Visualizing the Data of Stephen King

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Over the last two months, my company (BookLamp) has had the honor of working with the publisher Coliloquy on a project with Stephen King and the other authors of The Rock Bottom Remainders. We’ve been analyzing their writing, and asking the question, “What does Stephen King’s writing look like compared to theirs?”

I don’t mean that metaphorically — I mean, if you visualize the various themes in his books, what would that look like?

Whenever the Book Genome Project analyzes a title, the computer creates a graphic that we refer to as its Thematic Currents. This includes a number of King’s well known books, most of which I grew up reading late into the night (likely later than my parents would have approved of at 13 years old).

So, in honor of good ol’ times from my childhood, I thought it might be interesting to share some of the thematic flows of a few of King’s titles. Let’s take a look… though, fair warning: These graphs do contain some spoilers.

 

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King:BookLamp's-Theme-Currents-for-Salem's-Lot_smallWe’ll start with one of the early King books, ‘Salem’s Lot. I only chose a few of its themes to display in the graph, since having too many gets very confusing very quickly. I chose Houses & Domestic Environments — typically one of the less interesting themes — because the Marsten House plays such a significant role in the story, and also because ‘Salem’s Lot deals so much with the concept of the safe and secure environment of a classic “My Town.”

You can also see the late appearance of “undisguised” vampires at the tail of the book.  For much of the beginning, the vampires are visible only indirectly; no one is doing obviously vampire-like things. In other words, much of the early portion of the book is setup; the ending is the reveal. Other well known suspense authors tend to do this, as well — this is a very significant tell for Michael Crichton, for example, who regularly led his books with long, technical introductions to the setting, right up until the world fell apart and you got eaten by a dinosaur.

 

Carrie by Stephen King:BookLamp's-Theme-Currents-for-Carrie_smallCarrie was Stephen King’s first published book, and one of his most iconic works. It’s been years since I read Carrie, but you can certainly see the main plot elements appear in these themes. Early on, in the famous opening scene in the girl’s locker room and the school nurses office shortly afterwards, you can see the rise and fall of school environments.

The religious themes are present throughout, but are most apparent when her mother is present. If you remember, her mother is extremely religious, and spends most of her time in the book either abusing Carrie, or insisting that Carrie pray for forgiveness (often, both at once). Finally, probably one of the most iconic elements — represented in red — is Fire & Arson. In the movie, the fire only really appears in the burning of the prom, if I remember correctly; in the book, it burns through the last third of the pages, starting at the prom and moving through town, even past the point of Carrie’s death to some degree.

 

Different Seasons by Stephen King:BookLamp's-Theme-Currents-for-Different-Seasons_smallDifferent Seasons is a collection of four short stories, three of which were made into very well-known movies. You can clearly see the beginning and end of “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body,” which later was made into the movie Stand by Me. The blue areas in this case are Prisons, and pretty easily define Shawshank Redemption near the beginning of the book.

Notice the small space at the beginning of the story where prisons don’t appear?  That’s Andy’s trial. I didn’t show it in the graph, but you see courtroom themes there, instead. Likewise, themes for Death & the Dead appear far more frequently in “The Body” — a story about a childhood quest to see a dead body — than in other stories. If we were to add the themes for Nazism to the graph, my guess is that you’d be able to see “Apt Pupil,” as well. On an aside, you can often see writing style differences between short stories, as well, as writer’s tend to have a specific intention between one story and the next.

 

On Writing by Stephen King:BookLamp's-Theme-Currents-for-On-Writing_smallI saved what I consider to be the best for last. Not only because On Writing is one of my favorite Stephen King titles, but also because his mix of memoir and writing instruction are really visible in the themes of the stream graph. The pear green represents writing themes (the most visible block), and you see a noticeable increase in this theme as King moves from memoir to “how to” writing instructions about a third into the book.

What you’re seeing is that King begins On Writing talking about his career, shifts into a discussion of his childhood and how he got started writing, and then moves to discuss writing mechanics. When talking about his childhood and first forays into writing, the pure writing themes give way somewhat to school and education themes, and — though I didn’t include it in this graph — newspaper themes (not only did he write for a newspaper, at one point, but ran his own newsletter-like paper for a bit out of his basement).

If you look closely, you can even see where the financial themes come into play, as he describes both the hardship and successes of his life after having kids and the purchase of the paperback rights to Carrie.

8 thoughts on “Visualizing the Data of Stephen King

  1. gillt

    Question: It’s not clear what determines peak height on these graphs. In other words, the x axis is progression through the story so what’s the y axis represent? Are peaks based on word or sentence count where you assign them to a particular theme?

    Reply
    1. Aaron StantonAaron Stanton Post author

      Good point, Gillt. You’re right that the X axis is progression through the book. Y axis is a bit more complicated. First off, in a stream graph, it’s not the height that’s important, but the thickness of the color. So the thicker the color is, the more that theme is present in that area of the book. Second, it’s not based on a keyword or sentence count, but instead on a number of elements – both writing style and thematic – that are measured by a project called the Book Genome Project. Word counts don’t work because of the variability of language – we don’t measure the number of times “vampire” is used, for example, because an author might spell it “vampyr” or something. Instead, we watch for characters doing vampire-like things. You can read more about it at booklamp.org, a tiny bit at bookgenome.com, if you like, or the FAQ on booklamp.org. The book genome uses computers to identify characteristics in books on a scene by scene level, so what is being measured here is relative prevalence of different themes as defined by the book genome project. We call them StoryDNA. One of them may be “Vampires” or often more mundane, like “Domestic Environments.” Hope that helps.

      Reply
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