Writing Craft

Writing Craft: Lessons from Duma Key by Stephen King

img_0104As early as age 11, I was reading It and The Stand under the covers without my parents knowing what exactly was in those books. For the record, they would have probably held a book burning if they’d had any clue. I’ve long since learned that only two things are certain when I open a book by Stephen King: he will capture my imagination, and I will love every second of it. Duma Key is no exception, but fan geekiness aside, there are a couple lessons on writing craft to be found in this novel.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race:

As far as Stephen King books go, most of Duma Key is relatively light on the horror aspects. A huge chunk of the book is pretty creep-free with just a few bits and pieces scattered throughout. It really isn’t until the last quarter or so that the horrors King is so well known for start to hit home. This is actually one of the things that makes this particular novel so effective.

Palm_Trees_Beach_Joe_deSousaDuma Key is a lesson in how to write a painstakingly slow descent into horror. With every chapter, the reader is left just a little more unsettled. Edgar’s sunset-filled life creating art in Florida just has this feeling that something deeply wrong is residing under the sandy beaches. As the story continues, you get a trickle of classic King spooks, just enough to emphasize that Edgar is moving down a path that needs to stop right now, and yet the reader can’t help but want to see just how awful things will become. By the time everything goes horribly wrong – and of course it goes horribly wrong, because this is Stephen King – you’re left terrified for Edgar and those he loves.

  • Lesson #1: A slow descent into horror can be so much more tortuous on the reader that in-your-face scares from the start.

Character is King:

Painting_Supplies_Steve_JohnsonThis brings me to the other thing that makes Duma Key work so well: the characters. With so many books under his belt, Stephen King is superbly skilled in creating compelling characters with whom you want to spend hundreds of pages. Whether they’re chilling on the beach or facing walking, talking corpses, you’re right there with them. Pages are spent on everyday happenings as Edgar seeks to build a new life as a painter, and yet, they are all offered with a vibrance that makes the reader want to follow along. That King spent so much time drawing readers deeper into the more realistic side of the character’s world is what made the supernatural climax of the novel carry the weight that it did.

  • Lesson #2: Scares are all well and good, but they lack power without good, old-fashioned character building.

It’s hard to imagine many authors without the skill and experience of Stephen King pulling off a novel this subtle. However, anyone who seeks to write horror can learn a lesson or two from his execution of Duma Key. Reading this novel leaves me wondering if the slow descent method would be appropriate for any of my own writing, and if so, how might I seek to pull it off?

What about you? Do you have lessons on writing craft you’ve picked up from reading Duma Key? Are there other novels you absolutely loved because the author pulled off a slow descent into horror or had superb character building that made the genre aspects more effective? Speak up in the comments!

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