Brian David Johnson On Storytelling And Knowing What To Cut

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.


Brian David Johnson is the co-author of MWD: HELL IS COMING HOME, a graphic novel about Liz, a young soldier who returns from Iraq suffering from PTSD, and the two dogs that help her cope; Ender, the military working dog who saved her life, and Brutus, a stray she connects with after her boyfriend nearly hits him with her car.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

I don’t believe there was a specific origin point for MWD in terms of an “a-ha” moment.

My co-author Jan Egleson approached me with the idea of writing about a returning female soldier from Iraq, who was also a dog handler. He also felt strongly that she was suffering from PTSD and the dog would be central to her healing. Therefore, her primary struggle was going to be getting her dog back from the army.

Jan is an artist who has explored PTSD several times in his career as a theater/film director and author. In the mid 70’s, he produced and directed a play called “Medal of Honor RAG,” with the Theater Company of Boston, that play was also televised in 1982. In addition, he wrote a book called “Zero,” which focused on his father’s experiences in the Pacific Theater in WWII.  He is also the father of two daughters and has a dog named Max, so the idea flowed from that amalgam of experiences.  

For myself, the idea resonated because I was both a journalist who had covered soldiers returning home from war. In addition, I had a sister-in-law who worked with female veterans and another sister –in-law who works as a dog trainer. For me, the idea appealed on several levels.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

For me, storytelling is a process of answering a series of questions, with the mission of narrowing a broad concept into a narrative that is compelling, logical and plausible. When we had an outline of an idea about a female veteran and her dog, we set about finding out as much as we could about her character. Why was she in the military? What did she experience while she was there? We repeated that step with the other characters that would appear in the book.

Following the character work, we had to construct a dramatic narrative, so we had to take what we knew about our character and decide how and what we would reveal her story in a way that showed the reader, rather than told them about how her experience in war would shape her homecoming. This involved a lot of construction of scenes using whiteboards and notecards, which we would arrange and rearrange accordingly. Note cards are the best way to frame a story because you can visualize the journey of your characters and easily arrange/rearrange. Several programs now allow you to do this digitally but we used note cards.

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

Every story changes when you try to put it to paper because the mind works much faster than your hands can. I find that it’s best to try and flesh out the scene with very obvious dialogue that expresses what your characters are trying to convey and then re-write it as you go along to get more subtle and add more subtext.

Plot wise, MWD changed dramatically over its many iterations. First, it was a screenplay where our main character was older and had a child. As a result, we delved more into what mothers who come home from war face with their children. In addition, we had a much more complicated plot, that included a mystery, which was slow revealed over the course of several flashbacks.

As we modified the story, the main character became younger, we eliminated the child character and several other characters as well. In addition, we internalized several of the flashback scenes. By that, I mean that as writers we agreed that just because we didn’t place those scenes in the final draft it didn’t mean they didn’t happen. Instead, we would use those experiences to shape the way our character reacts to her surroundings. I think this enabled us to create a much more nuanced picture of PTSD without having to show everything that ever happened to our character.

In some ways, cutting almost 50-75 pages of scenes, characters and dialogue was really freeing as a writer. It also helped create a much more nuanced piece.

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

I come up with ideas constantly. The good ones tend to stick around my memory for a while and if that happens I will write them down in a notebook, or start a Scrivener file with that idea in it with the intention of one day returning to it. Ideas are not hard to come by, which means the art is in the discipline it takes to flesh out an idea to its fullest extent. Remember, any good book will take a minimum of six months to a year to write so those ideas have to really capture your attention.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

Even the great ideas, which I know I want to write one day, require some sort of inspiration to tackle. I have ideas that have been in my head for decades but I just don’t feel like I have the skill or the patience to tackle them at the time, so the story has to choose me as well. Momentum is really important to me. I have to feel like I’m writing downhill or else I’ll get frustrated and stop. Writing for me is mood and discipline. I have to be in the mood to tackle a project and then the discipline to work on it every day until it’s done.

Technically, I will say that programs like Scrivener are really handy because you can easily build the spine of a story with their notecard feature and then store research materials and other things into the story file. I like to take pictures of things and find a lot of historical material to use as reference points so that’s helpful to keep in the same file. Filling the research file also helps you feel like you’re working even if you’re not working on the text. Also, project notes/writing exercises are all really helpful to kick start the process.

Interestingly, the first and final scenes of MWD were buried in a notebook that I had lost and then found when we were writing the final drafts. It was rather amazing to open this notebook and find that I had written these pivotal scenes as a throwaway writing exercise some five years earlier.  The lesson there is, keep your notes.

I recently got stitches in my arm and was taking mental notes the entire time about how I felt before, during, and after the process of being badly injured. Do you have any major life events that you chronicled mentally to mine for possible writing purposes later?

I’m not much of an autobiographical writer but I will frequently incorporate my own experiences into my stories. For example, I was at the beach and a young woman starting drowning right in front of me. I swam in and, along with another man, was able to help her until the lifeguards arrived. As I was trying to help her I could feel myself starting to tire really fast and I had to let go of her for a moment to try and not drown myself. When we finally got her rescued I felt very guilty about that one moment where she thought I was abandoning her. That night I wrote into the book I was writing a drowning scene and explored those feelings of guilt.