Published: Aug 2, 2017 12:00:00 PM

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The Dark Tower is an inaccessible magnum opus of imagination and insignificance. It's probably a tricky pitch for a movie, as well. In fact, I recall the potential for a movie adaptation news motivating my initial read of the text.

And, yes, that marathon session through the series roughly ten years ago revealed:

  1. This is a story structured around the terrifying idea of an endless universe
  2. This is a story about writing as a craft
  3. Because of the first two things, it's a wickedly difficult series of books to pitch as a mega-big Hollywood movie (let alone properly adapt into a movie)

But how does The Dark Tower teach us how to write stories, how to write characters, and how to write worlds...?

The Dark Tower is about insignificance in the face of the universe.

Not too dissimilar from Watchmen's position in the comic book pantheon, The Dark Tower could be interpreted as a deconstructionist fantasy-epic. It presents world-building and questing as old-age obsessions, not as romantic adventures.

As a reader, permit that obsession, that addiction, to reflect back on you: the entire life of the aging protagonist, Roland Deschain, is consumed with destructive desire to reach the eponymous Dark Tower.

This resembles a standard epic journey until it's revealed the Tower is all at once metaphorical, amaterial, magical, technological, and still somehow made of physical stone.

As a writer, or any creative individual, permit that amorphous object of your obsession, that Dark Tower, to reflect back on you.

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Here's how the Dark Tower works within the story's mythology:

  • The Dark Tower is a structure that exists at the intersection of all realities—that includes all things imaginary and real
  • It holds creation together
  • Creation includes not only from subatomic particles and the planets and energies beyond our understanding, but movies, books, and every idea anyone has ever had, unspoken or otherwise
  • All ideas and stories exist within sight of the Dark Tower—Doctor Doom from the Fantastic Four, Harry Potter, Stephen King's The Stand, and spaghetti westerns, everything
  • But these ideas have "moved on," deserted, because the Dark Tower is starting to decay
  • Organic forces called "beams" supported the tower and held it in place, each guarded by a gigantic animal-god, but they've either died or been replaced with technology
  • This replacement technology has begun to rust and is overrun by lazy mutants and insane robots
  • The Gunslingers protect the Dark Tower, which means they can and must traverse all known realities where all things are possible, in order to do their job
  • The Dark Tower's enemy—and the enemy of all creation itself in the story—is literally a lack of imagination

The Dark Tower is everything to Roland, the last Gunslinger. The Dark Tower is everything to me. The Dark Tower is everything to you. It's all of creation, all that was, and all that your life might be. It's your relationship with your own imagination and self-doubt. It's endless imagination, and the question of what that means when it's reflected back on you as a creator, and as an obsessive.

Never mind the knight-cowboys for a moment, that's simply the author's ur-hero manifesting. While Stephen King realized that he grew up obsessed with gunslingers like the Man With No Name, your own hero exists within the infinite realities that Dark Tower holds together.

The Dark Tower asks you what world you might create when possibilities are endless. It asks what becomes of that world over time, just as it asked of Roland and King.

These imagined worlds are ideas. They rarely vanish, but they do decay.

The Dark Tower is held up by imagination and nothingness.

The Dark Tower is made of imagination: our own, and the influence of others. If you want to know how to write, The Dark Tower pushes you to consider what might happen if you didn't.

The first Dark Tower book begins with the man in black fleeing across the desert and Roland chasing. We aren't certain what the man in black is, but we know he must be stopped. He must be stopped because if he isn't, if this wicked force inflicts his influence, the world will continue to fall away. The desert is all at once post-apocalyptic and otherworldly. It's one of an infinite potential versions of earth, gone to waste, forgotten.

With no heroes, with no imagination, with nobody to battle the terrifying uncertainty, the world will move on, decay, and fall into nothingness.

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So we band together. In later stories, Roland and his group do not ignore references to other creative endeavors leaking in.

I wasn't kidding in the earlier bullet list, they fight wolf robots dressed as Doctor Doom. They throw lethal Harry Potter-style golden "sneetches" to kill their enemies. They cross through old Stephen King books. They recognize when they're in a Seven Samurai homage. They ally with these cultural ur-stories because they keep the world from falling.

It's the power of storytelling and the need for creative craft. 

The Dark Tower is your own assembled mythology.

Imagine the Dark Tower is your entire identity. It's held up by your life's support beams. It's surrounded by your past, present, and future. It's all that might've been and all that could be. It's your bad ideas, your good influences, and your weird dreams.

The Dark Tower is your life: mysterious, inaccessible, and unattainable. At least not without a great deal of effort. The Dark Tower's interdimensional weirdness demands you grow in life before fully recognizing and understanding what this objective truly represents.

Many of the characters in the book so clearly are manifestations of the author: Eddie the junkie, Jake the terrified kid seeing things. They follow the gunslinger blindly, worshiping him at first until they grow up. This is Stephen King recognizing his own mythology, pursuing his tower, praying he can reconcile his own obsessive creativity with all the external forces.

The Dark Tower is how to write about your life. If you want to know how to write anything, or how to create anything, or how to start anything, begin creating your own dark tower. Don't plan on reaching it any time soon. But if you can't keep away from it, and you're compelled, damn obsessed, in reaching it, you might drag your carcass to its door one day.

-- Alex Crumb
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