Originally posted on Mark Walker Screenwriting and Stargazing on 14th July 2016.
A number of old links to other archived posts have been removed as they no longer work. They mostly related to posts about the Pixar Rules of Story which I may well re-post over the coming months.
TL:DR – buy this book….
Amazon UK (as before, there are other sellers)
It has been a while since I wrote anything about the screenwriting books that I have enjoyed. Partly because I went for a period without reading any and partly because I had other things to write about. However, I felt the need to return to this semi-regular series of posts having read Stephen King’s “On Writing” this weekend, a book I have been meaning to read for a long time, but only just got around to doing so.
Before we go any further, you may well have noticed the “sort of” that I added to the title. This isn’t a screenwriting book per se, but it is a book aimed at writers; which we all are or hope to be. So, while King’s references and examples are largely taken from novels, a lot of the advice rings true, reflects and reiterates that which is offered by screenwriters.
I “grew up” (not literally) with Stephen King, first reading Christine and Carrie and was instantly drawn to his style of writing. It may not be “the most artful” style in the world but, most importantly, it drew this (soon to be Constant) reader into his world, filling my imagination in ways other books just didn’t. This style is repeated here. We may be in the world of memoir/text-book (?) as opposed to novel, but the words on the page feel familiar and inviting to anyone who has ever read King; it is certainly nowhere near as “stuffy” as some other writing texts I have read.
The first third of the book is reserved for a whirlwind tour through King’s childhood and development as a writer, while the rest of the book is dedicated to his views on what writing is and how it all works. He also explores the tools at your disposal as a writer and how they can help you do the best you possibly can. It is not presented as the be-all-and-end-all for writing or as a one-stop solution to writing a bestseller (as you may find in other works) but it is a review of King’s techniques and experiences, what works for him. His output from this system obviously speaks for itself!
Again, I don’t want this to become a review or detailed critique of the book, but I just wanted to highlight some of the gems I found inside that resonated with me. This is a fairly random selection – I didn’t to spoil everything!
So here goes…
Stephen King on writing:
On lessons learned from early writing:
…the realisation that stopping a piece of work just because it is hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.
As Scott Myers can often be heard saying, “The only way out is through.”
…it’s writing damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else.
…use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colourful; and
…omit needless words, in action.
The second of these is vital advice… and advice I need to take as I can tend to be a little verbose at times.
Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. the trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story.
For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else.
and I particularly liked:
Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.
A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a what-if question…
King talks about how he develops ideas and stories, not necessarily focusing on PLOT, but exploring situations and how whole stories can explode from a simple situational set-up.
I think the best stories always end up being about people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.
On the Protagonist:
…no one is the ‘bad guy’ or the ‘best friend’ or the ‘whore with a heart of gold’ in real life; in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby.
This is a great way to look at characters and to help you understand their motivations. The Antagonist Perspective.
On what to write:
Try any goddam thing you like , no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it.
Really, just get it down!
On finishing the first draft:
My advice is that you take a couple of days off – go fishing, go kayaking, do a jigsaw puzzle – and then go off an work on something else. How long you let your book rest …. is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of 6 weeks.
So, yeah, let it ferment for a while…
And that’s just a few, there are plenty more and the book is, for want of a better word, riddled with great insight on the process of writing – and we haven’t even touched on grammar or dialogue!
What struck me as particularly interesting was the similarities to many other sources of inspiration, especially the Pixar Rules I have talked about in the past. I’m not going to list all the similarities, but if you have a look through those rules, you will spot them yourselves. The fact that so many of these “rules” (yeah, I know, ‘tools not rules’) apply equally to King’s works of Horror novels and Pixar’s family-oriented cinema output speaks volumes to the importance of story regardless of what medium you use to convey it. King reiterates this throughout the book – the story is king (no pun intended) – so utilising the tools that he offers up means you are, at least, going to be heading in the right direction when you start writing your masterpiece, whether a short-story, novel, play, TV Series or screenplay.
Finally, I also found the book to be a massive inspiration to get writing again myself and try out some new ideas. It can be difficult to maintain the momentum sometimes, with everything that life can throw at you but, as King says, if you don’t get on and write you will never be a writer.
It has even reminded me how much I used to enjoy being a Constant Reader, so I am going back to fill the gaps in King’s works and, perhaps, re-read a few old favourites. With a Dark Tower film on the way, I feel the need to revisit Roland and his Ka-Tet.
I guess this has (sort of) turned into a review, but I do feel that “On Writing” is one of the best books on writing I have read. For its friendly, welcoming style, to the no nonsense advice from King, it is a book I would recommend to any fellow writer without hesitation.