Writing In The White Space

By John Gilstrap

When I was in high school, dreaming that one day I might write a novel, I studied books that I loved. I tried to see beneath the skin of the words, and into the musculature of the characters and the skeleton of the plot. I wanted to figure out how the writer turned spots on the page into real emotion.

In April Morning by Howard Fast, 15-year-old Adam Cooper stands on the green in Lexington, Massachusetts, a squirrel gun in his hands on the morning of April 19, 1775, shoulder-to-shoulder with his neighbors and his disapproving father. They face down the column of British regulars who were sent to seize their weapons, and the slaughter begins. Initially, the American lines scatter, but then they reorganize and the remainder of the novel is about the running gunfight that is now the stuff of American legend.

Then the story shifts. In the final scene, with the day won by the colonists, Adam returns home filled with adrenaline and fear and excitement, to find his father’s body laid out on a table in the parlor. He was one of the first to fall. In that moment, Adam realizes that everything has changed. At 15, he is now the man of the house. The earth’s axis has shifted, and will never be right again. It was a very emotional ending for me. I have not read that book in over 40 years, and that moment still resonates with me.

Even at the time, I understood that very little of the emotion was on the page. “He felt sad” or a similar phrase didn’t appear anywhere in the prose. The author had ripped my guts out, but the words that did it weren’t in the black part of the printing. The emotion resided in the white space, in the words that weren’t written. The emotions were in my head.

Other books that had that effect on me include Lord of the Flies, Charlotte’s Web, To Kill A Mockingbird and many others. How did the authors manipulate me that way?

I don’t think there’s a formula to follow, but there are some thoughts to keep in mind:

Earn it. Emotional release requires emotional investment. No reader weeps for the person killed in Chapter One of a murder mystery. We don’t know the identity of the decedent, and even if we get a name, we still don’t have an emotional bond.

In April Morning, the clash on Lexington Green occurs on page 100 of the edition I read in high school. In the lead-up, we establish that Adam Cooper is a lazy boy who shirks his chores and clashes frequently with his father. After the first volley from the British, Adam runs for cover, a coward. Over the course of the story, he is driven to fight by the sight of so many friends and townsfolk dying, and then by the end of the novel, he is positively valiant. Upon returning home, he realizes that no one wants to hear of his gallantry in battle. Father is dead. That is all that matters. He realizes that he is alone in many ways, and that he can no longer be the boy that he is.

The emotion of the ending was earned by the emotional journey of the character. Because I experienced his journey, I felt his pain.

Keep the emotions locked down. In fiction, emotional release is boring. Drama lives within a character’s efforts to keep his emotions in check–to plow forward despite the pain. We’ve seen it at funerals as sons and daughters struggle to get through their eulogy, and we’ve seen it on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum–the pure joy of those surprise reunions in classrooms as dads and moms return from military service.

We know it when we see it, but how do we reduce it to words on the page?

Remember the white space. Trust yourself and trust your reader. If you’ve built their character well the reader won’t need your words to understand.

Here’s a true story from my own life that had immense impact on my writing (and yes, sorry, it’s another fire service story).

Very early in my career–I was maybe 24 years old–I was the officer on the ambulance for a particularly awful pediatric fatality. It came in late in the evening, and I didn’t get back to the firehouse till the wee hours. Everyone else was asleep. I went to the bunkroom and tried, but sleep was not in the cards so I went downstairs to the kitchen and poured myself a cup of coffee that could have doubled as ink. I wasn’t feeling particularly morose, but I’d seen things and done things that I needed to sort out.

Then Big Dave Millan walked into the kitchen, barely awake, his hair a swirled mess. Big Dave was a career guy–a paid firefighter–and he was probably in his 50s at the time. He was the grizzled no-shit fire dog who had done it all and was very good at everything. Early on, I was kind of terrified of him.

Big Dave poured himself a cup of rancid brew and sat on the opposite end of the long kitchen table. He didn’t say anything and neither did I, but he was there. He glanced at me a couple of times, but mostly he just stared down at his cup. After about ten minutes, he dumped the coffee, rinsed his cup and headed back to the bunk room. As he passed behind me, he gave my shoulder a squeeze and he patted my back. Just a quick tap. I took it as a silent, You’re okay, kid. We never spoke of that moment, but it was one of the most caring, special gestures I’ve ever experienced.

I tap that moment with Big Dave frequently as I’m writing what I hope are quietly emotional scenes. If there is a trick–if there’s a way to boil this down to words of advice–I guess it is to be honest with your reader. Tap that vein of memory and let the emotion flow into what you’re writing.

And, as with all things writing related, less is almost always more.

Okay, TKZ family, what are your thoughts? What scenes have gut-hooked you? How do you harness emotion as you write?


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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, 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 the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

25 thoughts on “Writing In The White Space

  1. I think I would have liked Big Dave a lot. I felt the emotion even in your short retelling of the anecdote. “Less is more” works so well for the white space, IMO. Nicely done, John.

    • Thanks, Chris. They didn’t come any better than Dave. He was but one of many mentors in my life–certainly one of the most flamboyant. He passed away far too young.

  2. A big yes to it’s the “not crying” that jerks the emotional response from the reader. It’s about drawing on our emotions, which we’ve all experienced, whether or not we’ve lived the kinds of lives our characters have.

    A very simple scene that I still recall came from one of JD Robb’s “In Death” books, where Eve had been (once again) the victim of violence, in this case a car explosion. At this point in the series, she’s adamant about keeping her private and work lives separate. When Roarke approaches, she insists she’s fine, and he says “I’m not.” And she lets him hold her. Briefly to be sure, but it’s in front of the cops she works with, which is a major sacrifice for her.

  3. Excellent, John.

    At the risk of gender stereotyping, women are often more demonstrative and verbal about emotional events where men are more restrained, as perfectly shown in your example of Big Dave.

    Writing an emotionally-significant scene between two men is more challenging to me than the same scene between two women, obviously b/c I’m female. But at the same time, b/c it’s a challenge, it’s also more rewarding when it works.

  4. Great post, Mr. Gilstrap…saved in my archives for future reference.

    When I write an emotional scene, I’m pretty sure I overdo the black parts on the page. I’m a greenhorn, so I’ve got a lot to learn…but this post gives me some direction. A couple of novels I’m working on have significant scenes in which the characters are grappling with tragic losses and/or the fear of impending loss. Going to back and see if I can tighten up those scenes and wipe up some words that my readers don’t need.

    The scene that illustrates this post for me is from Braveheart, one of my favorite movies. If you’ve seen it, you’ll recall at Murron’s funeral, her father standing over Wallace as he kneels next to her open grave. No words are spoken, but you see the father’s shaking hand hovering over Wallace’s bowed head…just hovering for a moment. You’re not sure what the father will do, because it has been made clear that he blames Wallace for Murron’s death. The grief in that shaking hand, IMHO, is a masterpiece of cinematic story-telling.

  5. John, I could feel how much that moment with Big Dave touched you. This entire post was so genuine, so real. Thank you for sharing. Terrific advice layered with emotion. Doesn’t get much better than this.

  6. When I was first started acting I had a tendency to over emote, thinking that was how to move the audience. A wise teacher told me to “pull it back 25%.” That was gold. That’s why I’m the big star I am today. Ahem. But I’ve counseled writers to go ahead and overwrite an emotional moment…THEN go in and pull it back 25%. That would include, as you discuss, taking out any “tells”.

    • It’s sometimes too easy to say, as I often do, to trust your reader. In reality, the challenge is for the writer to trust his or her own abilities.

  7. John, this is brilliant. One of my fiction mentors liked to say that “chapters are a way of managing white space,” in terms of pacing etc, and that’s true, but I’d never thought consciously enough about how that white space is also the key to creating an emotional response in the reader.

    My main goal as a novelist is to create a compelling emotional ride for the reader, and today’s post is a great help. Thank you.

  8. It wasn’t I. It was he. Mr. Smith, I’ll call him.

    He was in his 90s when I first met him. As we began to get acquainted, I sensed he had big, dark stories to tell. I was right.

    He had survived Pearl Harbor. In the years of that war, the Arizona and two other ships went down under him.

    The second ship–the name of which I don’t remember–had sunk after raucous, nasty fighting. When The Bear Went Over the Mountain–the bugle call the Navy used to order all hands abandon ship–he had left friends, battery mates, guys he’d eaten and drank coffee with, dead or dying on the deck or in the bowels of the ship. He, they, simply could not get to them in time to save their lives.

    As we listened to him talk about those awful minutes, of going over the side, finding anything that would float, lifeboats, life vests, rafts stowed atop the deckhouses for exactly the purpose of saving guys’ lives, the entire room was horrified.

    He climbed aboard a lifeboat along with 20 or so other desperate guys, all fearing that the hands in the water grasped the gunnels might swamp the boat, dooming them all. Yet not one demanded the ones clinging let go or get away. They were all frantic to live, praying as they cursed the enemy and cursed the fact they had left shipmates behind to die.

    His descriptions were simple, not at all like Tom Clancy’s or James Michener’s. Tears gathered in his eyes, then washed down his craggy face, clinging to his chin before then finally flowed down from there into his collar. He called up names of guys who went down with the ship or shared the small part of the Pacific with him. Sometimes, he would pause, swallow hard, stare across the room, as if he were again living and seeing those dangerous moments. Those stark, hideous moments. Again.

    All through the rest of that day and into the night, he was aware that guys grasping the gunnel were suddenly gone, perhaps just too weak or too wounded to live any longer, relaxed, and let go. Dying their own hero’s death with no fanfare, no farewell. Just gone.

    But he told the story to tell of one more desperate few minutes that occurred the next day. First they could hear motors. Airplane motors. They all knew the sounds of the various U.S. Navy planes that flew off the decks of the American aircraft carriers. These motors didn’t belong to those.

    It was the worst possible thing: the motors were those of approaching Zeros, the very same kind of planes that hand shot up, bombed up, and sank their ship the day before.

    He and his shipmates knew that the Zeros would strafe them.

    But he had an idea. He stood up and bowed in the direction of the approaching enemy planes. It was difficult to stand on the deck of the bobbing lifeboat. And no one had eaten or drunk water since going over the side of their ship. Everyone was weak, exhausted.

    But they all stood and bowed, not showing their faces to the approaching enemy pilots. The Japanese pilots flew over the lifeboats, turned right and did a 360-degree circle to come back over the boat. The enemy pilots did what he and they hoped they would do: mistake the U.S. sailors for Japanese sailors. The Zero pilots waggled their wings and flew on. He presumed the waggle meant the pilots recognized them and would radio for help on their behalf.

    Fortunately, the U.S. Navy arrived first, took him and them aboard, fed them, gave them water, laid out those awful, scratchy woolen military blanks on the floor so they could lie down and sleep.

    He is gone now. Buried in the ship with his shipmates.

    When I tell his, and their, story, I find myself right back in that room, my throat strained, tears in the corners of my eyes.

    How could I not?

    • Thank you for sharing that story, Jim. My husband’s grandfather was on the Tennessee. He was horribly burned while pulling injured men up through a hatch and throwing them overboard into the water to save them from burning to death.

      • God bless him.

        So many guys lived because of the sacrifices made by their buddies and by total strangers.

        It’s the same today.

    • Thanks for sharing that story, Jim. My Uncle Tom was a bomber pilot in the 8th Airforce in England in 1943-44. I could never get him to share a story–any story–with me.

      • So many of them were just like that. Most of our heroes never talked about their heroism.

        God bless them all.

  9. Less is more. The character that came to mind is Boo Radley in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He isn’t seen or heard until the very last of the book, but his influence is felt throughout, and the emotional impact of his action to save the children is powerful.

  10. If you haven’t laid the bedrock of that big moment through the book, no amount of amazing writing will make that scene more than emotionally flat melodrama where you are telling the reader to be sad or happy instead of making them feel the emotion.

    The mantra I have used and taught is “Make It Matter.” Every scene and every goal must matter to the viewpoint character and the reader. Both must be emotionally invested in the scene and its outcome.

    I’m always tossing away mysteries where the victim is a pile of scum, and the only reason I’m interested in finding the killer is to give them an award. The viewpoint characters are often as detached. If there’s no real reason to care, I sure don’t.

    Once you reach that big moment scene as the writer, there are tricks like emotional resonance to make that scene even more gratifying, but the emotional bedrock has to be there for that to work.

  11. Best play I ever did was a one-man show I wrote about WW2 era German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I had only one regular prop, a simple wooden chair on a plain stage with no backdrops. Otherwise, it was my suit and fedora, which as the character gradually transitioned from stalwart Lutheran pastor to dedicated anti-Nazi resistance member, a piece of clothing came off one at a time, hat, jacket, tie until I was in shirt sleeves. I spent the hour talking to invisible characters, telling the true story of this martyred hero.
    By the time the hour-long show ended, there was not a dry eye in the house. The simplest show I have ever done, and yet it had the most impact of any of the scores before it. That I think is where it really clicked for me, how to tell a story.

  12. Great post, John. That’s a terrific story about Big Dave. Did you ever make him a character — by name or otherwise, in one of your novels?

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