I have been looking at some of the rules laid out in Stephen King’s essay on successful writing. King has a great deal to say on the subject and indicates that there are a number of unbreakable rules that should be observed in order to be a successful writer. I have difficulty with unbreakable rules and have been examining several of his in order to determine whether Stephen King – undoubtedly a successful writer in his own right – can lay down the same rules for everyone else.
Today is King’s insistence that writers should, “Remove every extraneous word” in their texts. He goes on to say, “You want to get up on a soapbox and preach? Fine. Get one and try your local park. You want to write for money? Get to the point.” I have a problem with this one because, yet again, King seems to be taking fiction writing the way of the screenplay. In screenplays the writer provides the skeletal structure of the narrative – the action and dialogue. Descriptions (and particularly ‘adjectives’) are frowned upon because it is considered someone else’s job in the movie industry to scout a location, choose the colour of a costume, audition an actor etc. There is little point putting that kind of descriptive detail into the script if the location that has been described – using “extraneous” words like adjectives – cannot be found. What would be the point of describing the physical characteristics of a character for which an actor has yet to be cast?
You cannot use this approach with fiction. To do so and to instruct others to do so is stripping-out fiction for parts. It is cutting down prose to its barest essentials. Why would fiction writers need to do this? Are there pressing demands on the time readers have to commit to texts? If that were the case then surely they wouldn’t read the texts at all. King ignores a crucial element in the dynamics of reading, and therefore writing, when he makes such a bold and unhelpful claim. Visualisation. The reader does not have a location scout, costume designer or casting director. They create a picture in their mind of the characters and action unfolding in the story as they read on a millisecond by millisecond basis. Without some “extraneous” words like adjectives, how are they supposed to create the rich fictional worlds in which they like to spend time?
Leaving a certain amount open to interpretation is still a very valuable part of the process, but stripping down language in the way King suggests can create problems for the reader and then the writer. Imagine a tree. What colour are the presents beneath it? Oh, you were thinking about a tree in a forest. Silly me, when I wrote down that word without the support of any other “extraneous” words I didn’t tell you that it was a ‘Christmas’ tree. I am still being economical with language - for instance, you are now imagining the tree in a living room, since that is where most people encounter Christmas trees – but I am using “extraneous” words. King even does this in his own rule by telling us to soapbox in a “local” park. He felt that without that “extraneous” word there might be room for confusion: a person standing in the middle of a national park, for instance, talking to themselves. According to King we would also have to do away with any kind of imagery. Metaphor, simile and personification would all be superfluous to requirement because King suggests that all writers need to “Get to the point”.
On the other hand, the use of one hundred adjectives to describe the tree is probably unhelpful also. There is a balance that needs to be struck – a balance that King seems to ignore in giving such brazen and uncompromising advice. King could, of course, claim that he has been misinterpreted. Perhaps he should have used more “extraneous” words to avoid the confusion that can arise from supplying the reader with too little information. Part of that balance is determined by the individual reader and their personal attention span in respect to the text they are reading. Some modern readers can cope with texts written hundreds of years ago, that seem far less concerned with King’s preoccupation with getting to the “point”or murdering adjectives. Others cannot cope - and probably never will cope if they never choose to extend themselves with such texts. It is too demanding and too complex for them to follow. The result of this is boredom and they move on in turn to something ‘easier’. The continuance of King’s approach leads to a decrease in literary competence among readers as they become conditioned to simpler, stripped out text. This cannot be a good thing. A writer’s skill resides in making these kind of choices. Marrying text as best they can to the myriad of different readers out there. King cannot take that choice away from the writer or the reader. Stephen King is an important writer. He is not, however, more important than the mechanics of the reading process.