What Stephen King Taught Me
Observations about Choice of Narrator
The Future of Written Ward
For some time now I’ve struggled to find the right focus for my Substack. There are so many different topics I’d like to discuss, but I also feel it’s important to maintain a degree of focus. After a few experiments and a lot of thought I’ve decided on a direction. That direction is:
Creativity: Examined & Applied.
Going forward my immediate goal is to release one newsletter a week. That newsletter will be focused on examining some creative work that has inspired me or taught me something. I’ll use these posts to share the things I’ve learned. That’s the examination part.
The other aspect is the application side. With that in mind, I’ll be sharing my own creative efforts and the occasional commentary highlighting how I’ve tried to implement something I’ve learned.
Lessons from King
Let’s begin by talking about the work of Stephen King. I’ve recently finished re-reading all of his short fiction. All of the stories that I will discuss are ones that I have read at least twice and several of them have been read many times over. None of the ones that I will examine were new material to me. In this essay, I will discuss: “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” from Different Seasons, “The End of the Whole Mess” from Nightmares and Dreamscapes and “Ayana” from Just After Sunset.
I think it’s probably obvious, but you should know that the discussion which follows may contain spoilers. I’m going to make an effort to avoid ruining the story for anyone who hasn’t read it, but some people prefer to go into fiction completely blind. If that’s you, you might want to wait to read this article until after you’ve experienced the stories in question.
I began rereading King’s short stories and novellas because there were several things I wanted to learn from him. One area on which I wished to focus was how Stephen King introduces new characters. I believe this is one of his strongest abilities. I wanted to see if a focused examination of those introductions could teach me anything. I believe it has and would like to share some of the things I’ve learned over at least a couple of essays.
I also want to set your expectations properly. There are people out there who are actual Stephen King scholars. They cross-reference and index his work, provide meaningful analysis for the deeper meanings layered in his storytelling, and generally create some really interesting content that I enjoy reading. That’s not me.
Neither am I professing to be an expert at writing. My goal for this series is to document the things I’ve learned. I hope some people will find it helpful, but I realize that there are several people for whom this will be redundant or obvious. If that’s you, I hope you’ll speak up and provide added depth to the conversation here. As Ken Blanchard says, “All of us are smarter than any one of us.”
Choice of Narrator
One thing that makes King’s stories stand out from the work of many other writers is that he doesn’t always choose the obvious narrator. When I use the term ‘obvious narrator’, I’m talking about the person the story is about; the one who drives or is most affected by the actions and events of the narrative. This quality of using someone other than what seems to be the obvious choice kept cropping up time and again as I worked my way through King’s back catalog. In these types of stories, King uses a third-party narrator to relate things that have already happened.
Let’s take a look at some examples.
Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption: An Unorthodox Point of View
A great example of the narrator you don’t expect can be found in “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” from his omnibus Different Seasons. Even if you haven’t read the actual novella the odds are high that you’re familiar with the movie Shawshank Redemption.
This is a story about a character named Andy Dufresne and his experiences in prison. Yet, Andy is not the narrator. Why? Who could possibly tell the story better than the character who is experiencing it? Turns out that the better choice is another inmate. A man who, in the novella, is known only by the name Red.
King introduces Red right away and in doing so I believe he also reveals why he chose him. One of the first things we learn about Red is what he does in the prison. It’s the very first sentence of the novella.
There’s a guy like me in every state and federal prison in America, I guess—I’m the guy who can get it for you.
Why would that be so important? It’s because during the course of this story, Andy’s goals will require that he be able to obtain some things from the outside world. I’m sure that there are other ways the story could have been constructed, but Red himself brings a lot of value to the narrative because his involvement allows us to see and experience the story through the prism of his perspective. Everyone reads the story because they want to see how Andy achieves his goals, but Red is the vehicle that King uses to make everything that happens plausible.
The End of the Whole Mess: Distance and Observation
There are several advantages that the use of a third-party narrator offers. One such benefit is that it provides distance which allows the outside observer to offer commentary and insights that a first party narrator would not be able to easily relate.
“The End of the Whole Mess” is collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. This is the story of two brothers one of whom is a genius and the other is named Howie. The story is about the actions of that genius and the motivations that drove him to pursue his chosen course of action. Once more King chooses to allow the more passive of the two characters to serve as the narrator. In this case it’s the older, non-genius brother named Howie. He begins his tale like this:
I want to tell you about the end of the war, the degeneration of mankind, and the death of the Messiah—an epic story, deserving of thousands of pages and a whole shelf of volumes, but you (if there are any “you” later on to read this) will have to settle for the freeze-dried version.
The use of this third-party narrator provides the author with an easy mechanism that he can exploit to offer insights into the main character.
Throughout the course of the story, Howie makes several observations which create a type of secondary narrative that documents his relationship with his brother, but it does more than that. It also provides understanding of what’s happening, what the stakes really are, and hints at a reluctant unwillingness to confront the stark reality of their situation.
“Bobby,” I said, knowing he was not, “you’re crazy.”
He gave me a crooked, tired grin. “I ain’t crazy,” he said. “You want to see crazy? Turn on CNN…”
These are the types of insights that Bobby couldn’t make about himself and his actions because he lacks objectivity. In situations like this, a third-party narrator works very well.
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Ayana: It Happened Like This…
I didn’t think I would ever tell this story. My wife told me not to; she said no one would believe it and I’d only embarrass myself. What she meant, of course, was that it would embarrass her. “What about Ralph and Trudy?” I asked her. “They were there. They saw it too.”
From “Ayana” in Just After Sunset: Stories
Once again, King is using an observer rather than the participant to describe the events of a story. Those few opening lines are also a great example of what King calls the best type of storytelling. Mr. King says that the best stories begin with some variation of the phrase, “It happened like this…”
I want to provide you with the source for that quote, but the truth is I can’t find it. So, let me admit to being a bad journalist. I’ve spent the last twenty minutes trying to find the source, but I can’t remember if it’s from On Writing or one of the many Author’s Notes King likes to include with his collections. I will update this article with the source when and if I find it.
Regardless, this story is a great example of King using that exact method of storytelling. Right from the beginning those statements of unbelief are really saying, “I’m getting ready to tell you a story.”
If you’re interested in learning more about third-party narrators, you won’t find a better book to study than Stephen King’s From a Buick 8. It’s a full-length novel, but it is full of so many great examples of what can be achieved through the use of this type of narration.
It tells the story of a young boy who learns about his father’s life through a series of conversations he has with his dad’s co-workers. The way that King handles the transitions from character to character and shifts point of view really is a wonderful display of mastery.
Your Thoughts on Spoilers
I would like to solicit your feedback regarding the use of spoilers. I don’t want to ruin the joy of experiencing a great story for anyone. That’s why I’ve worked to avoid details in this article. However, the odds are that people who want to read Stephen King have already done so. Please share your thoughts by voting in the poll below.
Talk to Me
I have shared my thoughts. Now, I’d like to hear yours. I’m very interested in what you folks think. Agree? Disagree? I would love it if you’d share your opinions.
Additionally, if your reading has led you to a third-party narrator that you loved, please feel free to recommend the book to me. I’m always looking for new things to read.