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The Institute is What Stephen King Does Best: Trap His Characters



I was a whore for Stephen King novels growing up and though I lerved them to the core – and am undoubtedly influenced by King in my own writing – a part of me always found his intensely detailed storytelling style to be long-winded.


So when I went into King's 2019 novel The Institute, about a boy with special powers trapped inside a top-secret facility, I was feeling ambivalent. However, the generally good pacing throughout and the strong characters left me satisfied when I finished.


Why Escape Stories Work for Ensnaring Your Audience

Stephen King is famous for trapping his characters in VERY TIGHT cells. For example, in Misery, Cujo and The Mist he traps his characters in a bed, a car and a grocery store, respectively. Placing characters in situations like THis a great way to hook the audience from the outset. From the get-go, you know what the character's motivation is—to escape.


However, for an escape narrative to maintain interest from start to finish, there needs to be a significant twist at about the midpoint. Otherwise, the journey for the audience is one of waiting for the end—for the moment of escape—to arrive.


King achieved this by adding in a significant twist at the midpoint of the novel, when one of the characters escapes The Institute. This reignited my interest in the story. Not to mention the escape scene itself, simply involving a boy trying to claw his way under a wire fence, had me schwetting like a hooker in church.


But Did I Download the Wrong Book?

I was scratching my head during the opening “chapter” of the book, called The Night Knocker, which takes the reader deep into the life of a secondary character and his subplot before finally getting around to starting the novel. I used scare quotes because, was it a chapter? A prologue? A novella? At one point I had to stop and be like, “Did I download the wrong book?”


Anyway, I eventually Googled, “What’s with the Night Knocker at the beginning of The Institute?” and found many annoyed discussions not only about what, exactly, a night knocker is (I’m still not sure) and why this beginning section is here at all. And then I also remembered this is Stephen King, notorious for his long, overly detailed tangents.


All this being said, after my confusion passed I found myself getting into The Night Knocker chapter, and when eventually the main plot of the novel intersects with this subplot, it made for a stronger connection to the characters involved.


The bottom line is, however, that you run a risk of losing your audience with such a long tangent. Unless you’re Stephen King, any editor worth their salt will undoubtedly say, “This first chapter is too long and irrelevant to the main plot. Cut it.” King is one of the only authors out there who's allowed to break this rule.

Overall a Welcome Return to the King of Horror

The Institute was a nice return to Stephen King after years of not reading him (though I did read Billy Summers, which doesn’t count ‘cause it’s crime fiction). The book even gave me some of the nostalgia feels for the old King classic about kids with special powers and shit going wrong as a result, like Carrie and Firestarter.

And the moral of the story is

You can break the rules. But sometimes you have to earn the right first.



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