You heard that right — Stephen King, gazillion-seller, award winning author, household name, breaks the rules. The “writing rules,” that is.
I’m about 250 pages into “The Stand” and thus far one of the takeaways, to my shame, has been how often I’ve noticed King violates some of the most basic writing rules. Namely in his use of passives and head-hopping. Lots of jumping from one POV to the next in the same chapter. And then there’s the “had been’s” and “was’s.” This book would drive some of my old mentors crazy.
More importantly, however, King’s infractions haven’t kept me from enjoying the story. That’s the weird thing about it.
Like many writers, I spent the first couple of years learning about the rules. Show don’t tell. Avoid passives. Maintain POV. Stuff like that. I took it as gospel and worked darned hard to apply it. Now, some six or seven years later, I’m trying to unlearn them. If my reading of The Stand is any indication, I’ve got a long way to go. It feels like a bad hangover — only time and abstinence will cure it.
I can only imagine how many other writers have been ruined by the “writing rules.” No, I’m not suggesting there are no rules or that teaching them is wrong. Fact is, before gaining fame as a novelist, King taught high school English, an experience that informs his book On Writing (Scribner, 2000). In that book, King freely expounds upon some of these same rules, things like Active Voice and Over-use of Adverbs. So it’s not like he’s advocating literary anarchy or something.
Nevertheless, it bothers me that the I have to work so hard, at least make conscious effort, to enjoy novels nowadays. I never had that problem before I became a writer. In a way, I wish I’d never have learned about the writing rules.
Perhaps it’s true of all artists or crafts people. Once you learn the inner-workings of any medium you’re bound to look at it differently, more critically. How could a trumpet player NOT listen to Miles Davis more acutely than a massage therapist? In this sense, my sensitivity to King’s rule-breaking might be… natural. All writers are aware of another author’s stylistic propensities. I also wonder if it may be indicative of a shifting consensus among writing professionals. (The Stand was written in early 90-something, I think.) People always talk about how readers’ tastes are evolving. Could it be that the writing rules which I learned in 2005-6 were just not as applicable in 1990? Or not as enforced? I don’t know.
Whatever the answer, I can’t help but feel there is an inordinate emphasis placed on new authors to learn to follow these writing rules. By over-emphasizing writing rules we unwittingly create a “checklist mentality” that places style above story, pointlessly constricts writers’ options, and narrows their range. Of course, new writers need to understand the rules. But if we’re not careful, we will turn the creative process into a formula and make literary Pharisees out of our proteges.
Not to mention, potentially diminish their enjoyment of some very good books.