What works and what doesn't

Ever since I became serious about writing, I’ve made an effort to read more critically, paying attention to what works and what doesn’t. This blog, in part, was to be my way of organizing these lessons. But looking through my previous posts I realized that, unintentionally, I’ve been focusing on the negative: here there’s too much world building, there there’s not enough matter, the humor isn’t funny, the titles are too repetitive, and I generally don’t like short stories.

Yikes, I sound like my mother. But more importantly I’m missing the other lesson — the one about what works. I’ll try to do better, starting with the last thing I read: Stephen King’s novella The Body from his collection Different Seasons.

So lets see. I liked how it’s a small story with a big theme. On the surface it’s about a bunch of boys going on a camping trip, albeit with a morbid purpose. Underlying it, is a coming of age tale about moments that define us and decisions we make for life. And then there is an even deeper layer, almost meta, that deals with memory and seeing things in retrospect.

I think it’s the significance of the theme that made the read satisfying. Throughout the story King teases about how the adventure was a big deal, building up reader’s expectations and suspense. In the end nothing dramatic happens: nobody dies, the body doesn’t come to life. And yet the story fulfills its promise — it is a big deal.

I also liked the characters of the boys, each fierce in his own way, standing up for himself and for his friends. None of them too perfect, some with a grim background. What made them most likable though was that they weren’t written as victims of their circumstances but as autonomous agents.

Which is not to say that King doesn’t play on a reader’s emotions. He does so, shamelessly. Take, for example, the story of Chris, a boy from a white trash family of drunks and delinquents. Everyone expects him to follow in the steps of his father and his brothers, while he himself does his best not to. When one of the boys brings beer to the treehouse, Chris is the only one not to take a sip. He’s too afraid he won’t be able to stop if he starts. He’s seen it. But then one day he slips — he steals the milk-money from his class. He regrets doing it even before the money is missed, so he goes to the teacher and gives it back. We love him then. To err is human, to amend is divine. But then the teacher, the figure of authority, betrays him: she takes the money for herself and blames Chris. The boy gets suspension. The fundamental principle of justice is shattered. We hate the teacher and feel for him all the more.

You think it’s a grossly sentimental sorry little tale? Maybe. But it does work, doesn’t it? It moves you. It could probably work as a short story of it’s own, but King tells it as a half-page conversation between two twelve-year-olds hiking through the woods, looking for a dead body.

Which brings me to another point on my “what works” list: King’s humor. Sometimes it stems from the juxtaposition of two perspectives — the juvenile protagonist and the grownup retelling the adventure. Sometimes, from blunt honesty in the narrative itself, the sort of call’em as I see’em writing style combined with King’s acute perceptiveness.

Okay, I’m gonna stop here. Lots of what-works to learn from. Picking out what-doesn’t-works was much less intimidating, but there you go. “The most important things are the hardest things to say”, Stephen King The Body.

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