Whether it's Stephen King, Raymond Chandler, or a more contemporary author like Conn Iggulden, reading great books helps to show us how to write great stories.
I am not a fan of Stephen King, but King is an author whom all other authors should read and should learn from. Reading King’s recent novella Elevation, reminds me of the reasons why.
Kings's characters speak for themselves, always more interesting the boring author descriptive. Chapter one, the second sentence, is dialogue. A close friend greets the main character at his door and invites him in. Two sentences in and we have already been introduced to the two main characters and we know from the second sentence that the MC likes to be punctual. Not because the author has told us so but because the MC's friend has been given space to say “Well Scott, here you are. Ten on the dot.”
Good characters are strong enough to speak for themselves. They have their own voice, and they use it to speak to the reader, which is far more engaging than any dull author monologue.
Elevation starts off with the revelation that Scott Carey has a medical condition that is unique and unexplainable to say the least. But instead of the author telling you this in a droning author voice, you learn about it through the development of the dramatic action. The puzzling truth is revealed, piece by piece, drawing the reader in.
Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder, is a book that anyone who is determined to write a murder mystery should read. Not a novel, but a short essay on how not to write detective fiction, plus a collection of Chandler’s short stories.
Chandler’s treatise vilifies the ‘British classic’ form of detective novel championed by Agatha Christie and others. Chandler even has a swipe at Arthur Conan Doyle, though acknowledging his merits.
Chandler’s hero was, of course, Dashiell Hammett, whose work was unadulterated tough guy taking on the world with a gat and a sharp line in break-neck dialogue. In some ways, Chandler perfected this formula.
When it comes to murder, Chandler was not impressed by the implausible crimes of English gentility, where elaborate murder plots fail to be noticed by bumbling police, so that only the faux detective can see the clues through her magical spy glass.
So, if your murder plot relies on one twin killing the other and then switching identities, or poisoning the victim with un untraceable toxin, or drowning in the bath and then faking a boating accident, please, please, please read this essay first. You might even enjoy a few Chandler short stories in the process.
There was a lot I didn't like about Conn Iggulden's Dunstan (2017) but that does not stop me from noting it as the best book I read in 2020. The story is summed up by the subtitle: “One Man. Seven Kings. England's Bloody Throne.” A historical fictionalization of the life of the 10th century English monk, bishop, Archbishop of Canterbury and kingmaker. Later canonized, but do not make the mistake of thinking this work a hagiography - quite the opposite. The character portrayed in the book was a murderer, political schemer, and all-round bad-guy, despite his monkish lifestyle and tendency to atone publicly for his sins. What makes it so good, however, is the way the author immediately conjures up time and place, not to mention character. Reading this book, you can practically smell the surroundings while walking alongside the characters. You really feel part of the action. And what action. The kind of thing that Game of Thrones can only fantasize about. This action really took place and transformed regional chiefdoms such as Mercia, Wessex and Kent into the kingdom of England, united under one King. Historical fiction at its best and a superb model for effective characterization.
My second Stephen King review, Dolan’s Cadillac, is a story that inspired my choice of subject, character and genre for a short story I wrote “Road to Nowhere”. I thought I would therefore use this review to explain the value I have taken, as an author, from this particular work. I am not a King fan but some of his work I have found outstanding. Stories like Carrie, The Green Mile and Misery really show us how to tackle suspense, mystery and the paranormal. Plus, it is typical of King’s no-nonsense story-telling that his works are so readily translated into movies. Read Dolan’s Cadillac, one of the Nightmares and Dreamscapes collection as well as being published as a novella, and you will know what I mean. The suspense builds from the start. An Average Joe teacher turns avenging angel after mobster Dolan murders his wife when she gets in the way. That’s the story. As simple as that. It’s all about the build-up, which King does effortlessly, leaving us wondering will he, won’t he, yet knowing damn well that he will. The climax is all the more devastatingly shocking for its inevitability.
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About the Creator
Author based in Kent, England. A writer of fictional short stories in a wide range of genres, he has been a non-fiction writer since the 1980s. Non-fiction subjects include art, history, technology, business, law, and the human condition.