“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
If books were once the most portable form of entertainment, mobile tech, and content streaming means that films and television shows are now just as accessible from nearly anywhere. A new show on Hulu has been generating recent buzz among fiction readers, specifically fans of acclaimed author Stephen King.
Currently midway through a 10-part series, Castle Rock isn’t just for die-hard horror enthusiasts. With an original plot built around the fictional town that provides the backdrop to many of his novels, this new show is a slow-burning thriller – and a great example of how mediums can overlap as they evolve.
If you’re a fan of the novelist, you may or may not have been able to tell that Stephen King didn’t write the Castle Rock teleplay. But show creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason have stated that they relied heavily on the precedent set by King’s work, making this a somewhat unusual expansion from book to small screen. There’s a lot you can learn from Stephen King and the Castle Rock creators, so let’s get started!
Learning Great Writing Tips from Stephen King and Castle Rock
As King himself says, “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” Between Stephen King’s vast canon of fiction and gripping series like Castle Rock, you can learn plenty of great writing tips that will help you bring your own fiction to life.
Tip 1: Use Setting as Character
The town of Castle Rock is a character in its own right. First used as setting in The Dead Zone in 1979, Stephen King has continued to reference and utilize this fictional part of Maine all the way into recent years (including in Doctor Sleep and Revival). The name of the town itself actually refers to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, perhaps lending it a built-in sense of impending dread.
The industrial town of Castle Rock seems, at best, frozen in time. At worst, it’s in active decline, with an atmosphere of growing dread. Drawing from King’s previous descriptions of the town, the new show references much of its existing lore. Newspaper clippings, characters’ conversations, and numerous flashbacks reveal a community that really hasn’t changed all that much over the past couple of decades. Everything from architecture and decor to the looming smoke of nearby fires adds to a sense of decay.
As you create your story, don’t forget to develop a setting that has its own unique personality and characteristics. You want your readers to feel a connection not only with your characters but with the world they inhabit.
Tip 2: Withhold Information to Create Suspense
“Something terrible’s going to happen.”
– Ruth (played by Sissy Spacek)
Imagine what would happen if some made the above statement in real life. Most likely, a conversation would ensue where Ruth would elaborate on her concerns and the person she’s talking to would try to address her fears in as rationally as possible.
As Stephen King and the creators of Castle Rock understand, that’s the exact opposite of what is needed to build suspense in a scene. Where providing more detail doesn’t advance the story, it detracts from it. As tension builds throughout each Castle Rock episode, we are given only small doses of information, built into a larger framework of hints and rabbit trails. We won’t hear what terrible thing Ruth thinks will happen, but we sure will see it later when the time is right!
Thinking about the unknown is where our imaginations really engage. So for every question you answer in your story, make sure you raise another (until the end).
Tip 3: Use Relationships to Advance Your Story
Throughout Stephen King’s work, the use of family and friendship (or a lack thereof) helps illustrate who characters are and what makes them tick.
Nowhere is this more evident in Castle Rock than with protagonist Henry Deaver (played by André Holland). Adopted, gone missing as a child, and a potential suspect in his father’s murder, the lawyer is a recently returned prodigal – though not a particularly welcome one. Escalating interactions draw us into the history between Henry, his mother, his step-father, and the town of Castle Rock itself.
Giving your readers incremental revelations about each character’s intentions and motivations will help us understand their relationships. Done right, these relationships can grow to symbolize your story’s progression as a whole!
Tip 4: Building Symbolism and Backstory
For King fans are eagerly devouring Castle Rock episodes looking for “Easter Eggs” and references to other parts of the King multiverse, the show’s imagery is mystery enough on its own. But even for the uninitiated, certain themes and symbolic elements add resonance and suspense to the storyline.
Characters themselves often mention incidents that are a part of the Stephen King canon, harkening to stories of murder, suicide, and the uncanny. Newspaper archives seem filled with references to events from Needful Things, Cujo, and more.
Meanwhile, repeated visual themes include the use of certain clothing colors on various characters, images of certain symbols and settings, and even the recurring tones of redolent greens and oranges of many outdoor scenes. These visual cues begin to serve as a Pavlov’s bell for your emotions as you watch the series unfold.
As you develop your story, don’t forget to develop a shorthand of imagery and backstories that will guide your readers’ attention and rachet up the suspense.
Successful Stories from Book to Small Screen
Stephen King is widely acclaimed, and his stories have struck a chord with millions. Ultimately, one of the reasons that King’s multiverse appeals is because it draws us into the unknown. How does that play out when translating inspiration from book to small screen productions? Castle Rock never leaves you fully in the dark, but the techniques we’ve discussed help make sure you are always aware of its shadows.
Writing fiction can be challenging. That said, by applying what you’ve learned you can enrapture your readers with spell-binding stories that are uniquely yours. Keep up the good work!