Engineering A Novel

By John Gilstrap

I think of a book as an engineered product. The premise comes to me via the magic that I don’t understand, and then it’s less about asking “what if?” then it is about “why/how would that happen?”

In Crimson Phoenix, the entire premise depended on the aftermath of a nuclear war. The reasons behind the war aren’t really important to the larger plot, but it needed to be addressed. I had to work backwards: Who fired first? Why? How do I justify my main characters surviving? All actions have consequences, so I had to select carefully to put together a plot that gave me what I needed without straining credulity.

In the case of my first novel, Nathan’s Run, I started with a theme I wanted to explore. I wanted to write a story about someone who had to make the binary choice between doing his job and doing the right thing. He couldn’t do both. Full disclosure: The premise of a kid escaping from a juvenile detention center arrived as a gift of circumstance that’s too complicated to go into here, but once it burrowed into my head, it was there to stay. I knew that the kid needed to be about 12 years old. And if the kid was an escapee, then he needed to be pursued, and it made sense that the pursuer needed to be a cop.

This is the point where creativity meets engineering:

How does a kid (I made him an orphan to make things easy on myself) escape a juvenile detention center? Answer: He steals keys from a guard.

How does he steal keys? Answer: In a fight.

How does a 12-year-old (Nathan) win a fight with an adult guard? Answer: The guard is drunk.

How does Nathan cross paths with a drunk guard? Answer: the guard is trying to kill him.

Why is the guard trying to kill him? DING DING DING: I had no idea, but I knew that I had the mystery that would drive the story and keep it from being one-note.

How does Nathan win the fight? Answer: He kills the guard. DING DING DING: Now a character we care about has crossed a line that can’t be re-crossed. The plot was cooking, even before I put a single word on the page.

At this point, in my head, Nathan’s journey is on its way. He’s got a sustainable story. I didn’t know the details yet, but enough parts were in motion to give the character a mission to survive. I could wing those sections during the Great Pretend that is writing.

Now I had other questions to address:

How would cops and the rest of society react to the news of an escaped cop-killer? Answer (in the fictional community of the book): Politicians would posture, the media would play for ratings, and the cops would double-down on the efforts to bring a cop-killer to justice. DING DING DING: Subplots defined.

When the evidence shows that Nathan is the bad guy, what will cause a grizzled police detective to soften his heart for the kid? The answer is too much of a spoiler.

Okay, now that I had defined both the the pursued and the pursuers, now what? How does a little kid hold his own against the rest of the world? First things first: Where does he find shelter? Answer: He breaks into the homes of people who have newspapers stacked in their driveway, an indication to him that they must be on vacation.

How do I keep a burgling killer sympathetic in the minds of the readers? Answer: He does the laundry.

At this point the plot was nothing but vignettes in my head. They were just disconnected scenes. This was the problem that torpedoed the three novels I wrote before Nathan’s Run. I needed a through line.

How could I make the plot bigger–something more than just a straight line chase? Answer: Media manipulation. I could have Nathan listen to a radio and hear the terrible things that people are saying about him. Callers want him to be thrown in jail forever. Others want him to be executed. [NOTE: When I wrote Nathan’s Run, OJ Simpson and the attendant media frenzy drove every news cycle, and Rush Limbaugh was just beginning to change the face of talk radio.]

I knew I had a great character opportunity here. The talk show host, Denise Carpenter (radio name: The Bitch) is stoking the fires against Nathan. We’ll learn as we go on, just how insecure and frightened she is of her own success.

How does Nathan change people’s minds? Answer: He calls the show himself, and gets to tell his side of the story.

From that point on, the story propelled itself.

I don’t want to imply that this is a simple process. Each answer to each question is a choice from a flood of discarded alternatives, and any given one of them may turn out to be a mistake for the story. In my experience, though, they rarely (never, actually) turn out to be a mistake because I make them work. You wouldn’t tear down a nearly-completed house because a couple of doors were out of plumb, right? That’s what furring strips and leveling compound are for.

How many times have we all heard that storytelling is driven by the Great Question: What if? To be sure, that’s a great starting point to define a premise, but from then on, Why and How take the lead.

So, TKZ family, do you consider yourselves to be story engineers?

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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.

28 thoughts on “Engineering A Novel

  1. Well, Sir, now that you put it THAT way, I s’pose I am (though I might claim being more of an architect… “God is in the details”/”Less is more” – or “…a bore”/”Organic vs. Post-Modern,” etc. and so forth… 🙄 )

    My WIP, like most of my writing, started with the “What if” and is now slogging through the “what next” – but the “why/how” almost always seems to be the answer to that. As you outlined with _Nathan’s Run_, I’ve discovered pondering/solving/answering these conundra has proven helpful in defining, directing, and/or opening more possibilities for whatever next might come…

  2. Thanks for another peek behind your very impressive curtain, John.

    To answer your question…no, I do not consider myself to be an engineer in the story-telling sense or any other. I am in no way mechanically inclined. It is a miracle that I can start my car without the key breaking off in the ignition.

    Think of me as a Mike Mulligan who is limited to a manually-powered shovel.

  3. You’ve expressed what seems to be my process far more eloquently than I could, John. “Why” is the Big Question I ask throughout my writing process. As a non-plotter, this question drives each scene.
    I have a Why for the next book, and a growing list of potential answers to the question, but that’s just to get things started. I’m a story builder who works without a blueprint much of the time.

  4. John, thanks for the tour of the sausage factory. Truth is, I love peeks into the creative process. As you say, it’s a balancing act between our logical and imaginative selves. And it IS pure magic when they come together.

  5. I think of myself more like a story carpenter. Need a plan, a solid structure for the foundation, then build the edifice with the tools I’m (hopefully) skilled at using. The final product has the creative touches (characterization, dialogue, etc.) that are unique to each author (or should be). After a final inspection I’m ready to sell the house.

  6. Great post, John. Thanks for showing us your engineering process. Very helpful. And showing all the examples helps me retain the information.

    Like George, I’ve always considered myself more of an architect of my stories. I build the concept (foundation), plan the house (premise), then it’s laying out the scenes. But, I’ve always felt that my GMC (goal, motivation, conflict) have been weak, and not worked out in advance.

    Your process of running the “why/how” to see how the scenes should be strung together, is more like a scientist doing his experiments, thus an engineer. (Coming from the life sciences, I’d love to put some biology into the process. How about a biochemical engineer?)

    This post has been very helpful. It should also help in creating more realistic and interesting characters.


  7. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how the Great Ones make it look so easy. Awesome post.

  8. Love this post, John! I’ve considered myself to be both a story architect and a story engineer. Like Jim (okay, as I learned fromJim 🙂 I lay out the structure beforehand, creating at least a rough blueprint of the novel. But I also ask myself questions like you do.

    And right now, I’m doing a fair amount of re-engineering in revision of my first mystery, asking a lot questions, seeing where they lead, etc. It’s taken a lot of time and effort, but I’m finally glimpsing the results. It will pay off with subsequent mystery novels, too. I’ll have internalized elements of a mystery that I had to consciously work harder to get out with this first book, and that will make both the architecting and engineering smoother and faster.

    Have a wonderful Wednesday!

  9. Great post, John. I love hearing about other (more established and successful) authors’ writing processes.

    As soon as I get the germ of a story in my head, I start writing the first page and see where it takes me. After that, I begin the process of thinking through how it will end. Sometimes the ending changes by the time I get there. For No Tomorrows, I knew how I wanted it to end before I put my fingers on the keyboard.

    Then the brick-laying starts, from the foundation to the top floor. It’s kind of a loose process, not really a template, which I can change to fit the story I’m working on.

    For my other completed WIP, I started with two Marine vets with PTSD, one from Vietnam and the other from Iraq, put them in a tense situation of survival in the wilderness involving their families, and then stood back to watch what would happen. It didn’t turn out the way I’d planned. 🙂

    Thanks, John, and happy December to you!

  10. I love this post, John. It’s a great example of a well-engineered article! I’m ashamed to say I have not yet read “Nathan’s Run,” but your description of writing the book is so interesting, it’s on its way to my house now.

    Like others, I think of myself as a story architect. In my limited experience, I start with an basic idea and watch the building progress. Usually it’s the result of a rational thought process (what? why? how?), occasionally it’s just magic. Often I have to tear out part of the building because the staircase leads to nowhere.

    Since I write mysteries, I’m concerned with putting a puzzle together in the context of a good story that will challenge the reader to try to figure out what’s going on. For me, this adds another dimension to the effort.

    • I’ve never written a true mystery. To me, that seems really hard. Not only do you have to plant the seeds that lead to the real bad guy, you have to make viable trails that lead to all the red herrings.

  11. Well described mental gymnastics, John.

    Most new writers haven’t figured out that the backplot IS the plot in most mysteries. The main characters just haven’t figured out what it is, yet. I had the writers I worked with write out the bad guys’ backstory as well as the good guys’. “Because he’s evil” is not a backplot.

    • This is a really interesting point. One of the weaknesses of serial killer novels is the fact that the bad guy has no deeper story than being crazy. That comes off as boring. My favorite crime fiction treats the bad guy with the same respect as the good guy. After all, everyone always acts in their own perceived best interests. Even villains.

  12. “You wouldn’t tear down a nearly-completed house because a couple of doors were out of plumb, right? That’s what furring strips and leveling compound are for.”

    What? You don’t have a door stretcher?

    One of my plays was based on a story from antiquity found in Josephus. It’s a wonderfully awful true tale based on faith . . . but not the Christian one. The challenge was: How do I make this story seem logical to present day audiences?

    My degrees are in chemical engineering, where not every problem can be solved at a reasonable cost. The wonderful thing about story engineering is that whatever you want to happen, can be made to happen logically.

  13. When I saw the post title in my email, I thought: Oh, a post by Larry Brooks. Instead, we get a great behind-the-scenes look at John’s process AND THEN a footnote by Larry Brooks! Cool.

  14. Love this! Before I start writing my story, I have to know what the crime is and why it’s happening now. Why not last year or six months ago. Why now? Once I have that, I can go forward with the characters who brought me the problem. And I agree–villains need to be fleshed out. After all, they are the heroes of their own story.

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