Simple words striking images – learning from Stephen King’s The Gunslinger

‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.’

Picture by Kenneth Lu via Flickr creative commons
Picture by Kenneth Lu via Flickr creative commons

I’ve noticed recently that a lot of what I’m taking from books, what I’m noticing and learning from, is about structure rather than writing style. For better or for worse The Gunslinger, the first of Stephen King’s Dark Tower books has forced me to change focus.

A string of pearls

Structurally, The Gunslinger is a series of separate incidents as we follow the protagonist across a desolate American west that seems to be part fantasy part post-apocalyptic wasteland. The parts of the book, originally published as separate short stories, sit together like pearls on a necklace – pieces that work well together but are distinctly separate.

The setting is reminiscent of that structure. That are a lot of distinct pieces here – the western atmospherics, the falshbacks to a feudal palace, the visions at a mountainside shrine. They’re all individually fascinating, but they don’t quite mesh into a coherent whole. This isn’t a problem – reality itself is neither coherent nor thematically clear – but it makes it hard to think and talk about King’s world building.

Plain English

So that leaves the prose.

This is only the second Stephen King book that I’ve read, and the first piece of fiction. As I’ve not been thinking much about writing style it’s hard for me to analyse it, but it’s undoubtedly one of the strengths of the book. What King seems to do – and I’m hoping I’ll refine this thought while reading the second volume – is to use simple words to create complex images. There’s plenty of description and evocation of characters’ internal states, but a lot of it’s done using straightforward language and short words. There’s no sign of excessive time spent with a thesaurus. It helps the story to flow.

Just look at that quote at the top of the page, the first line of the novel. It’s simple, clear and intriguing. It tells you a lot about what’s going on using only a dozen words, mostly one and two syllable. It evokes and intrigues. That’s good writing.

Learning to learn

I suppose the main lesson that I’ve learned from this one is that I don’t know how to properly analyse writing style, and I could benefit from working on that. But I’ve also been reminded that simple is often good, a lesson we easily forget.

Have you read The Gunslinger, or others of King’s works? What did you think? How would you describe his prose?