Stephen King Writing Advice VS Conn Iggulden
“Genghis nodded drunkenly. “Writing,” he replied, scornfully. “It traps words.”
“It makes them real, lord. It makes them last.”
― Conn Iggulden, Genghis: Lords of the Bow
Anyone who has read On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft knows that a good helping of Stephen King writing advice includes his hatred of adverbs. That same anyone also knows S.K. avoids the passive voice like the plague. There’s a hell of a lot of hate there. Is it justified?
Before I go any further, I just want to point out that Stephen King admits to breaking his own writing advice. So when I hilariously point out where S.K. contradicts himself with his own spats of occasional crappy writing, I’m not trying to treat him unfairly.
I do think the examples I provide here are funny. But more importantly, they are useful in exploring whether the Stephen King writing advice is justified or not.
“Is this a case of “Do as I say, not as I do?” The reader has a perfect right to ask the question, and I have a duty to provide an honest answer. Yes. It is. You need only look back through some of my own fiction to know that I’m just another ordinary sinner. I’ve been pretty good about avoiding the passive tense, but I’ve spilled out my share of adverbs in my time, including some (it shames me to say it) in dialogue attribution.”– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Stephen King Writing Advice: Dialogue Attribution
Here’s another little tidbit of writing advice from the master of modern horror: King despises dialogue attribution. That makes this next one especially hilarious.
“‘You keep that up, I’m gonna revoke your driver’s license,’ Susannah said waspily. Eddie ignored her. He was following Roland’s gaze.”The Dark Tower 3: The Waste Lands, Door And Demon, 8
Yeah, if I were Eddie, I would have ignored Susannah, too.
Seriously, I have listened to that audiobook about a dozen or so times. And every time the narrator reads that line to me, I basically throw up in my mouth. For me, this line takes the fair day goose.
To quote King again, “who farted, right?”
Stephen King Writing Advice: Everybody Farts
Actually, that farted line above comes from his tirade about using the passive voice, so this is a nice segue. Here’s the full quote:
“Two pages of the passive voice—just about any business document ever written, in other words, not to mention reams of bad fiction—make me want to scream. It’s weak, it’s circuitous, and it’s frequently tortuous, as well. How about this: My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun. Oh, man—who farted, right?”― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Stephen King feels that the passive voice is for weak, timid writers, because the sentence structure gives the writer a sense of authority. And so his writing advice is to use the active voice when using verbs.
For the most part, I agree with him, especially in the world of fiction. Here’s why.
I used to tutor high schoolers for the SAT & ACT exams. While working with those dopes (just joking…), I had a lot of time to think about appropriate usage for the passive VS active voices. Briefly:
Should I say “global warming is widely considered to be dangerous,” or should I say “most people consider global warming to be dangerous”?
The answer is “global warming is widely considered to be dangerous.” Global warming is the important part of the sentence, so it comes first. Who cares about most people? Cut those sons of bitches out of the sentence entirely.
Passive voice works perfectly for concepts like global warming. Trouble is, in fiction, you’re dealing primarily with characters. That’s the main reason why I like what King has to say about the passive voice.
However, even in this, S.K. deserves to be challenged.
Stephen King is One Writer in a Sea
I want to look at Conn Iggulden, one writer who defies both King’s adverbial and passive voice rules. He breaks them all the time. Consistently. And you know what? I think he gets away with it just fine.
In his tetralogy about the the ancient Mongols, Iggulden consistently uses adverbs to describe how his characters take actions. Why does it work so well for Iggulden when words like waspily make Stephen King look like such a pulp writer?
Maybe it’s because King is so good at getting inside of his characters’ heads. So we expect more of him. Words like waspily stick out like a sore thumb because he has other ways of explaining how his characters feel.
Take this passage, for example:
“Eddie did not know the phrase deus ex machina , but he knew—had now grown up enough to know—that such wise and kindly folk lived mostly in comic books and B-movies. The idea was intoxicating, all the same: an enclave of civilization in this dangerous, mostly empty world; wise old elf-men who would tell them just what the fuck it was they were supposed to be doing. And the fabulous shapes of the city disclosed in that hazy skyline made the idea seem at least possible. Even if the city was totally deserted, the population wiped out by some long-ago plague or outbreak of chemical warfare, it might still serve them as a kind of giant toolbox—a huge Army-Navy Surplus Store where they could outfit themselves for the hard passages Eddie was sure must lie ahead. Besides, he was a city boy, born and bred, and the sight of all those tall towers just naturally got him up.”The Dark Tower 3: The Waste Lands, Door and Demon, 14
What’s my point about this passage? Well, it’s here to show you that Stephen King is perfectly capable of showing the reader how his characters feel without just blatantly telling us. In other words, an editor could theoretically cut out that entire paragraph up there and replace it with “Eddie looked toward the city in awed excitement.” But that just wouldn’t be the same. So in this case, Stephen King does live up to his own writing advice.
Conn Iggulden and the Passive Voice
“Courage cannot be left like bones in a bag. It must be brought out and shown the light again and again, growing stronger each time. If you think it will keep for the times you need it, you are wrong. It is like any other part of your strength. If you ignore it, the bag will be empty when you need it most.”Conn Iggulden, Genghis: Birth of an Empire
First of all, in case you were wondering, the active version of this would be “One cannot leave courage like bones in a bag. One must bring courage out and show it the light again and again so that it grows stronger each time.” That sounds weird, doesn’t it? Something’s lost in the translation.
I pulled the above example from Goodreads, but there are tons of examples of this. And they work fine in Iggulden’s writing! But why? How does he get away with it?
If you mentioned that the passive voice works because Iggulden is working with historical fiction, you might be on to something. Historical fiction might be an exception in the wider world of passive voice use in fiction. But that still doesn’t explain why his adverbs work so damned well.
“I have heard it said they can reach a man anywhere, master. When they are betrayed, they bring terrible vengeance on those who defied them. Relatives, friends, whole villages even.”Genghis: Bones of the Hills, Chapter 21
Look at the second sentence. The main clause is active, but the subordinate clause is passive. But it doesn’t seem out of place in the book. The writer has created norms that the reader accepts.
That’s one piece of the puzzle.
And there’s more.
But here’s the bottom line:
Iggulden is not fancy, nor is he inventive. However, he is a competent writer, and that matters. Below, I have listed 3 reasons why I think Iggulden’s writing is a-ok, even when it violates Stephen King’s rules:
- His prose is clear. I always know what’s going on in his scenes. I understand what the characters are acting like and how they’re feeling. See the bit on telepathy below.
- Iggulden uses his adverbs wisely, guiding the reader through his characters’ feelings. He also replaces -ly adverbs with adverbial phrases like “in irritation” where the words would sound ridiculous (irritatedly, lol).
- Iggulden’s use of language is consistent, if basic. It feels comfortable, like mashed potatoes. The tools in his toolbox work. They get the job done. Mashed potatoes aren’t the healthiest, but there’s worse food out there.
Writing is Telepathy
When it comes to what’s important in writing, Stephen King is absolutely right. Writing is telepathy.
“Look- here’s a table covered with red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. […] On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8. […] The most interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point-five. It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room… except we are together. We are close. We’re having a meeting of the minds. […] We’ve engaged in an act of telepathy. No mythy-mountain shit; real telepathy.”Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
When you look at writing that way – as a medium of telepathy – then the tools one uses should be burdened by as few rules as possible. Conn Iggulden’s Mongol stories wouldn’t be the same without his use of passive voice or adverbs. His writing makes Stephen King’s seem arbitrary. Look: when I read Iggulden’s stories, the pictures come out perfectly clear.
And yet that waspily dialogue attribution made me want to throw up in my mouth. So what’s the real deal here?
When to Break Stephen King Writing Advice
The best conclusion I can come up with is that it depends on your writing style. The reason waspily sucks is because it takes the reader out of the story. It’s actively annoying. I don’t see her saying the line like that until I read the word, and then when I read the word, I’m like, why waspily? What’s her motivation for being waspy? For that matter, what does waspily even mean?
A writer’s adherence to rules depend on what kind of book you’re writing. At the very least, Stephen King’s rules on writing definitely apply to him.