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.

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