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  • Writer's pictureDebra Stang

5 Things Stephen King’s “Misery” Taught Me about Writing

Stephen King's book On Writing has helped a generation of writers find ways to express their ideas. I loved it, and it's always one of the first books I recommend to newbies.

I have to confess, though, that I learned even more about writing from another book of King's. A novel. Misery.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, it's about a writer, Paul Sheldon, and his biggest fan. Paul's historical romance series about an empty-headed character named Misery has made him a fortune but shredded his self-respect.

Finally, in self-defense, Paul decides he must kill Misery. She will die in childbirth. Unfortunately for him, just as Paul's final Misery novel is released, Paul is involved in a horrible car accident in middle-of-nowhere Colorado.

Annie Wilkes, the nurse who saves his life and brings him to her home to heal just happens to be his number one fan who is so looking forward to reading the new Misery book. She just loves Misery.

And when she finds out that Paul has murdered her favorite character, her vengeance is swift and brutal. She buys an old, manual typewriter, slams the still-critically-injured Paul in front of it, and orders him to write Misery back to life.

Or else.

Here's what I learned from this nail-biter of a book.

1. You can write under any circumstances. Paul writes with two shattered legs and while he is under the addictive influence of pain killers. He writes when he's scared, thirsty, hungry, tired. He even writes after certain parts of his anatomy have been removed during Annie's rages. And I was complaining the other day about having to write with a migraine? Wow.

2. Deus ex machina is weak. Deus ex machina, which translates roughly into "intervention from the gods" is how bad writers try to dig themselves out of trouble. When they have written their protagonist into an impossible corner, he or she is suddenly saved by the hand of god, fate, or luck. ("Suddenly, Susan remembered that she could fly…") If your protagonist gets into lots of trouble–and she should–find a fair way to get her out of it.

3. Don't be afraid to beat the hell out of your main character. Yeah, I know, you feel like a sadist dumping so much on a nice man or woman, but your story becomes stronger and your plot gets more interesting with every challenge. Also, if the challenges your character faces are too easy, the audience will quickly get bored. 

In my novel, Visiting Grandma, my teenage character was 1) coming to terms with being gay; 2) trying to out-think an abusive, alcoholic mother; 3) receiving attention from his mother's boyfriend that just might be the best thing in his life…or the worst. On top of it all, the only adult he used to trust now has severe dementia, and his best friend isn't speaking to him. Yikes.

4. Show your protagonist's claws and teeth. Yes, you want your protagonist to be about as deep in trouble as he can get and still have a pulse (pulse optional for vampire and zombie stories), but you don't want him to be a helpless victim, either. Throughout Misery, for instance, Paul uses every trick he knows as a writer to keep Annie involved in the story when she would much rather kill them both. He builds strength in his arms. He practices getting around on the floor. He spends hours planning how he will win his freedom. He may be a tortured soul, but he is no wimp.

5. And they all lived…? Trauma, shock, fear, pain, loss, torture, depression, anxiety, horror, or any other negative experience you want to name changes people. Sometimes only slightly; sometimes profoundly. Sometimes for the better; sometimes for the worse. Just remember that by the time you reach p. 600, your protagonist is likely to be a different person than he or she was on p. 1.

Has reading a good novel ever taught you anything about writing? 

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