Reading Like a Writer: Stephen King’s Carrie

Taking a look at what makes a book YA, suspension of disbelief, and developing a good antagonist.

Shaunta Grimes
Apr 7, 2019 · 5 min read
Carrie Spacek and William Katt in Carrie. (United Artists)

Last week I read Stephen King’s Carrie for the first time since I was in high school. Tonight I watched the 1976 movie, starring Sissy Spacek.

I have some thoughts. (Surprised?) I thought it might be fun to look at how I read this book as a writer.

YA or not YA?

As an author who writes for kids, I’m fascinated by the marketing that goes into that genre. What makes a book a book for kids vs. a book that’s written for an adult market?

With some books it’s obvious. No one wonders whether or not Dork Diaries or The Babysitter’s Club is written for adults. And no one hems and haws over whether Dan Brown’s latest is written for children.

But sometimes there’s a book that straddles the line.

Carrie was Stephen King’s first published novel. He wasn’t “Stephen King” when it was published, if you know what I mean. No one knew who he was. I personally think that if he wrote the same book as a first novel today, Carrie would be published as a young adult book.

Nearly every character is a teenager. The adults are almost worse than useless. It’s set almost entirely in a high school. It’s practically the definition of modern YA.

I really don’t know for sure, but I feel like Stephen King’s whole career would have taken a different path if his first book was Carrie in 2019.

One distinction I sometimes see between books with young protagonists that are marketed to adults and YA books is that the characters are often not really teenagers. They’re adults, looking back on their adolesence.

Carrie doesn’t read that way. It has a lot of epistolary flash forwards in the form of book excerpts and official documents into the investigation that follows the events of the book. But when the book is telling the story as it’s happening, it reads like a YA to me. You’re in the story as it’s happening.

I really enjoyed this essay that looked at whether or not YA is even being written for teenage readers anymore.

Suspension of Disbelief

It takes a solid dose of suspension of disbelief to buy that a girl could get to her senior year of high school literally without every hearing about menstruation, even through the grapevine. I mean, her naiveté is complete and difficult to accept.

But somehow King pulls it off, mostly by allowing the gym teacher who has the unenviable job of calming Carrie down when she is sure she’s bleeding to death in the midst of one of the worst cases of bullying in literary history, to be just as incredulous as you are. If she can’t believe it, it’s okay if you can’t either.

The Antagonist is the Hero of Their Own Story

I want to take a minute and talk about a character who I think is a fine example of how a story’s antagonist is the hero of their own story.

Sue Snell (if that isn’t a villain’s name, right up there with The Grinch) is a classmate of Carrie White’s. When the story starts, she’s a ringleader of the bullying. Throwing tampons at a terrified, naked girl who is positive that she’s bleeding to death an begging for help, screaming plug it up.

It’s a harrowing scene. It actually loses something in the film version, I think because it’s so much worse when your imagination digs into it. Plus the movie precedes it with a kind of weird soft-porn naked locker room scene that makes the suspension of disbelief I already talked about harder to buy.

Sue’s popular enough to stop it, when it’s happening. And she comes to realize that she could have stopped it years before. Or at least made it less. By the second act, she’s dealing with regret and shame.

What the reader sees, though, is that she’s disgusted by Carrie. This weird girl might as well be a worm squished under her barefoot. It isn’t that she doesn’t like Carrie, it’s that Carrie makes her stomach turn over.

She’s sorry later. And the reader gets to see that being popular is paralyzing for her. She’s afraid to stand up to the other popular girls. She has a nice boyfriend — Tommy Ross is smarter and kinder than his ultra-popular athlete status would usually imply. He’s got a poetic heart. Maybe she’s pregnant and she can’t decide whether she hopes so or not and that part of herself disgusts her, too.

Sue finally manages to stand up by convincing Tommy, to take Carrie to the prom instead of her. She’s trying to do the right thing, but it’s too little, too late. And it is the beginning of the end when Tommy finally agrees.

In the book, although not in the movie, Sue worries that Tommy will fall in love with Carrie at the prom. And there’s a moment — it’s so brief, when you think it’s true.

Tommy is killed before Carrie goes all horror movie on the prom, but there’s a feeling like if he didn’t, standing on that stage with her would have turned into something else.

Sue has been Carrie White’s antagonist for years, but readers get to see that even at the end, even if her intentions were in the right place, even she finally humanizes Carrie and stops being disgusted, she feels threatened by her.

But she is clearly the hero of her own story. A teenage girl who gives up her senior prom to atone for the shame and guilt she feels over being a bully. She’s a fully-formed character, instead of a caricature — like every antagonist should be.

If you’ve only seen the movie, make sure to read the book to see how Sue’s story is resolved. It’s fantastic and completely left out of the adaptation.

Here’s my secret weapon for sticking with whatever your thing is.

Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the original Ninja Writer.

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