact is, before gaining fame as a novelist, King taught high school English, an experience that informs his book On Writing (Scribner, 2000). In that book, King freely expounds upon some of these same rules, things like Active Voice and Over-use of Adverbs. So it's not like he's advocating literary anarchy or something. 

Nevertheless, it bothers me that the I have to work so hard, at least make conscious effort, to enjoy novels nowadays. I never had that problem before I became a writer. In a way, I wish I'd never have learned about the writing rules. 

Perhaps it's true of all artists or crafts people. Once you learn the inner-workings of any medium you're bound to look at it differently, more critically. How could a trumpet player NOT listen to Miles Davis more acutely than a massage therapist? In this sense, my sensitivity to King's rule-breaking might be... natural. All writers are aware of another author's stylistic propensities. I also wonder if it may be indicative of a shifting consensus among writing professionals. (The Stand was written in early 90-something, I think.) People always talk about how readers' tastes are evolving. Could it be that the writing rules which I learned in 2005-6 were just not as applicable in 1990? Or not as enforced? I don't know. 

Whatever the answer, I can't help but feel there is an inordinate emphasis placed on new authors to learn to follow these writing rules. By over-emphasizing writing rules we unwittingly create a “checklist mentality” that places style above story, pointlessly constricts writers’ options, and narrows their range. Of course, new writers need to understand the rules. But if we’re not careful, we will turn the creative process into a formula and make literary

Pharisees out of our proteges. 

Not to mention, potentially diminish their enjoyment of some very good books.

* * *

Mike Duran is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket, and is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike's novels include The TellingThe Resurrection, an ebook novella, Winterland, and his newly released short story anthology Subterranea. You can visit his website at, or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.


Ron Estrada said...

Nailed it, Mike. I grew up reading King. Had I known what a lousy writer he was, I may have chosen differently. I read The Stand, by the way, while I was in high school. 1982ish. I think it was actually published in the late 70s. My wife noticed when I was involved in a crit group and applied all the rules to my novels. She said it didn't sound like me any more. And she was right. I also see, in many published novels today, especially in the CBA, where the rules are heavily adhered to, resulting in some very generic writing. I'm with King. Story trumps perfect writing every time.

Michael Ehret said...

The Stand was King's fourth book and one of his best ever. It was 1978. Here's what I find: When the story rocks I don't notice the rules being broken. When the story is weak, those rule breaks make me cringe.

Nicole said...

Mike, great points. I totally agree. And . . . I think it's too late. There's a lot of restrictive, style-less, formulaic prose in CBA.

Vince Flynn does the same things as you mentioned of Stephen King, and his stories are the best of the best political/espionage thrillers.

I don't know too many experienced readers who can't handle a little head-hopping, adverbs, dialogue tags, etc. "The rules" can bring order but as I continue to insist, according to Captain Barbosa: "They're guidelines."

I discarded the rules for reading when I realized I disagreed with most of them. It's far easier now to point out the stick-to-the-rules stuff.

Ane Mulligan said...

I always believed in following those guidelines of good writing until you know HOW and WHEN to break them. Ig you break them, it has to flow and make the story better for having done it, in my opinion.

I can't say anything about Stephen King's writing, being a BHCC and all. But I've noticed that some NYTimes bestselling authors get lazy after a while, chugging out book after book. It's like they didn't do the 2nd draft, you know the one where you edit? That's turned me off of some.

Then there are others who are such fantastic story tellers, I wouldn't know if they used passive or a gazillion adverbs. They tell a story so well, you never notice the writing. And that's my goal!

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Definitely a rule-breaker myself (and an e.e. cummings fan, to boot) but I've worked long and hard to unlearn dialogue tagging. And yet I see it used all the time in ABA books. I think the key is writing enough to finally learn YOUR OWN voice and be true to that, no matter how out-of-the-norm it is. Each book you write establishes your voice that much more, and readers come to recognize it, whether it follows the "rules" or not. Still, I think we have to learn to work within the rules in order to learn how to effectively break them, if that makes sense.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Very well-said, Michael. For example, when head-hopping and dialogue tagging get distracting, I can lose the flow of the book. When it's done well, it's nearly invisible. I've heard the same thing said for writing in first person POV.

Phyllis Wheeler said...

Stephen Lawhead "breaks the rules" too. But I love his stuff. Never noticed any problem before I learned the rules.

I think you are very right that much or most of the prose in CBA sounds alike. People talk about finding your voice, but all the voices are the same, or similar. Is it time for us all to throw the rules out the window?

LadySaotome said...

A few days ago I bought a book I read repeatedly as a teen but haven't looked at in 15 years or so. One of the first things I noticed was that this "pioneer of inspirational fiction" occasionally broke those rules but it worked and I liked it. And then I noticed that a line here and there had been changed. I need to find an old copy of this book to confirm it but I had read this book so often I almost had it memorized and I am positive that many of the sentences have been slightly altered - to fix those broken rules! Which makes me sad - a book from my youth that I feel nostalgic about has been tweaked and edited until many of my favorite lines no longer match my memory.

Laura L. Kirk said...

I have noticed the same type of contradiction in many of the "best sellers". Those authors that have written best sellers and continue to write them, do not abide by the writing rules pushed on us amateurs (yet published). We have been made to feel that we will not (absolutely not) even be considered for publication if we do not follow every single rule to the "T". I have yet to pick up a bestseller that follows these stipulations. I have even stopped reading several best sellers, because I feared those bad habits might rub off on me while working on my own manuscript. And, I must say, I have no problem following a head jumper. I actually like it sometimes, because then I know what each character is thinking during a scene. I know these rules have been given to help us hone our craft, but I admit to sometimes wondering if it is a method to weed out the faint-at-heart. LOL

Erik Homme said...

You make some interesting points, but I think there's a little more to be learned from this illustration. Ironically, I personally prefer King's other works over "The Stand" for many of the reasons you've discussed. It's not because I can't tolerate breaking the rules, but rather that doing so as a technique simply didn't work for me in that book and ended up frustrating me.

When a writer breaks these "rules," he/she does so at a risk, and as a result that risk needs to be calculated and intentionally taken. The writer risks confusing readers in order to try to give a story a unique flavor. The style used in "The Stand" can serve to amplify the chaotic and confusing environment of the story, while the epistolary style of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" functions to convince readers that they may be hearing about an actual event and contributing to immersion. It's not too dissimilar a consideration from choosing whether first-person or third-person point of view better serves a story. Sometimes it can reinvent a genre, other times it can fail miserably. "The Stand" is successful enough that I'd say it achieved mixed results.

You're certainly right that too much emphasis is placed on rules, but we need to be able to analyze each case individually to determine when to break them and why, not just break them for the sake of breaking them.

Janet Ann Collins said...

A lot of classics could never be published today because they break so many of the rules. Times change, and they won't stop changing. Who knows what "rules" will be in place by 2050?

Aggie Villanueva said...

Amen and amen, Mike. We all begin by learning the rules (the law) but then we mature into writing that adheres to the SPIRIT of the law, rather than the letter of.

Your insight has inspired me to search out some of your books to satisfy my reading addiction for great stories AND great writing. Heading to Amazon now to look you up. Thankx for a great and insightful article.