Stephen King: It
For many people, theory is strange and menacing. So here’s an illuminating example, or so I hope, for what I’ve been trying to get at in Tell, Don’t Tell.
It’s from Stephen King’s It1, and it shows that King is such a great writer (except when he’s not sometimes). Check out how the first scare is set up in the first part’s first chapter. It starts with a sweeping summarization about what the following decades have in store, and then gets right into real-time action:
The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.
The boat bobbed, listed, righted itself again, dived bravely through treacherous whirlpools, and continued on its way down Witcham Street toward the traffic light which marked the intersection of Witcham and Jackson. […] A small boy in a yellow slicker and red galoshes ran cheerfully along beside the newspaper boat. (15)
And when the first scare is over and the story’s premise established, the boat is picked up again (that’s another technique I’d like to drop a few thoughts about in a later entry), and the pacing is skillfully reversed, from real-time action to summarizing to fading out:
The boat dipped and swayed and sometimes took on water, but it did not sink; the two brothers had waterproofed it well. I do not know where it finally fetched up, if ever it did; perhaps it reached the sea and sails there forever, like a magic boat in a fairytale. All I know is that it was still afloat and still running on the breast of the flood when it passed the incorporated town limits of Derry, Maine, and there it passes out of this tale forever. (28)
As an exercise, it’s a good idea to pick up a well-written text, skim one or two chapters, and try to get a feel for how pacing is applied to create suspense, to establish the premise, and to engross the reader.