Different Roads To The Same Destination

By John Gilstrap

As I read Reavis Wortham’s post last Saturday on how his characters evolve in his head, I marveled at how vastly different our writing processes are. I often tell people that my characters are all day workers: they hang out at the social hall drinking beer and having fun until I call on them to do something. Then, they’re like, “Don’t ask me what I should do, Mr. Writer Man. This is your gig, dude. I just do what I’m told.”

My stories are told from a very close third-person point of view. I don the character like a costume and and live the story from the inside. I know what the character wants to do (or wants to stop, depending), and then I go on the great pretend. I document what that scene’s POV character sees, feels, and smells. Somehow, through that process, I become close to those characters, and they come alive for me.

In any given scene, then, the most important choice is assigning POV ownership. It becomes especially critical when two or more POV characters are interacting. While they all can speak and emote, only one of them can feel. The POV character knows that his heart is racing and that his face feels flushed, but he can only observe or surmise that the other characters in the scene appear to feel emotion.

I’ve written in this space before that I have never described my character Jonathan Grave in any detail. In part, this is because if he is in the scene, he is 99% likely to be the owner of the action. As I write this, I have no idea what my facial expression is as I type, but I do know that my back is sore from where I tweaked it the other day. If we were having this discussion live and in person, you wouldn’t know about the twinges of pain unless I mentioned them.

As for plot, I have to know where I am going before I start–or at least before I get too deeply into the story. What I discover along the way is the most fun route to take me there. It’s like knowing you want to drive from DC to Los Angeles, but not knowing till somewhere in Indiana whether you want to take the southern route or the northern route. Or, maybe you want to park at a train station and finish the trip by rail.

Because I write on tight deadlines, there’s no such thing as a mistake. If I push Jonathan and his crew into a corner that I shouldn’t have, I don’t have the luxury of going back and rewriting a week’s worth of work. Instead, I climb into the POV character’s skin, and I figure out the solution from behind his or her eyes. And you know what? Some of the most poignant, memorable scenes in my books grow out of those “mistakes.” It happens frequently enough, in fact, that I’ve come to trust that the subconscious somehow knows what has to happen, and if I relax, I’ll get there.

Which is good, because those lazy-ass characters love to chuckle at me and guzzle suds and eat wings while they watch me try to figure things out.

All of this harkens back to my oft-stated and heartfelt belief that there are no rules to this writing thing. What works, works. Hard stop. I don’t understand the need to outline and do character sketches before I start, but if they work for another writer–and I know such things work for many other writers–God bless them.

But here’s some food for thought: If you are an outliner or character sketcher, and you find yourself plagued by writer’s block, consider the possibility that your outline is the problem. Perhaps your preproduction vision of the story is not the best one, and that your real problem is trying to join parts that aren’t sized properly, or have simply fallen out of fashion. Try putting the outline away and going on a great pretend.

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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.

22 thoughts on “Different Roads To The Same Destination

  1. Thanks for a great post, John, loaded with simple but great advice, including “what works, works,” the travel simile, and most of all, “relax.”

  2. Great post, John. Good ideas. I’m an outliner, but I’ve never made it all the way through a rough draft without making some major changes in the outline, based on where the story wants to go. My current “experiment” is laying out the mile stones and outlining to the middle (mirror moment), then trying to keep my outline about 3-4 chapters ahead of where I’m writing. I’m more productive with those outline notes, but the story is still flowing where the excitement and surprises look to have the most potential.

    Thanks for describing your methods. Have a great day!

  3. I’ve never had more than 3 POV characters in a book, and I’m only in one head at a time. I give them loosely described tasks to carry out. “You will go find the mountain lion that killed two of the rancher’s cows.” “You need to photograph the sunset.”
    Then, I let them elaborate on the how, what, and why, and how things are going to go wrong. Not always terribly wrong, but there’s that “only trouble is interesting” thing that sneaks in.
    What works, works.

  4. Your post is timely. I have a WIP that is close to being published and started my second/follow up a while back. I was stuck. I followed some advice from Mr. Bell’s teachings and wrote the Mirror Moment this time around, but going into my third act SUCKED the big one.

    I scraped the plan and I’m back on track. However, I developed a new outline letting my lead show the way. Not sure I wore him like a costume, but I had to change my mindset.

    BTW – saw your post yesterday about being on Twitter. Looking forward to your contributions.

  5. I do the same, John, re: slipping into a character’s skin. Like you, I marvel at the writers who just record what their characters do. I’ve never been that writer. I need to experience the story as if I’m there.

    • I’m one who says I “record” what the characters say and do, Sue, but a clarification: I’m able to serve as their recorder only because I’m not trying to control or direct the story or the characters. I slip over the parapet into the trenches and actually race through the story with them. So I’m right there, listening and watching and smelling and tasting, experiencing the story as it unfolds, and as the characters experience it.

  6. What works really does work.

    I always see my opening scene and my closing scene first.

    If I get stuck I say “show me” – if nothing comes in a minute or so I go do laundry or weed my garden or some monotonous chore. It doesn’t take long before my brain sends me a solution. It doesn’t like chores.

    I quit writing for years because I couldn’t conform to outlining or “the way things ought to be”. My brain refuses to do that. All I got were tears and migraines. I was overjoyed to discover my favorite authors work the same way I work. I vowed then to only do what works for me.

    There are as many processes as there are writers. Here’s to doing what works.

    • If the creative center is situated in the Unconscious, and I think it is, then what should work logically, may not. I’m a believer in outlines, but the organic approach, where the story springs from the creative core under a sort of state of hypnosis, is the ultimate path. I’ve learned that there is no trouble I can get my MC into that I either can’t get him out of or make a lot worse, whichever is best for the story.

    • Spot on! Too many writers hear what works for Writer A–usually one of their favorites–and think that that one process holds the key. Sometimes, I think I was fortunate to cut my writing teeth before all the noise of the internet.

  7. John, your process sounds sorta like method acting except on the page. Worked great for Brando and Pacino. And it sure works for you.

    Glad you mention the wonderful tool of the subconscious. While your characters are slopping suds and eating wings, my subconscious is busily toiling away in the basement (along with Jim’s boys) figuring out what to do with my “mistakes.” As you say, those mistakes often lead to memorable scenes.

    • I often refer to method acting when I talk about writing in limited POV. This assumes, of course, that method acting is what I learned from James Lipton and “Inside the Actor’s Studio” back in the day.

  8. “… Some of the most poignant, memorable scenes in my books grow out of those “mistakes.” It happens frequently enough, in fact, that I’ve come to trust that the subconscious somehow knows what has to happen, and if I relax, I’ll get there.”

    I’m learning this more and more. Thanks for the reminder.

  9. The great pretend, John. I worked it through two previous careers and now find it works in this third one. What works, works. Words to live by. And rules… I got some advice when I first took this writing thing seriously – know the rules so when you break them, you do so intentionally. Enjoy your new home!

    • When we finally have that drink, I’d love to talk to you about the importance of imagination in detective work. The closest I come from old big-boy jobs is accident investigation. There’s what you *know* and there’s what you can prove. Imagination has to play a huge role in filling the gap.

  10. Great post, John. I’m also an outliner, and have learned to put myself in my POV’s shoes. What I’m working on is being willing to go on the “great pretend” as you so well put it. Here’s to discovery, even when we’re planners 🙂

  11. Great post John. The “Great Pretend.” I love that. I’m an outliner, or rather, a timeliner—I line all my POV characters up and figure out what each is doing along the way. However, I find that I can’t do that until I’m about 25% of the way into the work, once I have a sense from the characters what’s happening and where everything is heading. For that, I have to, as you put it, jump into the great pretend. I also try to do that in each timelined scene, because my timeline is just basically a list of scenes without any substantial detail.

    Garth Stein in a writing magazine interview made the comment that he outlines, but then allows his characters the space to do what they will. If one of them surprises him, he re-works the outline. Maybe that’s more of what I do.

    • I’m a timeline guy, too–but generally not till the 75% mark or so. I need to make sure that actions are properly motivated. My next Victoria Emerson thriller (BLUE FIRE, March, 2022) features three story lines that unfold on different timeframes–as much as two weeks apart before coming together at the end. My head nearly exploded as I made all of that meld into a climax.

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