Writing Wisdom Wednesday: Stephen King

This week, I wanted to start a new series by bringing you interviews from a wide variety of authors speaking about the craft, their creative process, and other notable insights.

Today, I’m beginning the series with one of my all-time favorite authors: Stephen King. Below are a few videos of King speaking about his works, the inspirations for some of his works, and the craft of writing.

Bookmark, Listen, Learn, and Enjoy!

Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington – 2014

2016 Library of Congress Book Festival in Washington, D.C.

Check back next Wednesday for another author!

Are You a Writer Who Reads?

I love to read. If I see a book I think I would enjoy, I either buy it or add it to my wish list. My coworker buys me books for my birthday and Christmas. If there’s a topic I want to learn more about, I don’t Google it; I try and find a book about the topic instead.  Reading has always played a significant role in my life and my education post-school, and it’s an activity that I enjoy.

One of my favorite authors, Stephen King, has said: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” I have a feeling King knows what he’s talking about.

If you’re a writer, I encourage you to take the time to read.  Not books about writing, which I’ll talk about next week, but a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction books.  

Read Outside Your Genre

If you are an author who writes primarily in a specific genre – Young Adult, Romance, Thriller, Mystery, etc. – I encourage you to read novels that aren’t from your chosen realm. While it’s essential to know and understand your genre’s tropes, themes, and other elements, it’s equally important to see how different genres work within their various story conventions to see what you can learn. You can often glean some new bit of story structure or character development idea from a novel outside your chosen area of expertise.

Read Different Authors 

We often get comfy with a couple authors we enjoy and stick with them. Dare to pick authors you may not be familiar with and read their works as well.  Your favorite author isn’t going anywhere.  

Read Books from Other Decades

We are creatures of habit. Most of the time, if it’s a book that’s a current best-seller, or one on display at Target, it’s the book we grab to read. However, it’s also important to delve into the past and read authors whose work lives long after their passing. The classics have inspired authors for generations, and by looking at these works, you can learn new aspects of storytelling that you can possibly apply to your work.

Read History, Autobiographies, and Biographies

The real world can offer up some great story ideas, and you can learn a thing or two along the way. Real human beings, human behavior, and human drama can sometimes be more engaging and fascinating than fiction, and these types of books can give you a fresh perspective on topics you think you know about.

Read to Learn

As you read, observe how the author crafts their chapters, characters, and story arcs.  Look at how they format certain things.  For example, I’ve seen text messaging and phone calls formatted in many different ways in novels, depending on the author. 

If you found yourself up until 3 in the morning not wanting to put the books down, ask yourself why? What was it about the story, the characters, or the pacing that made you have to keep reading?  These are elements you can analyze and apply to your work as well.  

Always Go with Variety

If you’ve plotted out your 2021 reading list, consider adding books and authors you usually wouldn’t read. Maybe an author whose work you don’t enjoy, or one whose opinions bother you. Look at them less as annoying reading assignments and more like learning opportunities. Each book you open can inform your own writing methodology and how you create your worlds and story.  

And all you need to do is turn to Chapter One and start reading.

As a writer, how do you decide what books to read?  Leave a comment and let me know!

The Value of Set-ups and Pay-offs

“If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.”                         – Anton Chekhov

Set-ups and pay-offs are invaluable tools that you can use in a variety of ways in your writing.  It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a novel, a screenplay, a play, a TV script, or a short film, the use of set-ups and pay-offs can help add suspense and increase tension in your writing.

The quote above, attributed to playwright Anton Chekhov makes the pint clear: if you introduce it as important, you should use it by the story’s end.  Think about all the movie, TV shows, plays, and novels you’ve read where some weapon, potion, device, or other object or person is introduced or mentioned.  The writer has now piqued your interest and you keep reading or watching to see how the item or person is utilized later in the story.

If you give Captain America his shield, he better use it at some point in the story.  If Lex Luthor has Kryptonite and knows it can weaken Superman, he better darn well try and use it against him to show its power.  If Q gives James Bond gadgets, weapons, and a car at the beginning of his mission, we better see all of those things in action throughout the story.

It’s what we as an audience subconsciously expect: if you show or tell us about it, it better be used later.

The Melissa McCarthy movie, Spy, does an excellent job setting up items in the first act that are later used effectively and comedically throughout the film.

How disappointing is it when something is brought up once in a story and you’re excited to see what the writer does with it later and it never comes up again.  If you as the writer take the time to include it in the work, respect your reader and give them the pay-off they deserve.

Set-ups and pay-offs aren’t just for objects, of course, it’s also the basis of a lot of comedy. Sitcoms use this method of joke telling with one character saying a “straight line” (the set-up) to one character and the other replying with a one-liner (the pay-off) that gets the laugh.  Watch any multi-camera sitcom with a studio audience (Big Bang Theory, Married …with Children, I Love Lucy) and this is the basic structure of the majority of jokes. Why?  Because it works.

A more nuanced use of the set-up/pay-off structure is the HBO series, Curb Your Enthusiasm.  Here is a show that will set up jokes at the beginning of the episode or the beginning of the season and pay them off by the end of either.  It’s brilliant storytelling that uses the same structure in a more evolved way.

One of my favorite novels that shows this structure at work is Stephen King’s Needful Things.  King weaves dozens of threads throughout the story with items and events that are set-up early in the novel only to be paid-off brilliantly by the novel’s end. It’s also a really great read!

It should be noted that you can have multiple moments over the course of your story with set-ups and pay-offs. Don’t think they all have to be crammed into the first act.  Spread them out in order to keep the audience engaged and looking for how things will be utilized later.

What are some examples you have of great set-ups and pay-offs in films, plays, TV shows, or books? Leave a comment and let me know!