Stephen King and The Art of the Mini Story

Stephen King and The Art of the Mini Story

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When you first introduce a new character into one of your novels, do you just introduce them as Joe Blau the lumber truck driver and leave it up to your readers to figure him out as the story moves along? That’s how you make characters one dimensional. It’s not recommended. Your readers have nothing much to help them remember the character.

Dashiell Hammett

When Hammett introduced a new character into a story, he gave a short description of them immediately. Now Joe Blau may be introduced as a lumber truck driver with a history as a scrapper and a present as a gourmand, heavy with muscle and a stomach like a beach ball, going bald in a widows peak.

This gives us a much better idea of what Joe looks like and the kind of person he is in only one sentence. It makes the character two dimensional.

Hammett needed to limit the number of words in his characterizations because most of what he wrote were short stories for magazines. What happens when a good writer is writing novels and can spend more time on character description?

Stephen King

King goes beyond Hammett’s characterizations and writes mini stories about new characters. The characters don’t even need to be important to the main story. You bought a book to be entertained and his little stories about new characters certainly do that.

I won’t use an example from one of this author’s books either. Let’s just meet Joe through a mini story.

Joe Blau climbed down from the lumber truck and his beach ball of a stomach gave a little bounce. When Joe was younger, there was no beach ball and no lumber truck. He had been what was known as a bone breaker for a loan shark. If you ran up a bill to the shark and weren’t paying the vigorish, Joe would show up at your house to give you a sharp painful reminder of your obligations. This one time, a ladies man had given him the slip for three months by moving from one girlfriend’s place to another. Joe got around him by hiring a crew of gypsies to watch every girlfriend’s place until the ladies man showed. Joe broke both the guy’s arms and legs and made him sign the pink slip for his truck. He sold the truck, paid off the vigorish and the loan, and pocketed the change for his trouble.

I’m sure I didn’t write that like Stephen King would, but you get the idea. That little story tells you a lot more about Joe Blau than Hammett’s one line characterization. It makes the character three dimensional. The reader now knows something about Joe’s past that doesn’t fit with his current life as a lumber truck driver.

Choosing Characterization

What level of characterization you choose for the players in your novel is entirely up to you. If a character is only in one scene, one dimensional is fine. If the reader will be seeing them again later, a two dimensional description will make it easier for the reader to recognize them. And if the character is going to be an important ongoing player a three dimensional description is probably the best way to go.

A quick review.

One dimensional – Name and job title.

Two dimensional – Name, job title, and a description that reveals something about the kind of person they are.

Three dimensional – Name, job title, description, and a story about their life.

When you follow the guidelines I used to introduce this section, the level of characterization you choose let’s the reader know how important the character will be in the novel. Stephen King avoids that by writing mini stories about any character he wants to whether they are important or not. He keeps us guessing.

Probably the best way to go is to give new characters at least the level of characterization mentioned in the section intro and go further if a story jumps right out at you.

There is one further benefit of writing a mini story about every character you introduce. It gives you practice at writing short stories. Many great writers began with short stories before they produced their first novel. You can get your practice in concurrently.

Do you know any other good ways to introduce new characters?

Article by Ivan Izo.

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