Friday, August 31, 2012

Analyzing Carrie by Stephen King, Part 1

Years ago I read a memorable anecdote describing one way to learn the craft of writing fiction. The anecdote was in the book Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print by Lawrence Block, and was taken from an interview with novelist Harry Crews that appeared in The New York Times Book Review:

"Steve Oney: For someone who had been exposed to very little literature, how did you actually learn how to write?

"Harry Crews: I guess I really learned, seriously learned, how to write just after I got out of college when I pretty much literally ate Graham Greene's "The End of the Affair." My wife and I were living in a little Jacksonville, Fla., where I was teaching seventh grade...I wrote a novel that year and here's how I did it. I took "The End of the Affair," and I pretty much reduced the thing to numbers. I found out how many characters were in it, how much time was in it---and that's hard to do as there is not only present time in a book but past time as well. I found out how many cities were in the book, how many rooms, where the climaxes were and how long it took Greene to get to them.

"And there were a lot of other things I reduced to numbers. I read that book until it was dog-eared and was coming apart in my hands. And then I said, "I'm going to write me a damn novel and do everything he did." I knew I was going to waste---but it wasn't a waste---a year of my time. And I knew that the end result was going to be a mechanical, unreadable novel. But I was trying to find out how in the hell you did it. So I wrote the novel, and it had to have this many rooms, this many transitions, etc. It was the bad novel I knew it would be. But by doing it I learned more about writing fiction and writing a novel and about the importance of time and places---Greene is a freak about time and place---than I had from any class or anything I'd done before. I really, literally, ate that book. And that's how I learned to write."

This anecdote electrified me when I first read it in the 1990s. It has always stuck with me. I often wondered what Crews' results---his numbers---were, but I didn't know where to find them. If he hadn't passed away this year, I would have emailed him and asked him if he remembered or perhaps still had his original notes containing his Graham Greene numbers.

Of course, I think real learning comes from doing, so I have decided to replicate the break-down portion of Crews' process and slice up Carrie by Stephen King into numbers.

To make this process more useful to my fellow authors out there, I will be graphing much of the information so that it is easier to visualize. I will break my analysis down into several blog posts, starting with this one.

Carrie by Stephen King, by the numbers, Part 1:

Number of Pages 245
Number of Words 60,190 (according to Amazon Text Stats)


In the image above you will see the most basic numbers of Carrie:

Number of Scenes 101
Length of scenes: between 1/4 page and 11 pages.

Rather than give you merely an average of all scene lengths, I encourage you to look at the graph. You may notice all sorts of interesting things.

Some facts:

Half of the scenes in Carrie are 1 page or less in length
Only 1/4 of the scenes are longer than 3 pages
Only 10% of the scenes are longer than 5 pages.

That is a lot of SHORT scenes!

This reminds me of a famous saying in film & television writing: Enter the scene late and leave the scene early. Stephen King has clearly done this. He wastes no time on extraneous action or description.

If you have read Carrie, you will recall that many of the shorter scenes are fictitious newspaper articles about Carrie White, passages from fictitious books about "The White Affair," interviews, courtroom transcripts and AP news wires. These scenes are not filler. They move the story forward, either with pertinent backstory (mostly in the beginning of the book), or with plot development (mostly in the later portions of the book).

Another thing you will notice in the graph is two spikes where overall scene length is longer. One towards the beginning, and a second towards the end. The longish beginning scenes establish who Carrie is and how the town of Chamberlain relates to her. The longish ending scenes correspond to climactic action and high drama.

The more average length scenes in the middle develop the relationships between the supporting characters, the plot to humiliate Carrie at the prom, and Carrie's growing conflict with her mother Margaret.

Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks as I delve into many other aspects of Stephen King's classic novel Carrie, sliced up by the numbers. Did you notice my graph bars are all red?

Pig blood for a pig.

Part 2 of my article will look at the number of characters and locations, with an emphasis on frequency of appearance, and which characters appear together and how often.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Nose Knows & Other Stories

The Book Gargoyle is back. You all remember him. He's the guy who supports printed books. He hates eReaders because his stony fingers always scratch the screens when he tries to turn the pages the old fashioned way: licking his stony finger with his stony tongue and swiping to the next page. You can imagine how well that would work on an iPhone screen!

The Nose Knows & Other Stories is a collection of three of David Hudnut's shorter works which were previously available only on the Kindle: The Nose Knows, Hands Off, and Donut Does It; it also includes The Hitler Machine, which is only available in this printed collection.

From the back of the book

THE NOSE KNOWS: Calvin Dunkley tries to find true love, but the mutant nose hair he discovers growing from his nostril doesn’t want him to...

HANDS OFF: Sometimes dogs are not man’s best friend...

DONUT DOES IT: Did you know that doughnuts can kill? Find out how...

THE HITLER MACHINE: Surprise, surprise. Adolph Hitler is still alive, trapped in a super-secret underground bunker. He’s old, he’s ornery, and he needs a nursemaid. That nursemaid is YOU...

And from the Book Gargoyle himself:

"E-gads! What a scary bunch of stories! I almost wet my concrete pants when I read these stories! I was scared stiff, and not because I'm made of stone! I posed with the book for this photo during the day time because I was too darned scared to stand next to it at night! Wow! Good thing for me I hang around cathedrals the rest of the time. God protect me...David Hudnut must get his stories straight from the devil..."

---The Book Gargoyle

Now available in book form

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Analyzing Plot: diagramming Cujo by Stephen King

As many of you know, I'm a huge Stephen King fan. I'm also a horror novelist. When I was writing the first draft of my debut Novel Night Walk, I decided to re-read Cujo by Stephen King. I hadn't read Cujo in more than 15 years, but I remember that it sucked me right in all those years ago.

This time around was no different. I was amazed by how good Cujo still is. I was hooked before I finished the first page. When I finished, I went back and re-read it two more times. Considering that Dean Koontz claims to have read each book by his favorite author John D. MacDonald four or five times apiece, I figured I should do the same with Stephen King.

The effort was worth it.

I was able to get a deeper sense of Cujo in a way I never had with any other book. Duh. That's obvious, right?

But what came as a complete surprise to me was the diagram you see above. Stephen King's Cujo in triangles. The gist of it popped into my head several months after my fourth reading of Cujo. The more I thought about it, the more I knew I needed to put it down concretely and work out any kinks in my first inspiration. What you see here is the result of thoroughly massaging my original idea.

This analysis in triangles is not an exact, literal duplicate of the book's plot structure. I've cut away some less relevant characters and conflicts in order to emphasize the major triangle patterns I saw emerging.

Triangle 1:
We start in the center with the Trenton family: husband Vic Trenton, wife Donna Trenton, and son Tad Trenton.

Triangle 2:
The Camber family, owners of Cujo: husband Joe Camber, wife Charity Camber, and son Brett Camber.

Triangle 3
Vic Trenton's floundering advertising business, which includes Vic Trenton, his partner Roger Breakstone, and their main client Sharp Cereal Company, without whom their fledgling ad business would fail.

Triangle 4
Donna Trenton's affair with Steve Kemp, a triangle which includes: Vic Trenton, Donna Trenton and Steve Kemp

Triangle 5
The Lottery money that Charity wins which includes: Charity Camber, Joe Camber and Brett Camber

Triangle 6
Cujo and the Camber "men," who are the primary caretakers of the dog: Cujo, Brett Camber and Joe Camber

Triangle 7
The main plot of the book: Cujo's sustained attack on Donna Trenton and Tad Trenton.

Although the entire Trenton family meets the Camber family one year prior to the novel's main action (when the Trentons had driven out to Joe Camber's Garage to have him look at their faltering Jaguar) the two families have little direct interaction throughout the book. Their interactions with Cujo are of a very different nature: Donna and Tad Trenton are assaulted by Cujo while the Cambers main concern is the health of their beloved pet who has been acting strangely; the Camber's know nothing of Cujo's rabid state until the bitter end.

Along with the main plot of the book---Cujo's attack against Donna and Tad---we have the three major subplots. Three points make a triangle of subplots. Is that important? I don't know, but it makes my triangle analogy that much more interesting.

As I endeavored to peel away the layers of Cujo so that I could understand why it worked so damn well, I realized that each of the three sub-plots was in and of itself worthy of any novel.

Subplot 1
Money troubles for the Trenton family. Vic's ad business is on the skids and he must take on a Hero's Journey or Hero's Quest to put it back on track. Coincidentally, this Hero's Journey takes him away from his family, leaving his wife and son vulnerable to the disaster awaiting them in the maw of rabid Cujo.

Subplot 2
Adultery and forgiveness. Donna Trenton, not so happy housewife, has an affair. But she's decided she's now done with it. Steve Kemp, her paramour, doesn't want things to end. And he's a bastard. Steve sends an incriminating note to Vic's office. Vic struggles with the discovery, pondering whether or not to leave his wife while his business is falling apart all around him. Meanwhile, Steve Kemp is preparing to make things even worse for the Trenton family.

Subplot 3
Child Rearing and the domineering husband. The Camber's story could perhaps be considered three subplots, but all three involve the struggle between low-class, low-income Joe Camber and his wife Charity: in one they fight over control of their son, another for control of their marriage, and the final story over the lottery winnings. Joe rules the house with an iron fist. Charity fears Joe's low-brow ways are turning her son into his father, and she doesn't want to see that happen. Amazingly, Charity wins $5,000 in the state lottery (Coincidentally, in the novel McTeague, one of Stephen King's favorite novels by author Frank Norris, Trina Sieppe also wins $5,000 in the San Francisco lottery). This money becomes the central player in the struggle between Joe and Charity as she uses the money to bribe him into permitting her to take their son to meet her sister, who had previously married into a higher social strata and tax bracket.

There you have it. A general breakdown of the Triangle in Cujo, and my diagram to enhance the presentation of the basic ideas.

If you have read Cujo, you will recognize these structures and perhaps my diagram will help you see and remember them in a more cohesive fashion. If you haven't read it, I hope this diagram will still give you some ideas about how to structure a novel with multiple subplots, but to truly appreciate the richness of the many plot threads in Cujo and how they weave together, you should read the book.

If you want to see how Cujo influenced my writing, check out my novel Night Walk. There's even some awful dogs in it. You won't be disappointed. I promise. No seriously, I promise-promise. That's a double promise.  ;-)

And oh yeah, if you don't check out my book, I will sic Cujo and his kindred spirit Chopper on you!

Cujo! Chopper! Sic Balls!

And get off my property!

I'm joking, I'm joking. :-) Seriously, come around here any time you want to discuss writing or Stephen King. Just make sure you wear an athletic cup, or for the ladies, a durable chastity belt or equivalent (they offer great protection against dog bites---try it if you don't believe me).