Learning about love from the King of Horror

Published February 13, 2021, 8:00 AM

by AA Patawaran

[Note: To make room for the hardworking Ox, the animal sign of the New Lunar Year, I was deep-cleansing my inbox, out with the old, in with the new, and came across this letter that I wrote to my multimedia arts students at De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde. I was about to delete it, but then I thought it better to share it here, perchance it could help rekindle our lost love for storytelling in this age of fast writing.]

Dear Students, 

First of all, please share this email with everyone else in class who is not cc-ed here.

Let’s pretend for a while that I invited Stephen King—W-O-W!!!—to share with you a few tips on how to turn the tiniest spark of an idea into a story that, like his stories, from It to Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (not a horror or even creepy story, but one of his very best, turned into a movie starring Morgan Freeman), can capture the imagination of millions.

Now, Stephen King has no Pulitzer and may never win the Nobel and “serious” writers look down on him because he is “too much of a commercial success.” I had a long King phase in my teens that I outgrew in my 20s, though I read his latest book Dr. Sleep lately and still found it unputdownable, pageturning. I must say that when it comes to storymaking, King is king. Not only is he prolific, he will bring you right to it, whether into the horror of a haunted hotel (The Shining), the very inside of a fatal attraction, trapped in the house of an obsessive fan (Misery), or the chaos and the desperation of a pandemic that ends the world (The Stand), so I must say if he has something to say about writing stories, we better listen.

Excuse his French, though. 

Next week, I’m not going to expect you to finish your story, but by the end of the class, I should be able to see somehow if you’ve got some compelling story for me, whether it is a synopsis or a draft of the actual piece. As a writer I do not do (never did) any outline or, if I do, I do it all in my head. I try not to insinuate myself in the characters because the characters, if they are to be believable, must have a life of their own. For example, in my mind Character X is supposed to survive to the end but, as I write, Character X proves to be weak, makes bad decisions, aligns himself with the wrong people, or succumbs to any form of misfortune, then I let him die. 

I must say that when it comes to story making, King is king. Not only is he prolific, he will bring you right to it, whether into the horror of a haunted hotel (The Shining), the very inside of a fatal attraction (Misery), or the chaos of a pandemic (The Stand).

At any rate, feel free to do an outline if it helps you, plot away, and let the outline guide you. 

No one knows how long a short story is (there are such things as six-word memoirs, Google them), but they say a short story should not exceed 5,000 words, so we can set the limit for this class between 1,000 and 2,000 words or shorter if you can make me or any other reader happy or sad, ecstatic or suicidal, inspired or depressed, scared stiff, paranoid, or ROLF-ing like a maniac with fewer words.

The point is we want good stories, that’s it, preferably drawn from your experiences, from your heart, from your soul (and not necessarily autobiographical). So then “there is truth in our fiction,” there is truth in our beautiful lie, there is reality in our soulful invention, there is believability in our make-believe because the feelings are drawn from things that are real, that did happen, that did create a life and that is yours as the author. 


That is the beauty of stories.

One more tip before I turn the floor over to Mr. Stephen King: Remember I told you about fact and fantasy. Use your facts to leap off to fantasies, make your facts the springboard to possibilities. Bend your facts, twist them, stretch them, color them, reimagine them, reinvent them, if you will, and create your story—the way Yann Martel’s character in The Life of Pi made a hyaena, a zebra, an ape, and a Bengal tiger out of the people with whom he shared a gripping tale of survival (or maybe not, maybe he did survive the shipwreck with a hyaena, a zebra, an ape, and a Bengal tiger. That’s what made his story quite an experience to hear, read, and see in the movie.)

Anyway, here are a few of Stephen King’s cardinal rules on how to write from his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, originally published in 2000.

1. The basics: Forget plot, but remember the importance of “situation.”

By his own admission, King distrusts plot. To him, life is plotless anyway, so he is guided by that. To him, as he puts it, “plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” He adds that “a strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot.” His practical tip is to draw a situation interesting enough from a “what if” question.

2. Similes and metaphors—the rights, the wrongs

Try not to use overused idioms, unless they come right in as you write, and you can tweak them to suit your particular purpose. “When a simile or metaphor doesn’t work, the results are sometimes funny and sometimes embarrassing,” says King, whose favorites come from “hard-boiled-detective fiction of the ’40s and ’50s, and the literary descendants of the dime-dreadful writers.” He cites a few examples, one of which is this, from 1930s American-British novelist Raymond Chandler, “I lit a cigarette [that] tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief.” My own favorite is from Chandler’s 1939 crime novel The Big Sleep—“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”

3. Dialogue: Talk is “sneaky.”

Here’s an important point from King: “Well-crafted dialogue will indicate if a character is smart or dumb, honest or dishonest, amusing or an old sobersides. Good dialogue, such as that written by George V. Higgins, Peter Straub, or Graham Greene, is a delight to read; bad dialogue is deadly.”

4. Characters: Nobody is the “bad-guy.”

In real life, says King, “we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby.” Personally, I make it a point to acknowledge that even the people I can’t stand for a minute have people who love them for a lifetime.

5. Do the research, but don’t overdo it for the reader.

Much of your story is back story, meaning much of it exists only in your head, but they are the ones who provide motivation to your characters, or allow the story to unfold at its own pace. Be that as it may, people are lazier now, and even readers don’t want to second-guess what’s happening on the page, so you must put a lot of thought into what makes it to the page that gives your characters and your story some heft and some logic. As King puts it, “You may be entranced with what you’re learning about flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the IQ potential of Collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.”

Lastly, from me, enjoy the process, though it comes with so much heartache and lots of dead ends. Happy writing!


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