Lessons on Writing from Stephen King’s ‘Misery’

“The reason authors almost always put a dedication on a book, is because their selfishness even horrifies themselves in the end.”

Stephen King’s Misery is filled with brilliant lines like this one. Because it is the story about a best-selling author and his number-one fan, Misery is a must-read for any writer.

A writer can always learn a lot about plotting, storytelling, dialogue writing, character building, etc, from any Stephen King novel, but Misery offers much more than that because here you’re taken into the mind of a novelist.

It is fascinating to read about how an author begins to hate a character that he has created. Misery is a popular character, created by author Paul Sheldon, one of the novel’s two protagonists. It’s the other protagonist, Annie’s favourite character, but Paul hates her and kills Misery off in the final book of the series. However, when he has to bring Misery back to life, Paul learns that he finds comfort in Misery’s world. This astonishes him, and he begins to hate himself for it. The lesson, for me, here was the power of building a character. It’s not surprising to find readers getting influenced by a character they read about, but for the creator to get worked up over his own creation…now, that’s powerful. That’s the kind of characters every writer wants to write about, but few can.

Paul is also the kind of writer who can’t write if anything’s even a little bit off. It could be something as small as a headache or a tiff with someone you love, but if things aren’t right, Paul can’t write. I could totally relate to that. I can’t write if I’m feeling down about anything at all. I’ve experienced this numerous times, although, to be brutally honest, it’s often been an excuse to procrastinate as well. But Paul taught me that it’s okay to not write if you don’t feel like it, sometimes, without turning that into a habit.

All of that apart, the most important thing to learn from Misery is that a writer shouldn’t cheat his/her reader. Quite often, a writer knows that what he has written is mediocre, but he/she still tries to get away with it. That’s wrong. That’s like taking your readers for granted. Even if your readers are not as good a writer as you are, they will still be able to figure out that you’ve passed off something ordinary in the guise of something good. Rewrite it, till it’s the best. Even more so if it’s not just about the language, but a plot in the story. Don’t wiggle your way out of a tricky situation in your story, make it fair. Realism isn’t always necessary, as long as it’s fair.

This brings me to a small game that Paul played with himself – the game of ‘Can you?’ You think of a situation in your story, and you ask yourself ‘Can you?’ Can you take the story forward in the most realistic way possible? Can you involve your readers to the extent of making them laugh or cry or scared? Can you do better than what you have? The game doesn’t end till you can honestly tell yourself, ‘Yes, I can.’ And then, you do.

There you have it, a few lessons on writing from Stephen King’s Misery. And of course, it goes without saying that if you haven’t read the book, read it before you read anything else, whether you’re writer or not. It’s a gem.

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