Three or four times a day, I receive email notices of conversations on discussion boards and Facebook groups, usually about Christian fiction. The subjects are all over the place, from a request for help for a software application to a question about Idaho state law governing autopsies.
One recent discussion stream caught my attention, but only after it had been underway for a few days. The question was about the use of the omniscient narrator, and whether it was something a fiction writer could do and not put off an agent or a publisher. (Like a lot of questions about writing, those who know will always say don’t do it – unless you can get away with it.)
As the discussion went along, one participant appealed to Stephen King, citing his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. That wasn’t so unusual in and of itself. But as soon as that comment was made, several others added their citations to King’s work. It was clear that King was seen as a significant authority on the subject.
A few days later, someone posted a short article on a blog about Christian fiction that asked what books on writing would readers recommend – and while there were the standard references to Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and a couple to Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, there are far, far more to Stephen King’s On Writing. (My own favorite books on writing are John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist.)
My own knowledge of King is limited mostly to his early works. The first novel of his that read was Salem’s Lot, and then I read Carrie, The Shining and The Stand. Of those I’ve read, I liked The Shining the best, and I still have vivid memories of one of the main characters driving up a mountain (in a big Cadillac, I think) in a fierce Colorado snowstorm.
He’s published a lot of books since then, and On Writing came out in 2000. It’s not exclusively a “how to write” book, but more of a combined personal memoir, writing manual, and how he recovered from serious injuries after being struck by an automobile while walking.
What is it about Stephen King in general and his On Writing in particular that makes him (and it) so appealing to Christian novelists and writers? And this appeal is broader than only to the writers of Christian horror, suspense and supernatural, a genre that’s developed only in recent years and by many writers who were directly influenced by King.
One is obvious. King is a terrific writer and storyteller. He’s a master of suspense, and even if you’re not interested in writing a suspense novel, there’s much to be learned from how he constructs his novels and stories in general and suspense scenes in particular. In other words, we can appreciate his writing for the same reasons anyone can appreciate his writing.
Second, despite the horror aspects of many of his works, his stories are “clean” – you don’t find gratuitous or obligatory sex thrown into the stories like you find is so much contemporary writing. (Not long ago, I read a buy-in-the-supermarket romance novel to see what it was like, not only were the “adult” scenes written really badly, the entire novel was written badly.) (Several weeks later, it showed up on the New York Times’ paperback bestseller list, so what do I know?)
A third aspect to King’s appeal is how accessible his writing is for Christians, even with all the blood, gore, plague, ghosts, stalkers and vampires (or perhaps because of them). His writing, as varied as it is, hews to the basic story format – setting, conflict, climax and resolution. This is a format, a structure, that is familiar to us from the story of the Bible overall and the story of Christ. One can’t call King a “Christian author” is the sense that the Christian Booksellers Association would use that term, but his stories are structured like “the story” we know and his themes – good vs. evil, redemption, and the darkness within each of us – are the themes we’re intimately familiar with.
They’re the story and the themes of The Book.
Photograph by Carl Cerstrand via Unsplash. Used with permission.