Top tips from Stephen King’s On Writing


By Philippa Pride

Posted on November 13, 2015 in Books with tags Stephen King, Writing Advice

This month sees publication of Stephen King’s wonderful new story collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. Each story in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is preceded with a revelatory introduction on when, where or how Steve came to write it, which makes it a fitting companion to Stephen King’s illuminating book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

To celebrate publication of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams and the short story form, Hodder has teamed up with the Guardian to run an exciting competition.  We are inviting writers to pen an original, gripping and chilling story, inspired by Stephen King’s line: ‘There’s something to be said for a shorter, more intense experience. It can be invigorating, sometimes even shocking, like a waltz with a stranger you will never see again, or a kiss in the dark, or a beautiful curio for sale at a street bazaar.’ Find out more and enter the competition here.

So I thought it was a perfect time to share some of the key tips from Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft which, as the Guardian describes, is ‘part biography, part collection of tips for the aspiring writer’ from an author who ‘knows how to engage the deepest sympathies of his readers’.  It is a book which I have read and re-read, flagged with post-it notes in every colour, drawn on again and again when encouraging or advising writers on the craft of writing, on setting daily goals, on modelling on THE BEST.  Steve covers the where-to, the what-to, the how-to and the why-to HIS way, in his words, with recommended tools of the trade and examples from his novels, which lifts the book above and beyond a typical writing guide.

Bazaar-of-bad-dreams-stephen-kingAspiring writers take heart:  when you read the snapshots of Steve’s life, you will meet a compassionate young writer who had a ‘herky-jerky childhood raised by a single parent’,  pinned a bunch of rejection slips to a nail he had pounded into the wall and wrote his first published novel in a small rented trailer.  It was in this trailer that his wife discovered the pages of a script which he had thrown in the waste-basked.  She shook off the cigarette ash from the ‘crumpled balls of paper, smoothed them out, and sat down to read them’.  She wanted to know what would happen next to the girl whose character was inspired by two girls from Steve’s school in a story which was created with a Pow! moment when two unrelated ideas – ‘adolescent cruelty and telekinesis’ – came together.  The book was Carrie…and so began the career of a No. 1 bestselling writer, a man whose generosity to fledgling writers is famous and who shares that spirit and wisdom in this fantastic treasury.


If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot…. Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you’

‘[Write] one word at a time…Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe. Imagine, if you like, Frankenstein’s monster on its slab. Here comes lightning, not from the sky but from a humble paragraph of English words…Oh my God, it’s breathing, you realize. Maybe it’s even thinking. What in hell’s name do I do next?’

In my view, stories and novels consist of three partsnarration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech’

‘One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re  maybe a  little  bit  ashamed  of  your  short  ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes… Make yourself  a  solemn promise  right  now  that you’ll  never  use  “emolument” when you mean “tip”’
on writing cover
‘Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader…this is perhaps the best way of all to make sure you stick to story, a way of playing to the audience even while there’s no audience there’

‘I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible…Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.’

The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured, to begin with – come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate…if  I’m not able to guess with any accuracy  how the damned thing is going to turn out, even with my inside knowledge of coming events, I can be  pretty  sure  of  keeping  the reader  in a state of page-turning anxiety’

The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question:

What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (’Salem’s Lot)

What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog? (Cujo)

‘I tried never to come right out and say “Annie was depressed and possibly suicidal that day”…If I have to tell you, I lose.  If, on the other hand, I can show you a silent, dirty-haired woman who compulsively gobbles cake and candy, then have you draw the conclusion that Annie is in the depressive part of a manic-depressive cycle, I win’

‘If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able  to  describe  it,  and  in  a  way  that  will  cause  your  reader to prickle with recognition....Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s’

Dialogue: ‘Talk, whether ugly or beautiful, is an index of character… the important question has nothing to do with whether the talk in your story is sacred or profane; the only question is how it rings on the page and in the ear’

‘“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open”…Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out.  Once you know what the story is and get it right…it belongs to anyone who wants to read it’

‘The biggest aid to regular production is working in a serene atmosphere…Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind – they begin to seem like characters instead of real people…..I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words’

Finally!  ‘If you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well…There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your [computer]…He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level…furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labour, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you.  Do you think this is fair?  I think it’s fair…he’s got the inspiration… the guy with the cigar and little wings has got a bag of magic.  There’s stuff in there that can change your life’


*Please note that I have quoted from the book and abridged some extracts without ellipses with the author’s permission. These extracts may not be further distributed without the publisher’s prior permission.


6 comments on “Top tips from Stephen King’s On Writing”

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *