Whose Story Are You Telling?

By John Gilstrap

I’ve heard writing instructors over the years tout the three elements of storytelling: plot, character and setting. We all know what the words mean, and we know how they apply to creating entertaining fiction, but all too often, I think that new writers think of the elements as craft silos instead of the strands of a craft cable–intertwined elements that must work together if a story is going to resonate with the reader.

I prefer to think of the elements this way: interesting characters doing interesting things in interesting ways in interesting places. (If you’d prefer, you can replace “interesting” with “compelling”.)

Character is king. A plot by itself is merely an outline. It doesn’t come to life until the reader experiences the plot through the eyes and feelings of a character they care about. Setting is merely a descriptive essay until a character interacts with it.

Let’s say, for example, a section of your story is set in a desert on a hot afternoon. An English 101 professor would likely be happy to reward an essay that presents a mental snapshot of the bright sun, colorful rocks and sparse flora. That reporting of facts might please a newspaper editor as well.

But look what happens when we inject characters into the equation:

Bob pushed the door open and climbed out into the brilliant sunshine. Shielding his eyes, he scanned the horizon.  The beauty of the place took his breath away.  Rock formations glistened in shades of copper, gold and bronze. The vegetation, while sparse, seemed to vibrate with intense reds and blues and yellows.  He was stranded in an artist’s paradise.

The description, as presented to the reader, also lets us learn about Bob’s worldview. We don’t have to say that he thinks the place is beautiful, because that’s all in the narrative voice.

Here’s another description of the exact same scene, but filtered through the worldview of a very different character:

Opening the car door was like opening a blast furnace.  Superheated air hit Danny with what felt like a physical blow.  The desiccated ground cracked under his feet as he stood.  As he took in scrub growth and the rocky horizon, he understood that he no longer rested at the top of the food chain.  Now he understood why we tested nukes in places like this.

A desert is a desert, right? From a plot perspective, each description takes the story to the exact same place, but by filtering the observations through the characters’ souls, the reader gets to know them better, and they don’t have to endure a disembodied descriptive paragraph.

That voice of the character can infect every paragraph of every scene. I like to say that I make a point as the writer for MY voice to be invisible throughout every story. Every scene is presented to the reader through the voice and view of the scene’s POV character. This is less complicated (note I didn’t say easier) in a first person POV, I think, because the narrator tells the entire story. When writing in third person, one of the critical decisions the writer needs to make for every scene is to determine to whom the scene belongs.

Consider this: Your story requires a scene where a thirteen year old boy steps out the back door of a bar at midnight and lights a cigarette. Let’s say that the kid is signaling someone with the match.

If we present the scene from the kid’s point of view, if he chokes on the smoke, we have a character detail that is different than if he were to inhale deeply and find peace. Is his heart pounding, or is he calm?

If we present the scene from the point of view of the guy being signaled to, his voice will tell us whether he likes the kid or hates him. Is the signal a happy event or a troubling event?

Perhaps we present the scene from the point of view of a passing cop. That would put the story on a different path–unless, perhaps, the cop was the one being signaled.

Assuming that any of the points of view would advance the plot to the same point, we need to decide whose POV is most compelling for the reader. Let’s say now that the scene ends with the kid getting shot. Perhaps we start the scene from the kid’s point of view, and then switch after a space break to the shooter’s POV. Or, vice versa.

These decisions make all the difference between a compelling story and a ho-hum one.

So, TKZ brain trust, what are your thoughts? Do your characters drive every beat of your story?

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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 “Whose Story Are You Telling?

  1. Morning, John. Good post.

    “Do your characters drive every beat of your story?”

    Of course. After all, the characters, not I, are actually living the story. I’m only recording it on their behalf, and I count myself as fortunate they allow me to come along.

    To any who would argue that it’s “my” story, nope. In my story I’m sitting at a desk with my fingers on a keyboard writing a comment.

  2. Do your characters drive every beat of your story?

    Good question, Brother Gilstrap. For me it’s a combo. I don’t think a character can be compelling or memorable until confronted with life-altering problems…which is what the plot is for. OTOH, the twistiest plot will not grab us unless peopled with characters we want to follow.

    As with any craft subject, these elements can be studied on their own, but must come together in that “intertwined cable” of the finished novel.

  3. This: and they don’t have to endure a disembodied descriptive paragraph.
    And, for me, this goes for stopping the action to describe a character as well as setting. The Hubster stopped reading a well-known author for the way the story came to a screeching halt every time a new character appeared on the page, even if that was the only page they would appear on. (I’m trying that “they/them” as singular pronouns thing after my post last week. Not sure I like it.)

  4. Great post, John. I like the way you present plot/character/setting as an intertwined strand, a craft cable. In response to your question, my answer is “I try. I’m always learning. I hope I’m continually improving.” I’m “practicing” the craft. The characters “driving every beat of the story” are why we constantly change the outline (if we are using an outline.)

    Good thoughts to start a writing day! Thanks!

  5. Yes, John, characters drive every beat of the plot. Some are polite and well-mannered, others are flat-out dictators demanding I write the plot in the direction they’re pushing it, even if that’s not my intention. They’re usually right.

  6. Funny you ask, John. Yesterday, I was cruising along, my fingers flying over the keys, when a character did something so out of the ordinary it stopped me cold. She should’ve been working the crime scene, but another character found something in the fire pit and rather than help investigate, she was enraged, defensive. Guilty. Now I need to figure out why. So, yes, characters do drive every beat of the plot.

  7. I wrote a Kill Zone post the other day that opened with the quote, “Audiences purchase your work because of your concept, but they embrace it because of your characters.” The more I do of this fiction business, the more I believe that characters reign supreme in the story and everything else – plot, setting, whatever – bow before them. By the way, I’m in my writing room and looking up at a Scotch decanter. There’s a glass beside it marked “John Gilstrap”.

  8. Yes, my characters drive every beat of the plot. Some of them grab the wheel and careen through the story full speed ahead.

    I experimented with something on my last novel: I wrote the scenes of one of the characters in first person. I did it because that character was intended to add spice and humor to the story, and first person seemed like the best way to accomplish that goal. It consists of about 10-20% of the book. The other scenes are all in third person from various POVs.

    I was concerned that some readers might be confused, but no one has complained. Has anyone else tried this?

    • No, but I’ve had some long talks with newer writers about how this works and whether it is a good idea. For newer writers, it’s a horrible idea because they barely handle third person, and first person is even harder to get right. Why shoot yourself in the foot, narratively speaking?

      For experienced writers like yourself, it’s a question of whether it adds value to the story to make up for the reader coming to a dead halt so their brain can move from third to first. Only you can figure that out. As a reader myself, I’m not a fan of the technique.

    • In both my series my protagonist is in first, other POV characters in deep third. It isn’t a new concept. I’ve read many novels written the same way.

    • Kay, a successful writer from your area, Steven James, the Bowers Series (The Bishop, The Knight, Opening Moves) was very successful with that technique.

  9. Great post! I strive to have characters drive every beat of the plot, which means I need to have a story for my hero that motivates them to action. It’s easier said then done, but gets easier with practice, that’s for sure.

  10. As usual at TKZ, learnin’ goin’ on in my cave.

    Thanks, John, for a great post, and thanks for the all the comments, too. I echo Steve. I try, fail, go back and try again-with words, phrases, whole sentences and scenes.

    And I’ll keep doing that. One of my favorite quotes is from Thomas Berger, shared here on TKZ by JSB at some point:

    Why do writers write? Because it isn’t there.

    I’m sure that’s why architects draw, painters paint, and songwriters sing, too. 🙂

  11. Plot and character are tied together so completely for me neither drives the story because they are the same thing.

    On picking whose viewpoint I pick for a scene, I don’t use many viewpoints unless the novel is long and complex, and, even then, I’ll stick to two viewpoints, if I can, since almost all my books have a romance driving the plot so hero and heroine. The viewpoint I pick is determined by an inner formula of who will be emotionally impacted by what is happening so the reader feels that, who will understand what is going on and how that will impact the story so the reader gets that info, and whose head I want to be in.

    • I often say that a book is an engineered product. Your method proves the point. Choosing the POV character is driven by what I want the scene to accomplish.

  12. Good afternoon!

    In his brilliant Shadow Country novel (that was so vast it was released as a trilogy), Peter Matthiessen took all of those elements and wrote about the Everglades sugar planter and notorious outlaw, E.J. Watson who battled the elements and violent neighbors. The first third of the novel is about those who already live in 1890s Florida when Watson arrives. A collection of first person narratives outlines his rise to power, and his eventual execution by a posse. All driven by excellent characters.

    The second act is through the eyes of Watson’s alcoholic son much later, as he tries to piece together what happened. Though it reads slow, we see him struggle to understand the players, and within those pages, the characters come alive without a detailed sense of place. That’s why it’s slow.

    The final act is a first person account by Watson himself as he lives in a world of water, heat, humidity, and about a zillion mosquitoes. You almost feel that juicy air. These cables are interwoven to give us that sense of place through the POV of several people, while we eventually get a glimpse inside the mind of the man those people fear and there we see his own insecurity and the struggles they misinterpret.

    Just like in your own work, John, it’s a skillful blend of time, place, and characterization that makes a book interesting, and readable. So yeah, characters drive this novel, but the setting is a character itself, one that changes through the eyes of those telling the story.

  13. This is why I read the blog every day (sometimes a day late)! Thank you, John and the other commenters–such a great teaching lesson.

    Like many of you, I couldn’t tell you where the plot leaves off and the character takes over. You can’t have one without the other. Thank you TKZ!

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