Tell the Damn Story

By John Gilstrap

Building on PJ Parrish’s post from yesterday, it occurs to me that the casual discussion of writing poses many false dichotomies.  Is your work character-driven or plot driven?  Is it about action or about vivid storytelling?  If your story meets its potential, the answer to all of the above is simply, “Yes.”

I also hear a lot about rules that don’t really exist.  We all know that prologues are a mistake–unless they work.  We know that we should never start with the weather or with backstory.  Bull.  Anything that works for the story will work for the reader.  Countless works of successful fiction break the rules, thus proving that the rules were never truly rules in the first place.  Take a hard look at the latter Harry Potter books.  While I am an unapologetic devotee of Harry and his exploits, there is no objective evaluation of the prose itself that could rate it any higher than average-plus.  JK Rowling never found an adverb that she didn’t like, and she’s quite the fan of passive sentence construction.  A TKZ First Page Critique would not make her happy.

Yet her books work–really, really work.  Why?  Because the story and the characters are so compelling that we’re willing to overlook some of the basic mechanics.

When I teach writing seminars–as I will next month at the Midwest Writers Workshop at Ball State University, and again on August 5 at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC–I reveal two basic truths that I hold dear: 1) that no one can teach a person to write; and 2) that successful writers get out of their heads and out of their own way and just tell the damn story.

I do believe that instruction and workshopping can hone and develop talent, but it cannot create talent where there is none.  Some people are not wired for storytelling.  I say this from the point of view of a writer who is entirely self-taught and was driven by my unblinking desire to make my writing better by reading the works of others and dissecting them.  And I whole-heartedly admit that what worked for me may not work for all.

Some of the most creatively constipated writers I’ve ever spoken with have spent gobs of money over the years attending writing classes, yet paradoxically have few stories–and often no books–to show for it.  I think that has a lot to do with the fact that they believe in the rules and the dichotomies.  They value perfect sentence construction over compelling characters.  In short, they spend too much time stressing over getting it right when maybe they’d have been better off if they’d just gotten it written.

In my own case, my “first” book–the first to be published–was in fact the fourth book I’d written.  Those other three were my own private master class in fiction.  But the single biggest difference between Nathan’s Run and its unpublished predecessors is that that was my first effort to forget about WRITING A BOOK (read that with a rolled R) and instead tell the story the way I would tell it orally, using the same turns of phrase and the same rather cynical squint that pretty much defines my worldview.  As I wrote each scene, and I found that I liked them, I began to realize that I’d discovered that elusive “voice” that people always talk about.

At that point–before agents or sales–there was no way for me to know if the book was any good, but I knew that it was exactly the book I wanted it to be, exactly the book I’d set out to write.  And because I have always been a voracious reader, I had enough confidence (hubris?) to believe that it was as good or better than any book I’d read that year.

A good part of this writing biz is about attitude, I think.  It’s about believing from your own experience that the book you’ve written is exactly the book you want it to be.  If you know its close and you know what’s wrong–or at least you think you do–then by all means workshop the manuscript and attend classes and seek guidance.  Similarly, if you want to be introduced to the basics of the craft–the literary equivalent of learning how miter joints in carpentry–then classes and workshops are a terrific resource.

But never lose sight of the fact that if you truly believe that a scene or a chapter or a whole story is exactly what you want it to be, yet others in your group disagree, only one name goes on the spine.  Only in workshops do people sit down to read with an eye toward nit-picking and changing things.  In the real world, when people sit down to read, they have every expectation of a good story well told.

Don’t let them down.


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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

22 thoughts on “Tell the Damn Story

  1. “Creatively constipated.” That is an accurate description of what it sometimes feels like when you’re absorbing teaching after teaching but losing sight of your own innate story.

  2. Well said. A great book on writing, written many years ago, is Brenda Ueland’s ‘If You Want To Write.’ There is only one rule noted in its 200 or so pages, which can be summed up as, write from your heart. Of course all the other stuff helps, but only if you start with Brenda’s rule…

  3. So true. I had lots of stories in my head, but I never had any intentions of writing them down. The one time I tried, simply dealing with punctuating dialogue totally turned me off the process, so I quit. I’d never taken writing classes other than a creative writing elective in junior high, so the only rules I knew were the ones I’d internalized from reading lots of books.
    When I did start writing, it was for fun, and I joined a few crit groups and a RWA chapter and learned a bunch of new ‘rules’ but I’m a stubborn person, and I was writing for me back then.
    My only rule now (aside for those pesky grammar things) is “write what I’d like to read” and figure there are a few people out there who like the same things I do.

  4. This advice works well in other areas, too, John:

    Just perform the damn brain surgery.
    Just play the damn piano.
    Just go shoot a damn 80 on the damn golf course.

    I think I’d like to continue this discussion on Sunday.

      • Whenever a “famous author” weighs in on what’s true and what isn’t about learning how to write good fiction, what works and what doesn’t, and offers “truths” such as “no one can teach someone how to write,” I like to bring up what I call the Fortune Cookie syndrome.

        You know it: add the words “… in bed” the end of the fortune. As in, “You will find rich rewards this week… in bed.” A hoot, right? For writers reading and listening to the advice of others, perhaps especially “famous authors” who believe that their way is the best way and even the only way, add this: “… for him.” Or, for her.

        It’s all true… for him. Stephen King tells you to just put your butt in a chair and write your damn story… that works… for him.

        What is truer, every time, is that this mantra suggests you already know what you need to know (indeed, it also suggests that it doesn’t matter what you know about writing fiction, or not, “just write your damn story,” which, if you really don’t know how, will become a learning experience, at best… unless you are one of those born genius types, who don’t need no damn learnin’), that there is nothing out there to learn, and if there is, none of it matters, because YOU know what your story should be. This belief explains the rate of rejection in this business, which is well over 90 percent.

        I agree, the “rules” about sentences mean little. Exceptions fill the bookshelf. But that is the only realm of “rules” that counts here. It is in the realm of storytelling where PRINCIPLES kick in. PRINCIPLES aren’t rules. Rather, they are like gravity. Ignore gravity, and you will fall on your tush. You might even die.

        Can you teach someone to write? Who knows. Can you make them a better writer by showing and clarifying the PRINCIPLES of good fiction (the ones that make a story work; perhaps the ones that a writer doesn’t yet understand) — notice I didn’t say the dreaded word, “RULES,” because everything about storytelling is an issue of degree nuance and application. That said, in genre fiction (including mysteries and thrillers), certain principles apply. Every time.

        Can JSB and me (gee, did I break a “rule” right there?) teach you to be a better writer? Who knows. Can we show you those principles, and back them with examples. We certainlly can. Pretty much any traditionally-published book is an example… and any book by “famous writer” types who like to maintain that they taught themselves and nothing else matters… they, too, demonstrate these principles at work in their work… every time.

        If they didn’t, the book won’t work.

        (Hubris is the occupational risk of success, it seems. As is a blind spot to the reality of the new writer.)

        • Dude. Chill. The reason I included this sentence: “And I whole-heartedly admit that what worked for me may not work for all” was to communicate that I whole heartedly admit that what worked for me may not work for all.

          As a “writing instructor” you seem to have taken offense as you embrace the aggressive use of quotation marks. Well, as a “writing instructor” I’d think you understand that experience is not hubris, and that one man’s journey is just one man’s journey.

          The bottom line is that people learn differently. People have different levels of confidence and sensitivity. Back in undergraduate school, a “writing instructor”–an under-published, bitter old drunk–inflicted damage to my writing sensibilities and writing dreams that took nearly two decades to undo. And the SOB died before I could rub his nose in it.

          This thing we do is not brain surgery or rocket science. We climb into our heads and we go on a Great Pretend. We’ve been doing it since we were kids, only now we take notes. There are no theorems or equations or formulas to learn. No degrees are required, and there are no barriers to entry. There are no rules, and even the principles are squishy. For me, that’s an empowering message.

          But then, I’m not a “writing instructor” and I freely admit that what works for me may not work for anyone else.

          • Well dude, neither one of us is really a “famous author” either, so I’m sorry if the pesky quotations marks bother you. I was really referring to King, who puts out some of the most toxic writing advice out there.

            That said, in your post and in this comment, so much of what you say is just wrong. It’s true for you. All I’m saying is that there ARE principles involved, and to whatever degree your message seems to contract that, or imply they can’t be taught, is just plain misleading.

    • These do not seem relevant comparisons to me.

      “Just perform the damn brain surgery.”

      Brain surgery is based on a firm scientific base of observation and experimentation, confirmed repeatedly by multiple scientists, with publicly available data. Furthermore, the criteria of success or failure for brain surgery are just a tad more objective than the criteria of success or failure in novel writing. To the extent that brain surgery requires physical skill the ff points about piano and golf apply.

      ‘Just play the damn piano.”

      Playing the piano is not a matter of learning rules laid down by experts. It’s a matter of developing physical skills. Even artistic interpretation is not something achieved by mastering and following certain rules.

      “Just go shoot a damn 80 on the damn golf course.”

      The rules of golf are constitutive of the game. They are not derived by empirical induction. Playing golf well, like playing the piano (technically) well is a matter of developing a set of physical skills. The results of developing these skills are immediately evident: Keep your eye on the ball and you reliably hit it squarely. Follow through and you hit the ball further and more accurately.

  5. When I read the post from yesterday, about Before The Fall (a book I also loved), I wondered if sometimes we got so damn tired of reading books that follow all the rules that maybe when one doesn’t (confidently uses a prologue, brazenly gives us an entire second chapter of back story) it’s actually refreshing. I do know Noah Hawley hooked me from the very beginning despite the omniscient voice at the start. Thanks, John, for your comments. Look forward to hearing you in Ohio next month

  6. Brother Bell, the brain surgery analogy aside, I think the others prove my larger point. A gifted musician is first and foremost gifted. Studying with a master maestro will help him to greatness. For most of us, though, our piano lessons will only help us become really good amateurs. Ditto athletic prowess. Beyond that innate talent, though, there needs to be the drive and desire to work one’s butt off. That work for us writers includes not classroom time, but lots and lots of alone time with our imaginary friends.

    • This seems like an apples-to-oranges analogy to me. Ever seen a brain surgeon with shaky hands? Likewise, musicians have gifted physical abilities to manipulate a physical object, usually playing a composition someone else wrote. Athletics are rarely about mental skills but rather about muscle memory and coordination.

      If you want to make a comparison to writing, find something in the mental arena. How about mathematicians? How many of them skipped those boring classes about addition, subtraction, multiplication and division and manage to make a decent living in the mathematical field? Same for physicists. You can’t get far in physics without learning the basics. While it’s nice to have a natural knack for something, nothing succeeds like hard work. Or do you believe that all those thousands upon thousands of successful best-selling authors are gifted? If so, gifted writers are appearing in the population at astounding rates compared to all other skills.


      • “Gifted” is a loaded word, and inherently self-aggrandizing, but at one level, I do believe that those best-selling authors are in fact gifted. And thousands of people out of billions in population is really not that disproportionate a number. In fact, I think there are thousands more out there in the wings, working hard for their turn. The gift, as I use it in this context, is the ability to create characters and places and motivations out of nothing, and then stitch all of those components (and more) into a compelling narrative that has a beginning a middle and an end. Classes and workshops can get us thinking and give us an intellectual understanding of these elements, but don’t we already know the intellectual stuff? The breakthroughs–the true light bulb moments–can only come via self-discovery while pasting butt to chair. To be sure, that’s the case with me.

        We all learn the basic tools of writing when we’re in elementary school, and we continue to develop them throughout our educational paths, while at the same time learning (or avoiding) classes in music, mathematics, physics and chemistry. At the far end of that journey, the PhD in chemistry or physics will fully understand and be able to apply the theories and principles of the truly gifted chemists and physicists who created them. Some will have the vision to imagine and develop new theories and principles and add their names to the rolls of the greats. Most will not. A talented instrumentalist has a good chance of finding a career-worthy position in a fine orchestra, but few will have the chops to tour as a soloist. There’s no insult to be implied to any of that.

        As to writing, I might have over-stated my case. To be sure, the basic tenets can be taught and from those teachings, students can learn to write very well. Journalism school is a good example of this, and many journalists go on to fame and fortune in the realm of reportage and nonfiction. Very, very few make good novelists, and I think it’s because of the missing X-factor that drove them to J-school in the first place. They’re fine storytellers, and the best of them have strong narrative voices, but relaying what actually happened is fundamentally different than reporting on people and events that exist only in the author’s mind. I know this, because I’ve done both, and frankly, I find nonfiction to be orders of magnitude harder to write.

  7. Excellent post, John. The book you wanted it to be. Exactly the book you set out to write. It doesn’t get any more concise than that. Outstanding!!!!

  8. “Only in workshops do people sit down to read with an eye toward nit-picking and changing things. In the real world, when people sit down to read, they have every expectation of a good story well told.

    Don’t let them down.”

    Ooo…I love your close.

  9. I do have one rule that should never, and I mean never be broken. Here it is:
    Don’t be boring.

    • This seems key. Don’t be boring.

      Long chapters of back story can be entertaining, delightful, exciting–or they can be boring.

      Long information dumps can be entertaining, delightful, exciting–or they can be boring.

      Prologues can keep you from getting into the story, or they can create mood, anticipation, mystery.

      One of the best mysteries I’ve read recently, _The Discourtesy of Death_, by William Brodrick, begins with a flashback prologue that raises big questions. The questions reverberate throughout the novel, which is full of flashbacks and different POVs, but they are not answered till the very end.

  10. I completely agree. The ‘rules’ aren’t really rules. None of them are rules. Some may help you improve your writing (show vs tell, for instance, or avoid passive construction) but they aren’t ‘do this or you’re a terrible writer’ rules. I’ve been telling people this for over 20 years. Newbie writers don’t believe me. They think using a semi-colon will kill your chances of being published. They think Elements of Style is the only style guide that publishing cares about. They think that -ly adverbs are evil. More experienced writers will listen to me.

    I actually said this in a comment on another blog today: Heck, all ‘general advice’ is over-generalized. Books aren’t cars – they don’t need to be written to certain specifications. They just need to be a good read.

    As for ‘writing can’t be taught’… well, creativity can’t be taught. What can be taught are techniques for improving one’s innate talent. Structure, strong writing techniques, effective use of vocabulary, tone, style… The best teachers teach ways to mould creativity using the techniques, rather than stifling creativity by forcing the use of certain techniques. Not everyone needs a teacher – as you say, it’s possible to learn just from reading. But some people do need a teacher to teach certain things, depending on their own talents. A person stronger on creativity than structure may need someone to lay out what structure is and how it works, for instance.

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