A Story is a Promise - A review

A Story is a Promise: Good Things to Know Before Writing a Novel, Screenplay or Play
By Bill Johnson
Blue Heron Publishing - 2000

There aren’t a lot of books out there that I consider advanced level books, but this slender volume (just under 200 pages) is one of them. That’s not to say that a beginning or intermediate level writer wouldn’t get anything out of it, but I believe that people don’t hear what they’re not ready to learn, so just as teaching calculus to third graders would not lead them to an understanding of E=MC2, I would expect an advanced writer to find more in this book than less experienced writers.

I believe books should be judge not just on what they deliver, but what they intend to deliver, so  I found what the author wrote about his intent relevant: 

My purpose is not to load writers with a new set of rules to follow and learn, but to help them internalize some of the basic principles of what creates the effect of a well-told story so that when they write they aren’t struggling to come up with a plot or with reasons why their characters act, to figure out what kind of events to describe, to understand why their stories are dramatically inert, to find that combination of details that creates a story world that rings true.

I have to say that I think he fulfilled his purpose. In fact, he fulfilled it so well that while I was reading this, I had a revelation about the WIP that’s been giving me fits for months, and I now know what’s going to happen in the second half of the story (how I’ll deliver on the promise of the first half), how it will play out, what are the big scenes that I’ll need are, and what the finale will look like. This is an example of the kind of payoff a good writing book can have (at least for people whose brains operate like mine does.)

So how important is the promise you make to readers? How far does the promise impact the story? The author makes a good case that it impacts everything.

For instance, when he talks about plot, he says:

  • What a plot does: It raises dramatic questions that a reader or viewer will follow to get answers.
  • What a plot is: It is the process of generating questions and drama around the advance of a story’s resolution and fulfillment of a story’s promise.

The author does expand on these statements, but the discussion is probably going to be of more interest to someone who has already been in the trenches for a while.

The author talks a lot about a story’s “dramatic issue,” which he always defines in emotional terms: love, hate, redemption, the desire for revenge, etc. All universally felt emotions and always intertwined with the story’s promise. He believes it’s important to state the story’s promise right from the start. As an example, the author uses the movie Rocky to illustrate how that’s done.

Rocky is a story about self-respect. When the storyteller arranges for Rocky to be called a “bum” and thrown out of the gym where he trains, the story reveals Rocky’s self-respect being actively undermined.

Attacking the promise of the story head-on sets the stage for the story’s drama. Or in the author’s own words:

You create an anticipation of a story’s promise by suggesting that something around an issue such as courage, redemption, or renewal needs resolution. If you haven’t set out that an issue, event, character goal, idea, etc. is in need of resolution, there can be no drama over an outcome around it.

This makes sense to me, because when I haven’t read on my kindle for a few days, and I open it to the page I left off on, I often don’t remember what I was reading. Because it’s on kindle, I don’t see the cover when I pick it up, and there’s no title name on every other page to remind me. For the time it takes me to remember what I’m reading, I’m not invested in it. Imagine a book with no cover. We often use the front cover and back blurb as a hook, but without those clues—those promises, if you will—the reader is not going to be invested until that first sentence provides a clue that tells the reader what kind of story this is. That’s the promise of the story.

Of course, good story telling doesn’t stop there. The audience wants to trust that the author can pay off the promise. An intriguing opening puts a down payment on that issue as well.

The author talks a lot about the story’s premise. Premise isn’t a word I like much. Like theme, its meaning is murky and confusing because it means different things to different people. In fact, I believe he could just have easily used the term “theme.” He may have chosen not to because he could hear his audience groaning in frustration, their eyes glazing over, as they think, “I never get this stuff.” If you let go of your preconceptions and allow the author’s definition to guide you, you may not have that problem again.

So… My understanding of the way this author uses premise is that a story’s premise is emotional in a basic way. The emotion must involve a basic human need.  In fact, the promise discussed above is an intrical part of the premise.

So here comes the part that is going to delight writers who have problems with defining theme, because in four steps, he teaches you how to put your premise into words. (I love when complex ideas are broken down into steps.)

Step One. Complete this sentence: My story is about…

    For Rocky, he starts with this: Rocky is a story about gaining self-respect.

    That fits his definition of a basic human need because we all want to respect ourselves.

    • Step Two: Complete this sentence: The movement of my story toward the resolution of its promise can be described as…

      Rocky is a story about someone discovering within himself the courage to overcome insurmountable obstacles.

      • Step Three: Complete this sentence: The fulfillment of my story is…

      Example: The fulfillment of Rocky is that Rocky’s courage to overcome the odds proves he  is somebody to himself and to the world.

      (The author discusses movement and fulfillment in more detail, but as a general rule, reviews should be shorter than the book being reviewed so I’ve omitted extended references to these principles.)

      • Step Four: Reduce the previous three sentences to one sentence beginning with: The premise of my story is…

      Example: The courage to persevere in the face of overwhelming obstacles leads to self-respect.

      Notice the verb: Leads. This verb implies motion. Notice, too, how specific this statement is. This is no “love conquers all” type of statement. You have a solid destination.

      For my money, this is sheer genius and worth the price of the book all by itself.

      But just like on those late night Ginzu knife infomercials, THERE’S MORE.

      Every component of a story contributes to whether the story will resonate with its audience, and the author is good at separating what happens in a story to what a story is about. For instance, he shows that what is at stake for the characters isn’t necessarily the same as what’s at stake for the story.

      For instance: Die Hard is about a lone NY detective, John McClane, trapped in a building taken over by terrorists…but what’s really at stake is whether McClane can get back together with his wife.

      Do you see the difference? What happens vs. what’s at stake? And what’s at stake in a good story will always tie back to its premise and, therefore, it will involve emotion.

      One of the things I like about this book is that, though the author promotes the idea of outlining your story before you write it, he also demonstrates how a pantser can build a solid story without making major missteps if you understand your premise. By sheer happenstance, I’ve proven that to myself. I’ve also proven that if don’t have a solid grasp of my premise, I flounder.

      One of the areas authors moan about is the first line of a story. We sweat blood over that first line.

      In the section where the author talks about how your premise might lead to opening sentences, one of the examples he uses is built on the premise that overcoming greed leads to peace of mind. The opening sentence he suggests that might grow out of such a premise is:

      Jack woke with one thought insistently repeating itself: either he had the option in his name by noon or he’d lose the McKindrick deal.

      Because the idea of greed, subtle though it is, exists in that sentence, we know this isn’t going to be a story about love or revenge or courage. If it is about any of those things, then the story would violate the promise of this first line.

      The author provides a few other examples which gave me a growing sense of déjà vu. The sentences reminded me strongly of the way NY Times bestselling author Harlan Coben opens his books. Here's an example from Coben's No Second Chance:

      When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter.

      See what I mean? There's so much promise in just those few words. Coben’s novels always grab me from the first line, so this is an interesting revelation. (If you want to test this, I have a collection of opening lines here.) As the author of A Story is a Promise acknowledges, this are not the only way to start a story, but one of the major advantages to this method is that starting with a sentence that draws directly on your premise, you’ve set your feet on the right path, pointing them unerringly in the right direction, and made it clear to your reader what this story promises.

      At the end of the book, the author spends about 40 pages evaluating six stories (2 films, 2 plays, and 2 novels). Here's where he shows how the others of these stories utilized the principles he’s laid out in the previous 120 pages.

      And for those who want more, Bill Johnson also has a website: http://www.storyispromise.com/

      I suppose by now you've figured out that this is a book I recommend highly. I hope you'll find it as valuable as I have.

      Thursday Writing Quote ~ Ernest Hemingway

      Ernest Hemingway, when asked what was the most frightening thing he ever encountered, answered: "A blank sheet of paper."

      For Writers Only - A Review

      For Writers Only
      By Sophy Burnham
      Ballantine Books - 1994

      This book started out on the wrong foot with me.

      I don’t relate at all to the first chapter because its description of the highs and lows of writing is almost bipolar. Yes, I have unproductive, down times when writing, but if I felt the way she describes hers, I’d make sure I was medicated.  As an example, she writes:

      Creative anxiety…must be treasured. Like its destructive sister, it crucifies the writer. It carries with it real suffering and physical distress: migraines, backache and especially the anguish of an aching soul.

      For those who share this sort of distress, this assurance that you’re not alone might be just what the doctor ordered, but for me, it’s just depressing. Why would anyone do this to themselves?

      It does get better. Somewhat.

      The book is largely written in snippets that are then grouped by a common theme. Some sections were worth more than others (IMHO) and this may true for others as well, though there may be no correlation between the what I find valuable and what someone else likes. The snippets vary from the author’s own truths to those of other authors. Throughout the book, on the left-facing page, the author offers one to four quotes from artists (mostly writers). Keeping in mind that this book is only 200 pages, this format greatly decreases the reading time required to finish this book.

      I suspect that this would, in some ways, be a different book if it were written today, but because it came out before the ebook revolution, some of the things it says about working in the industry are dated, but of course, this is a book, not of marketing advice, so much as it is intended as an inspirational, which is probably why it misses the mark with me. I'm far more interested in craft books (possibly because I find them inspirational?)

      What advice there is in the book is focused more on how to motivate yourself and to keep you from stifling your muse. As an example:

      You cannot think of audience when working. If you allowed yourself to think, as you were writing, that anyone would read your words—would judge and criticize and view your inner heart—your brain would go blank in self-defense. You could not move.


      When I’m having trouble I write by hand. There is some connection between the mind and the fingers that draws out words.

      That’s advice that may work for someone. Or it may not. Either way, it may be worth a try if you’re stuck. It costs nothing to try it at least.

      There is a section where she talks about other writer’s processes. These aren’t “in general” observations but rather information about specific writers. This is one of the places where the book feels dated with talk of typewriters and word processors, but because the information is author specific, I enjoyed this section the most, even though, as practical application goes, I’m not sure it has any great value.

      The places where my outlook differs from the author's primarily involve her bleak outlook about being an artist. For instance, she starts one of the last chapters, Alcohol, Drugs, Depression, Suicide, with this statement:

      So hard is writing, this creative endeavor, so much at the mercy of loneliness, rejection, stress, or that horrible feeling of being “blocked,” that the seduction of drink or drugs is nearly irresistible; for as critic Alfred Kazin put it, alcohol, the lubricant, “cuts the connection that keeps us anxious.”

      That may be true for some writers, but it’s not my truth. So the things that resonate with the author don’t resonate so much with me, and the way she sees her writing life doesn’t have much overlap with the way I see mine. I don’t need an extra dose of the struggling artist angst, but if you can take that with a grain of salt, or if the angst rings your chimes, you may like this more than I.

      Thursday Writing Quote ~ Norman Mailer

      The problem is when you're not writing you don't know if you're lying fallow or if you'll never write again. - Norman Mailer

      Dynamic charecters - A Review

      Dynamic Characters: How to Create Personalities that Keep Readers Captivated
      by Nancy Kress
      Writer's Digest Books

      If you've never read any writing advice by Nancy Kress, you're in for a treat. I've been familiar with Ms. Kress's marvelous talent for writing about writing for years, and she never fails to give me a light bulb moment. I often feel like she's uncovered something that I already knew, but didn't know I knew. She brings concepts out of the dark and into the light where I can use them. It always pays for me to keep whatever I'm working on in the back of my mind as I read a good writing book, so I can see the places where I might apply what I'm learning (or being reminded of.) This book helped illuminate a character I've been struggling with, so of course, I'm going to recommend it highly.

      The book contains three main sections:
      • Creating Strong and Believable Characters: The Externals
      • Creating Strong and Believable Characters: The Internals
      • Character and Plot
      The first two sections deal with many of the issues you've seen elsewhere, such as this tidbit about writing villains:

      Provide the villain with self-justification. Even Hitler thought he was justified in genocide. The more twisted and evil your villain, the more important it is to show how he justifies his actions to himself. Everybody has an internal story about why they're actually right in what they've done. Show us his, and in terms we can believe that he believes. Do this by having his self-justifications invade every area of characterization we've discussed so far: thoughts, dialogue, background, peripheral attitudes, even dreams.

      This is not uncommon wisdom, but it bears repeating because fledgling writers have a tendency to resist it. (Heck, I've seen experienced writers resist it.) Ms. Kress stresses how important it is to go into the villain's motivation and not to just brush the surface. Again, this isn't a unique insight but what's familiar can suddenly look different--sharper, clearer, easier to embrace--from a different angle and the author provides lots of those. If you don't have a light bulb moment or two (or twenty) reading this book, you're clearly such a good writer that you should be writing your own writer's guide rather than reading someone else's. (And if you do, let me know. I'd like to read it.)

      One of the other things she provides is a form she's labeled "The Intelligence Dossier." You've seen it before. It's got lots of aliases. It details the character's vital statistics: hair & eye color, height, weight, family background, education, occupation, religion, etc. This isn't a new concept. Like many other concepts, Ms. Kress takes it farther and in a slightly different direction than most I've seen. This dossier, too, has sections.
      • Your character's basic statistics
      • Preferences & mannerisms
      • His/her social ties
      • How does he/she spend a typical day
      • Your character's inner life
      These may sound simple and straight-forward, but they also require more thought than it might first appear. FREX, in the second section, there's a section about the character's home that asks if he/she lives in a big city, a small town, or a rural area. Then it asks where he/she would prefer to live. If you know your character well, you might discover that you already know the answers to many of the questions without thinking, even though you've never considered them. 

      Just like I knew that the mother and her eleven year old daughter in my WIP should have a pet. After all, what kid doesn't want a pet? And there is no good reason for her not to have one.  I knew that. Neither of them are allergic or away from home for excessively long days. I just hadn't acknowledged the lack in an out loud sort of way, but I was wrong and I knew it. The dossier forced me to face it. And that's the value of questionnaires like this; they force things front and center where, if you're paying attention, you'll see it fresh and realize that you've been ignoring some valuable things.

      That value isn't always as obvious as my pet example, however, and this is where this book shines because the author spends time showing you how to recognize the hidden treasures.

      As good as the first two section of the book are, it's the third section that wowed me. I think most writers who find character building easy (as I do) struggle with plot, and those who find plot easy struggle with characters. (If I'm right, then there is justice in the world after all.)

      The third section--Character  and Plot--shows you how to build plot from character. Or conversely, how to build a character for your plot (if your that alien type of writer for whom that comes easily). Character and plot are, after all, interwoven. There's a lot of good stuff in this section.

      One of the first things that caught my attention is the subsection titled Character Decides How the Protagonist Feels about the Conflict Resolution. The author goes on to say that this is actually your story's theme. Here's the example she uses to illustrate this:

      Two novels are written about a woman's struggle to find love. In both books, she doesn't find it. In the first novel, she ends up defeated and bitter. In the other, she discovers that she is strong enough to stand alone, and even enjoy it. The resolutions are identical, but how the protagonist feels about each resolution is not. This means that the first book conveys the message "Love is destructive." The second conveys "Losing something can show a person positive paths."

      Ms. Kress goes on to deal with such things as secondary characters, types of plots, and how and when characters need to change and how to convey that to the reader. She strays a bit into things like how much detail to put into a fight scene, but--and I may be showing my bias here--it's all good stuff. 

      A couple of things stood out as useful for me that I hadn't read elsewhere.

      One is where she talks about revising. She illustrates how solving certain types of problems can be done via secondary characters. This is the kind of knowledge that if it saves you from even one massive rewrite in your career, it's well worth acquiring. (This section actually reminded me a bit of Syd Field's The Screenwriter's Problem Solver [which I reviewed here] because of the way she tackles it.)

      The areas she highlights for this treatment are:
      • Characters unaccounted for
      • Actions you need for your climax are undermotivated
      • Some situations aren't as plausible as you would like
      • You need more and/or better foreshadowing
      • Some sections of the book seem thin
      • A key scene reads too much like a cliché
      • A subplot doesn't feel closely enough tied to the main story line
      Who hasn't had at least one of these problems? Some of us have had to deal with them all at one time or another.

      In another offering, she details the four elements that must be present in order to convince the reader that your character has changed and/or grown, starting with showing that the character is capable of changing in the first place. That sounds rather obvious when it's stated like that, doesn't it? And yet, sometimes overlooking the obvious is so easy that we can't see what we've done wrong. It's also so much easier to fix when you know what the required elements are.

      So even I've seen some of what the author writes about her in other places, there are also gems I haven't seen elsewhere, which leads me to the conclusion that there may or may not be gold in them thar hills, but I guarantee there's gold in this here book.

      Thursday Writing Quote ~ Paul Rudnick

      As a writer, I need an enormous amount of time alone. Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It's a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write. Having anybody watching that or attempting to share it with me would be grisly. - Paul Rudnick

      Thursday Writing Quotes ~ Isaac Asimov

      If the doctor told me I had six minutes to live, I'd type a little faster.  ~Isaac Asimov