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.