I received an analysis of Stephen King’s <em>Langoliers</em> from NORTAV student Francisco Resende. I’m posting it here as a terrific example of how anyone of any skill level can take the NORTAV Method and use it to analyze, in their own way and with their own focus/understanding, how their favorite authors are constructing prose.
In accordance to A.J. Abbiati’s NORTAV method of prose analysis, Stephen King composes most of his work using a form of Direct Character Experience, with little-to-no sense of a narrator, though the presence of an omniscient narrator is definitely there; narration tags and time-lapse narration is evident throughout the work, so it cannot be technically classified as Direct Character Experience.
In a literary work by King, a reader is always by the side of the focal character, though the focal character may change from section to section; this is known as “Third-Person Limited Shifting,” by author and professor, Justin Cronin, which is a derivative of “Third-Person Limited (Close Consciousness)”—in Cronin’s own terms, it is “Third-Person Limited split into distinct sections, or chapters, in which different central consciousnesses take turns.” While this does not occur in all of King’s work, it is a technique used very often, and the use of such a technique reveals an omniscient narrator.
King’s use of NCE prose schemes employs a very ‘close-up’ feel; the “author’s camera” is very close to focal characters, nearly as close as it can be without being in their own hands. It is almost a “shoulder-mounted-camera” approach. Characters are referenced by name instead of first person “I,” and readers know they have a somewhat-outside perspective, albeit one that has great power in filtering character consciousness through their own perspective lens.
King’s work is superb for providing that “close-up” feel, which is absolutely necessary for a writer of horror, the supernatural, and intense emotion. A study of the literary work of Stephen King reveals that great immersion is attained through the continuous use of character introspective by implementing three forms of Thought beats:
1) Opinionated observation
2) Filtered mentality
3) Direct thought
Stephen King uses character thought very often, which outlines who a character is, how they feel, and what they’re going through quite well while accessing emotional ties for readers and initiating character-reader empathy. Opinionated observation is simply a character’s observation accented with how they, themselves would describe it or feel towards it, instead of the narrator.
“He watched a gangly teenaged boy with a violin case under his arm and a yarmulke on his head walk down the aisle. The boy looked both nervous and excited, his eyes full of the future.”
“Now the terror was very large in her, the yammering of the panic animal very loud.”
“Wyatt turned to face him calmly. His face was narrow, tanned, and handsome. He looked a great deal like Hugh O’Brian.”
“The Daltons were coming down Main Street at a full gallop, shooting holes in plate-glass windows and false fronts. They turned the waterbarrel in front of Duke’s Mercantile and Reliable Gun Repair into a fountain.”
All of the prior quotes of literary text are observation prose, but threaded with the focal character’s opinions or mentality; it is subtle, but it is there, adding just enough of a spice for a reader to remain connected to the character through a description that, otherwise, could be straight narrative. The tell-tale sign of an opinionated observation is the part of any observation that isn’t simply fact; if it wouldn’t fit into an unbiased, non-poetic newspaper report, it’s probably opinionated observation.
Filtered mentality comes in two forms: scenes from a character’s own mind, and thought filtered through narrative interpretation.
Any time a character thinks about a past event, has a dream, or imagines something, it is filtered mentality of the first type. We are not exactly there as readers—we are going through a flashback or imaginative sequence, just like the character; it is purely mental, not linear, not in the here-and-now physical reality.
Filtered thought of the second type—narrated thought—is a revision of a character’s thought or entire thought process, like a student recycling words from an article for their academic report. The core content is there, and maybe many of the words are originally the character’s repeated onto the type by the narrator, but it is filtered through narration and is not completely straight thought. The character is thinking about something, but they are not thinking about it in such a way that you could pluck an exact sentence from their head. They are thinking, but not thinking in words, and it is the filtering of their ideas into words that produces narrated thought.
“That was, of course, the sort of thing anyone said about his job from time to time, particularly at the end of a bad shift, and Brian knew damned well he wasn’t too old for the job—at forty-three, he was just entering prime time for airline pilots. Nevertheless, tonight he almost believed it. God, he was tired.”
“As the last passengers began to trickle on board, he found himself also thinking, almost obsessively, about Anne’s perfume. He could recall its fragrance exactly, but not the name. What had it been? Lissome? Lithesome? Lithium, for God’s sake? It danced just beyond his grasp. It was maddening.”
“She stopped at the row of portside seats just ahead of the row in which she and Aunt Vicky had been sitting and bent, arms outstretched, fingers splayed. She was steeled to touch the face of the man sitting there. She knew there was a man here, because Aunt Vicky had spoken to him only a minute or so before the plane took off. When he spoke back to her, his voice had come from the seat directly in front of Dinah’s own. She knew that; marking the locations of voices was part of her life, an ordinary fact of existence like breathing. The sleeping man would jump when her outstretched fingers touched him, but Dinah was beyond caring.”
The effect of this is doing what most people wish they could when they say, “I know what I want to say, but I don’t know how to say it.” It’s the pure core thought of the character put into words—narrated thought. This is never italicized, except to input emphasis on certain beats. This is highly helpful in the writer’s pursuit to establish reader-character empathy—it almost eliminates the narrator’s presence, bringing readers into the minds of the characters to experience their mentalities and be grounded deeper into the reality of the current events.
Direct thought is the most obvious of all thought beats, because it is the text that is most often italicized. Direct thoughts are usually tagged by a narrator with, “he thought/she thought,” also. This is plucking a direct sentence from a character’s head, or, at least, an idea that is so clear to the character, it is mentally worded and can therefore be transferred to the page.
“This can’t be, she thought wildly. It just can’t be! They were all around us when we got on! I heard them! I smelled them! Where have they all gone?”
“It’s hair, but the man it belongs to is gone. It’s a scalp. I’m holding a dead man’s scalp.”
“My God, the whole plane is empty!”
“Where have they gone? Brian thought. My dear God, where have they all gone?”
It is clear in the work of King that filtered mentality is the dominant form of thought beat—it provides narration, keeping the story going, but does so through the mind of the character. It provides the reader with a close, intimate experience, letting readers feel and understand as things happen. And, just like life, our brains are working all the time as the world outside our heads feeds us new observations and information.
Therein lies the true first secret to Stephen King’s immersive power: we are in the minds of characters at all times. It is not strictly direct thought, and while there are a lot of opinionated observations, there is the very clever middle-of-the-road approach with filtered mentality. As readers live the events, they feel and know characters’ emotions, thoughts, and reactions instead of just being told the story, which provides a model of active imagination that is so similar to life’s own human observation-and-mental-reaction processes, we easily can fall into the illusion of King’s literary spell. If one considers how another person might tell a story of something that happened to them, including vocalization of their thoughts as they come, it would compare to King’s prose in a surprising (and revelatory) degree of similarity.
The continuous use of thought to stay inside of a character’s inner reality also establishes the emotional connections readers need in order to feel—empathy is established, step by step, cementing the will to believe and powering the illusion of the literary realm generated.
The second secret to King’s prose is one that many people would love to know even beyond the reader-character empathy connection: ‘How the hell did he make me experience that!?’ Stephen King, as a horror and supernatural writer, (or, as he puts it, a writer interested in “extraordinary things happening to ordinary people”), implements a lot of highly surreal elements, events, and characters into his work. These are the images, descriptions, and events that stick in our minds and truly plant King at the top of the horror genre for many readers. In order to truly scare someone with words, you must craft an excellent illusion, and many wonder how King performs this magic.
The ability to tag prose beats with corresponding colors proved to be a highly effective method of actually seeing what’s going on at any given time in Stephen King’s literature. For thought beats, the color blue was used; for observations, the color orange.
In all sequences that drew greatly on emotional ties between reader and character, blue was clearly evident, making up most of the page.
In King’s most horrific and mesmerizing moments, the color orange dominated the page.
In all sequences in which very strange things or events that are meant to leave a potent, lasting image in the reader’s mind occur, King resorts to long chains of observation beats—and rarely employs thought or reaction unless it’s absolutely necessary. And even then, the thoughts are short, just adding a bit of a tie-down for characters to establish how the character feels. The observation is rarely interrupted, and while it may include some opinionated observation beats, King mainly sticks to pure reporting of what is happening or being observed.
There is a science behind this, and it’s the same sort of science behind the “best scene” in a movie. Most of the time, great sequences in fictional works occur well after the emotional ties between characters and readers (or audience members) have already been forged. The stage has been set, the reality established and maintained, so anything new that is introduced in the same narrative schema as the rest of the work is accepted as reality—and readers will react more strongly than characters, because now, they believe.
There’s another reason King’s work in description is performed so well (aside from the fact that he is to the point in establishing each facet of an event or character): observation beats in such long chains produce the same effect for a reader as staring at something, fully taking it in. In King’s most horrifying scenes, it’s described in such a way that it feels like one is observing some grisly scene of an accident—gruesome, but you cannot look away. You simply stare, taking it all in, and the emotions form on their own from the input.
King’s horror expertise is attributed to, oddly enough, the same kind of methods that most ‘trickster’ monsters use: form trust, make the perceived reality convincing, then trap the victim (reader) into a state where they are forced to experience whatever has been laid in front of them. By generating the reality first and then enacting the ‘big reveal,’ King leads both characters and readers along an emotional journey by the (invisible) hand up to the point where the reader must feel by themselves from what’s being described. It’s the literary equivalent of pushing a child on a bike as they turn the pedals and then finally letting them go to experience the ride in its full raw, uninhibited capacity.
In conclusion, King’s work feels real because the characters feel real—they are not puppets to be slung around, but people. In each story, a reader is inside the mind and hearts of characters, experiencing everything as it happens, reliving past events, musing over what’s going on, feeling every rise and fall and thinking, thinking, thinking—just like an actual person. Once this reality is established, anything that is introduced in the same narrative method as previously established is believed, producing the mental terror or beauty King has tried to deliver for years.
And, in many, many readers’ opinions, succeeded.
The NORTAV Method was absolutely crucial in my discovery of Stephen King’s literary secrets; it would’ve taken me so much longer to analyze the work of Stephen King and discover his methods of immersion without this valuable tool—and, perhaps, I may not have been able to do so as thoroughly as I have found while using the NORTAV Method.