Simple words striking images – learning from Stephen King’s The Gunslinger

Posted: January 13, 2014 in lessons learned, reading
Tags: , , , , , ,

‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.’

Picture by Kenneth Lu via Flickr creative commons

Picture by Kenneth Lu via Flickr creative commons

I’ve noticed recently that a lot of what I’m taking from books, what I’m noticing and learning from, is about structure rather than writing style. For better or for worse The Gunslinger, the first of Stephen King’s Dark Tower books has forced me to change focus.

A string of pearls

Structurally, The Gunslinger is a series of separate incidents as we follow the protagonist across a desolate American west that seems to be part fantasy part post-apocalyptic wasteland. The parts of the book, originally published as separate short stories, sit together like pearls on a necklace – pieces that work well together but are distinctly separate.

The setting is reminiscent of that structure. That are a lot of distinct pieces here – the western atmospherics, the falshbacks to a feudal palace, the visions at a mountainside shrine. They’re all individually fascinating, but they don’t quite mesh into a coherent whole. This isn’t a problem – reality itself is neither coherent nor thematically clear – but it makes it hard to think and talk about King’s world building.

Plain English

So that leaves the prose.

This is only the second Stephen King book that I’ve read, and the first piece of fiction. As I’ve not been thinking much about writing style it’s hard for me to analyse it, but it’s undoubtedly one of the strengths of the book. What King seems to do – and I’m hoping I’ll refine this thought while reading the second volume – is to use simple words to create complex images. There’s plenty of description and evocation of characters’ internal states, but a lot of it’s done using straightforward language and short words. There’s no sign of excessive time spent with a thesaurus. It helps the story to flow.

Just look at that quote at the top of the page, the first line of the novel. It’s simple, clear and intriguing. It tells you a lot about what’s going on using only a dozen words, mostly one and two syllable. It evokes and intrigues. That’s good writing.

Learning to learn

I suppose the main lesson that I’ve learned from this one is that I don’t know how to properly analyse writing style, and I could benefit from working on that. But I’ve also been reminded that simple is often good, a lesson we easily forget.

Have you read The Gunslinger, or others of King’s works? What did you think? How would you describe his prose?

  1. Michelle Mueller says:

    I have not read much of King’s work, but I do love to analyze style. That said, I think some of the most beautiful images are often produced by the simplest sentences. Great points!

  2. glenatron says:

    My problem with King is that I have never read anything where he has written a character I cared about. His writing is technically excellent and often conceptually brilliant but although I have read a few of his stories, the coldness of the characters always kept me at a layer of remove from the story. A good point of comparison might be Phil Rickman who was at one time subject to a “British Stephen King” type of marketing campaign, but who writes the kind of likeable, interesting, enjoyable, characters you really care about. Consequently when he puts them into terrifying situations it is endlessly more affecting and scary.

    • Thinking back on The Gunslinger, I was more engaged by the concept of the character than the reality of him on the page. King uses big flashback scenes to establish his background, and presumably to make us care about his current situation, but there’s a disconnect between the two that reduces its power.

      Now I’ll be looking out for what King does and doesn’t do to make readers care when I get to the second book. Thanks for getting me thinking about this one.

  3. Ben Burston says:

    I have read the first four Gunslinger books. It’s a very interesting project and I shall post some more here about it when I have time. But as you note above Andy that you havent read any other King fiction I thought I had better point out that the Gunslinger books are very much not representative of his general style at all. There are several things that set it apart from his other work – probably most notably that it was written over the period 1970 to 2003.

    He has said that it’s his ‘magnum opus’ and it strongly gives the impression that he is writing it for himself and not for his readers. He didn’t even seek mainstream publication for it and had to be pestered for years to get him to allow it to be printed beyong the couple of thousand in the original run.

    The series as a whole is not an easy read – and a full appreciation of it (at least it gives this impression) would seem to require a fairly wideranging knowledge of Arthurian Myth, classic Western Movies, Stephen King’s other fiction, King Crimson lyrics and, I seem to recall, the Tarot arcana (though I might be mis-remembering that one).

    It’s as if he’s read Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” and thought to himself – ‘What if Roland was Clint Eastwood?, Yeah – I’ll use that for my epic sprawlling fantasy”.

    It’s either an immortal work of staggering genius or it’s a pile of self absorbed nonsense – just delivered so well by a writer with excellent craft that it appears to have deeper meaning, maybe. (in that sense it’s a bit like Cerebus the Aardvark – which I can never work out if it is great beyond my intellectual understanding – or a pile of crap).

    I urge you to not judge King by this book. You have picked one of his oddest. But I’m glad that you are reading it because I hold it pretty dear. Must finish the damn thing one day.

    • Ben Burston says:

      Sorry I didnt make my first point clear “probably most notably that it was written over the period 1970 to 2003”

      He is usually a very swift writer – churning out work every day, multiple books a year.

      • Thanks for the context Ben. I was aware that this wasn’t characteristic of his usual writing style, but not quite how much this is him taking disconnected things he loves, throwing them together and seeing what comes out.

        Having just finished Delaney’s The Einstein Intersection, I got a similar feeling from that as I got from this – that if I understood more about its references then I would have got more out of it, but I still enjoyed the book. And don’t worry, this hasn’t in any way put me off King – I’ve got the second volume sat on my shelf for later in the year.

  4. […] Simple words striking images – learning from Stephen King’s The Gunslinger […]

  5. Ben Burston says:

    Oh – and now I remember – It is possibly worth you checking out this:

    I have a copy that I can lend you if you like. But it’s another of King’s deviations from Horror. And from what I remember (years ago I read it) it’s flipping great. But that might have just been 15 year old Ben enjoying it. The man can write.

    BTW : Have I ranted at you at all about his son, Joe Hill? He is my favourite of my more recently discovered authors. remind me to tell you all about him upon our next meeting

    • I didn’t even know that existed. No idea when I’ll actually see you next, but if I can borrow it that would be great.

      I don’t think you’ve ranted at me about Joe Hill, but didn’t he write Locke and Key? I read the first volume of that a while back and really enjoyed it.

  6. […] we’re seeing fantasy influenced by westerns as well. Of course Stephen King’s Dark Tower has been kicking around for a while, and is something of a favourite work for King himself. But Joe […]

  7. […] Drawing of the Three is the second of King’s Dark Tower series and, not coincidentally, the second of them that I’ve read. It’s the continuing story of the gunslinger Roland, cast adrift in a world that in strange […]

  8. […] enjoyed the first book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower fantasy series, with its broken narrative and its intriguing ideas. I loved the second volume, with its intense […]

  9. […] the value of a great opening line, and it was one of the things that drew me into King’s The Dark Tower. A great opening line grabs your attention while getting across something of the tone of the […]

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