Posted by: carolannwilliams | November 22, 2009

Tell It Slant

I know you must think I’m stuck on Stephen King. I’m really not. Actually, I’ve read little of his giant oeuvre. Most is too scary, some is too junky, plus there are so many other authors and books and stories and poems and plays and essays . . .  But, for illustrative purposes, he works well as an exemplar of master story-telling. The following is from Janet Maslin’s NY Times review of Under the Dome:

Consider the book’s step-by-step way of defining the Dome. Mr. King isn’t about to do the easy thing, which would be to give a straightforward description of what it is and how it works. Instead he offers a textbook demonstration of how to make action and explication one and the same. First step: A woodchuck on the ground and a pilot in the air named Chuck are sudden victims of the Dome’s guillotinelike slicing descent.

Second step: The book’s hero to be, a short-order cook and Iraq war veteran named Dale Barbara, looks upward. He sees the front of Chuck’s plane fall off and the back get crushed by the invisible barrier that, we now know, reaches sky high. Big sigh of relief here: Dome calamities, while definitely deadly, will not be (by Mr. King’s high standards in this area) described gruesomely at all.

Third step: Barbara, a k a Barbie, waves frantically to a stranger for help. The stranger walks right toward him — and smashes into an invisible wall. So the Dome’s extent is making itself known. Then Mr. King defines the perimeter by ticking off the various roads that lead to Chester’s Mill. “And shortly before noon on Dome Day,” he writes, now attaching a name to this calamity, “every one of them snapped closed.”

King needs to describe the dome that settles over the town. Think how less interesting it would be if he’d simply allocated a paragraph or two to a physical rendering of the thing. What he does instead is make the description active: It’s part of the plot, part of the characterization (Barbie), part of the movement of the story, part, even, of our introduction to the setting of Chester’s Mill. By the time King is done — even in our scant reading of what amounts to a precis — we are involved. We’re living the event with the characters and we’re hooked.

As Emily Dickinson wrote: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant . . .”

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