Interview with Frank Peretti: On Writing
Craig von Buseck: You have said that you wrote your hit thriller Monster in almost a screenplay style. Talk to me about your writing style and who some of your influences were.
Frank Peretti: Well, it's my own style. It really is. I've come into my own on that. In terms of the things that I hold important, or at least fascinating for me -- I like to keep a story moving; I don't like speed bumps. I try to write cinematically. Let me define what I mean by that. First of all, I try to write in a visual way so that the reader can watch a movie in their head. And it keeps moving. I try to structure the stories like a screenplay may be structured.
That's what I did in Monster to quite an extent. For instance, I didn't have a lot of back-story on the characters. I didn't take a lot of time to develop where they grew up, or what their inner turmoil was -- all this inside your head stuff. I pursued a screenplay approach, which basically is that you find out about the characters by what they do -- how they act.
von Buseck: By their reaction to what is happening?
Peretti: Yes. In a film you can't get inside their head. As the story progresses, you're just going to have to learn about them by what they do, how they act, how they respond, what they say. So that's what I did.
Now in a little more literary approach, you have readers out there who also enjoy a good read. Monster was, in a way, a bit of an experiment. We have such a visual culture -- a movie-oriented culture. And also, I'd like to think that Monster might be made into a film some day, and it's nice to have it pre-tailored for that kind of medium. If you're a serious writer, eventually you're going to have something that's going to require a more insightful, introspective, contemplative, analytical approach.
My book The Visitation, for instance, was probably one of my most introspective, character-driven books. Most of my books were action-driven. Visitation was strongly character-driven -- it was a character study.
There's nothing right or wrong with either one of these. They're just different approaches to story.
von Buseck: It's what works for the overall story.
Peretti: Right. All that to say, I think next time, having done a screen-play-ish, movie-ish book, I'd like to try a more "book" kind of book that comes more from the heart than from the head and the eyes. It will still be interesting. I don't like to write boring books.
von Buseck: I don't think people like to read boring books (laughs).
Peretti: Well, yes. I just feel the need as a writer to try something kind of deep and fulfilling.
von Buseck: You mentioned in an earlier interview on CBN.com that you are now kind of in that nebulous phase between books and you're waiting on the Lord for the message for the next book.
Peretti: That's it! Yeah.
von Buseck: So how are we coming along?
Peretti: We're getting closer. We're not there yet, but we're getting closer.
von Buseck: Yeah? Some inklings?
Peretti: That's the thing about writing a nice, deep, message-kind-of-a book; you've got to take the time to get the message and sort out just what God's saying. It's one thing to grab a story idea, develop it, and 'bam', it's out the door. It's another thing to really seek God and try to understand what He's saying -- what are you saying? What am I not seeing here? How am I to relate this to my readers? That's real satisfying if I can do that.
There's kind of a big boom right now in Christian fiction for thrillers. And thrillers are nice. I like doing thrillers. But on the other hand, I think I'm going to dry up and wither away if I'm just grinding out thriller 'sausages' one after the other. There's just something I feel in my heart and I've got to find it.
I know I'm sounding vague…
von Buseck: Well that's your prerogative -- I don't want you to tell us what the next book is, that gives it away.
Peretti: Well, I don't know what the next book is.
von Buseck: But you're seeking.
Peretti: I'm seeking.
von Buseck: At least you're seeking in the right place.
von Buseck: You referred to the old fiction writers' adage, 'You never really know your characters until they respond under pressure.' For you in your writing, how do you approach it? Do you build your characters first, and then throw them into action? Or do you build the story outline and then build you characters and watch them evolve and develop? Or is it a little bit of both?
Peretti: It's kind of a little bit of both. They run hand in hand, because the message and the character develop at the same time. Usually I start with the message. And so I realize I need a certain character to do a certain thing.
In Monster I have a character named Beck. I needed someone who was going to be challenged by the smallness of her own world -- who was going to be challenged to stretch her own world and look beyond her own assumptions, because that's one of the major themes of the book. All of us are all so tidy and secure in our own assumptions, be it evolution or whatever. Sometimes we have to expand our world and go outside the box a little bit to see what we're not seeing or what we're not thinking. Well, I just found it fascinating that I was going to have to thrust her into the wilderness, so I needed to have a character who hates the wilderness.
von Buseck: That gives it a little bit of conflict.
Peretti: I'm going to be thrusting her into a situation where she's living with savage, dirty, smelly beasts. I'm going to have to make her nice, neat, prim and proper, and clean. So I'm going to have to bring her to a point of severe challenge and conflict where she's going to have to be strong and just go to the wire -- [he imitates Marlon Brando and says] 'go to the mattresses'.
von Buseck: All answers are in The Godfather, right? (laughs)
Peretti: Yeah (laughs). So if she's a growth character, then she's going to have to be the last person on earth who would do such a thing. Now that's just fictional nuts and bolts. You start with that, and then you work the character.
von Buseck: I've heard some writers say that the characters introduce themselves to you as you're writing. Do you find that happening, where you're thinking you're going a certain way and then all of a sudden, the character starts to go a different way than you anticipated?
Peretti: Well, they usually go the way I want them to. But they also become more real. They start saying things that's all their own.
von Buseck: I think that's what I'm driving at -- they start to speak in that world.
Peretti: It's a part of the creative process. You basically chalk-up the character that you want, but there is that point where you cross a line of some kind. You go past a certain point and they do take on a life of their own. That's part of 'finding it.'
I was talking to my wife, Barb, the other day about this term that I just came up with. I've been coaching another aspiring writer, trying to get her to understand some of these things. You know, there's writing, and then there's really writing -- maybe it's the difference between sketching and painting. You can recount and incident that happened, or you can 'be there'! You can take your reader there. It's really hard to define. But I remember working with her and one day she came to 'class' and presented her assignment, and we read through it. It was good writing, but it just wasn't alive -- it didn't have a soul. It was kind of a struggling recounting of something, but I didn't feel like she was there, and I didn't feel that as a reader I was there. She walked away kind of discouraged, but I was just telling her, you've got to 'find it.'
And it's a soul thing. It's a spiritual thing. It's a human thing.
Another way I illustrate this, it's like Muhammad Ali. He would be up there boxing and the whole audience is watching, and he's just kind of 'flat-footing' around. He's go his hands up like this… [demonstrates the stance].
von Buseck: Kind of 'rope-a-dope'?
Peretti: Yeah, 'rope-a-dope' and staying away from the guy, and he's not doing anything. And Howard Cosell is saying, "Ali isn't doing much." But old Ali is just watching this guy, figuring out what he's going to do. Then in about the third round, Ali starts dancing. He starts doing those moves and the crowd starts cheering. Well, I was trying to tell my student that you get to the point as a writer that you're not just flat-footing your way through the page saying, "O.K. I've got this many pages I've got to do, and I've got to get this information across, and I've got to say this about the character…" That's flat-footing. But when you 'find it' then it comes to life. Then the animation is in there.
Now that is the point where your characters take on a life of their own. Up to that point, it's nuts and bolts. Even Hemmingway said the first draft of anything is no good.
von Buseck: Hemmingway said, "Art begins with the first re-write."
Peretti: That's encouraging.
von Buseck: I like what Mitchner said. He didn't consider the writing process to have begun until he was done with the first draft.
Peretti: Well then you have something to work with. It's there. That's so very true.
von Buseck: Have any of your characters ever surprised you -- you're beginning to dance like Ali and then the character goes one way and you say, "Wow, I didn't anticipate that."
Peretti: I've had a few surprises. They weren't big ones. Just kind of fun, like, 'Hey, I didn't know he could do that!' (laughs) That's not bad. I like that.
von Buseck: What is the status of a movie of This Present Darkness?
Peretti: Well the vision there is pretty much the same. You've got Ralph Winter working at Twentieth Century Fox. The property itself is in 'turn-around', which basically means it's sitting in a drawer somewhere.
von Buseck: That was the last I heard about it.
Peretti: We're trying to develop like a Frank Peretti 'brand'. We started with Hangman's Curse, then we did Visitation (which is in post production). They really want to do The Oath. Once we build credibility and a financial base with these films, we can work our way up and prove that we have an audience out there and a market. It's starting to get to the point where maybe Fox will buy in with us and we'll have the money and the studio to do the film.
von Buseck: So there's still the hope that the movie will be produced?
von Buseck: I work at CBN, so we hear different rumors about the film. But there are many people who want to see it done. Your first two books are part of the Christian culture, and you don't want to mess with that. That's like messing with Gone with the Wind, (laughs) or doing a sequel to The Sound of Music. You've got to be careful with these things.
Peretti: It would be great. The Lord's just going to have to bring something together. It's going to be so important to do this right. It's so easy to do it wrong. And we only get one shot at it.