Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Writing lessons Stephen King gives us in Misery

In Misery, Stephen King gives us endless lessons in good writing. The book doesn’t begin with Paul Sheldon’s accident. It starts with Paul in a hazy thrall of pain. He fades in and out of consciousness, having some memories of a childhood picnic and seeing the water wash over some pilings. He could be in Edgar Allen Poe’s, The Pit and the Pendulum for all we know. We have no clue to his actual whereabouts until he has the experience of receiving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation from someone who has breath that is beyond foul. The pilings come to symbolize the Novril he’s taking that wash over his pain, and the person with the horrible breath becomes his worst nightmare, Annie Wilkes. This is a much more interesting opening than Paul’s accident would have been.

King’s descriptions of Annie are perfect. After Paul complains to her about her purchase of Corrasable Bond paper and he tells her he may have to put off starting Misery’s Return for a few days. “She rushed across the room at him, thick legs pumping, knees flexing, elbows chopping back and forth like…pistons.” “…she screamed, and brought her fist down on the bunched salt dome that had been Paul Sheldon’s left knee.” “…lips pulled back in grinning rictus.” The descriptions are wonderful, then King adds to it with a revelation about the depth of Annie’s insanity. Annie tells him he can scream and no one will hear him. No one stops by Annie’s house any more “because they all know what she did, even though they did find me innocent.” Now we know that others have been the victims of her murderous insanity.

King is a master of building suspense, such as when Paul picks the lock to his room and gets out into the living room only to have Annie return ahead of schedule, at the end when Paul’s only match almost fails to light, and at the end when we think Annie is dead, but we’re not quite sure.

The biggest writing lesson is in Annie’s recollection of the serialized Saturday matinees she saw as a child. One episode shows the Rocket Man going off the cliff in a car and she breathlessly awaits the next installment. The next installment “doesn’t play fair.” When the Rocket man opens a door and jumps out before the car goes over the cliff, young Annie gets hysterical that the author has cheated her. She could go for an improbable but possible resolution, like someone in a falling plane pulling a parachute from under his seat. (“Maybe it wasn’t realistic, but it was fair.”) But she could not accept an out-and-out lie. When Paul brings Misery back from the dead in a way that couldn’t have happened given the series of events of the last book, she makes him start it over again.

Parallel to this are Paul’s childhood recollections of stories told at day-camp. The councilor would start a story and each child would have to resolve the last one’s cliff hanger. The councilor would say, “Can you?” to ask if the next kid would continue with the story. Next the counselor would ask, “Did she?’ wanting to know if the last story had been plausible. Paul thinks to himself that the reason he’s been a fabulously successful writer is that he can. “…if you want me to take you away, to scare you or involve you or make you cry or grin, yeah, I can. I can bring it to you and keep bringing it until you holler uncle. I am able. I CAN.” Paul uses this ability as a survival tactic with Annie. He becomes Scheherazade who weaves a thousand and one tall tales to stop from being killed. In the end, Paul was Scheherazade to himself.

Because Misery is told from Paul’s viewpoint only, King had to find a way for Paul to find out the extent of Annie’s lethal insanity in order to build suspense. King uses Annie’s scrapbook as a way to give the character knowledge of something he would have had no way of knowing. We also later learn that Annie has set him up to find the scrapbook and is going to punish him for it.

The gotta,” refers to that elusive element in a story that makes the reader want to find out what happens next. “You don’t know exactly where to find the gotta, but you always know when you did.” It’s the thing that keeps you up all night, because you just can’t put the book down. “I think I’ll stay up another fifteen minutes, honey. I gotta find out how this chapter ends.”

Stephen King always, at some point in his stories, practices foreshadowing. “One day not long before the thumbectomy…” This increases the suspense, just like when Annie keeps referring to the upcoming surgery that results in Paul’s hobbleing.

Repeated symbolic imagery is used to give meaning and coherence to the story: the pilings that are washed over by water to represent the Novril taking away Paul’s pain, the rare African bird symbolizing Paul’s captivity, the grinning typewriter that gradually loses its teeth symbolizes Paul’s fear of having to go back to writing the Misery books he so detested.

With all of that said about Stephen King’s writing, I still feel that he is very long-winded. King has written several books in which the protagonist has a lot of time to think: Gerald’s Game, The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon and Misery. In each book, King goes into the characters heads to an excruciating and tedious amount. He takes stories that should have been novellas and drags them out with the character’s endless stream of consciousness. To me they each took a fair amount of tenacity to finish. I know that Stephen King is a master and I must be in the minority to feel this way. Still, I think that most of his books would be better if they were cut down somewhat.

I couldn’t help but think that King foreshadowed his own auto accident. After he was run over by a car on one of his daily walks, he spent years recovering. He described his body as being twisted much the same way Paul’s is and he talks about his sessions at the typewriter being agony. The only thing that took the agony were the drugs that he became hooked on. Reality somewhat mirrored fiction in that case and I’m sure the irony wasn’t lost on Stephen King.


  1. Nice comparison to Poe early in the story; I felt you could have developed that point a little more, but you really do a great job covering all the important elements of the novel and what it shows us about King's powerful writing. (Your point that he can get long-winded is a frequent complaint about some of his recent works... he uses fiction to explore ideas that aren't always mandated by the plot, but I like to think he's doing this to teach us different ways of reading, different choices a writer can make, etc.)

  2. I really liked this, it helped me understand what "the gotta" meant. It also helped me win an argument about the book :)