A Story 
is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling
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Realms of Fantasy

by Bill Johnson

My process in breaking down the opening of a novel is to set out the first lines or lines, followed by some comments of what makes the opening 'work' as a story. I continue this through 1-3 paragraphs, so I'm really focusing on what about an opening page of the novel pulls a reader forward to read a second page. On my main web site, www.storyispromise.com, I do go into greater depth. For example, I break down the first several pages of the Exorcist.

On my YouTube web site, Oregon Writers Speak, David D Levine (Hugo award winner for Tk'tk'tk) and Mike Shepherd (Chris Longknife) speak about their writing, and Patty Wells speaks about Orycon, a science fiction and fantasy convention held in Portland.

The novels I'm starting with are:

The Bad Beginning, by Lemony Snicket
The Lost Colony, an Artemis Fowl novel
Stinker's Return by Pamela Service
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling

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Getting Right to the Point



Notes on A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket, Book the First, The Bad Beginning

The title of the series and the title of the first book get right to the point about what to expect in this series of books.

First sentence, Chapter One…

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle. This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters.

The author sets right out what kind of story this is, but with a light tone. He goes from the general type of story to the specific characters. Once he makes that general to specific transition, he stays with the children, and makes another general to specific transition with them. Some writers have problems because they go from a general intro to a story, to being specific about characters, then start wandering back and forth between being specific and general about the story and characters. Lemony opens the door to this story world and steps through it.

Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire were intelligent children, and they were charming, and resourceful, and had pleasant facial features, but they were extremely unlucky, and most everything that happened to them was rife with misfortune, misery, and despair.

This sets out the dramatic truth for these children. This truth drew me forward to find out what was going to happen next.

I'm sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes.

The storyteller has found a way to tell his audience that he'll tell the truth. This is a task every storyteller confronts. By speaking so plainly about the children's dramatic truth, the author suggests an understanding of how to tell a story. Salinger in Catcher in the Rye also made a point of telling his audience that Holden would tell the truth.

Their misfortune began one day at Briny beach.

The author goes from a general introduction of the children to a specific time and place with them.

The Baudelaire children lived with their parents in an enormous mansion at the heart of a dirty and busy city, and occasionally their parents gave them permission to take a rickety trolley - the word "rickety," you probably know, here means "unsteady" or "likely to collapse"-alone to the seashore, where they would spend the day as a sort of vacation as long as they were home for dinner.

Lemony Snicket injecting explanations for simple words becomes a running joke in this story and the series.

The next three paragraphs of the story set out each child's dramatic truth, that sense of how they approach and view life, and what's important to them.

The storyteller then gets to the first major misfortune for the children: their parents have died in a fire that burned down their house.

When Lemony Snicket says the children will face great misfortune, he's not just whistling cricket. The first chapter of the book is a complete step forward through a misfortune that ends on immediate and painful questions for the children and the audience, what now? What next?

The answers to those compelling questions are found beginning in chapter two.

Lemony Snicket means what he says and says what he means. The promise of chapter two is more misfortune for these plucky, intelligent children, and I'm hooked. I have to know more.


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Starting at the Beginning in the Middle

Notes on Artemis Fowl, The Lost Colony

A book that is part of a series still needs to have a beginning that sets the story in motion. The opening for this novel demonstrates how to set a story into motion while filling in back story for new readers. Because Colony is aimed at young readers, the story mechanics are accessible and transparent, and that makes it a good tool for teaching structure.

Chapter Title: Blast to the Past

This is a clever play on the line, blast from the past. This suggests a story that will go back in time.

Barcelona, Spain

This is a quick, fast way to establish a location. When I read some unpublished novel manuscripts, I have no sense of where the story is happening.

The first line...

Happy was not a word often used to describe Artemis Fowl's bodyguard.

Saying what kind of person the bodyguard isn't is a way to suggest what kind of person he is.

Jolly and contented were also words that were rarely applied to him or to people in his immediate vicinity.

Note the clever way this suggests the impact of this bodyguard on others. We're getting the message he's a larger than life, rough-looking man. Without saying that.

Butler did not get to be one of the most dangerous men in the world by chatting with anyone who happened to stroll past, unless that chat concerned exit routes and concealed weapons.

This passage not only suggests how dangerous Butler is, but the likelihood of violence happening around him. He's a dramatic character. Like Bud in L.A. Confidential, we can anticipate what will happen if someone acts out around Butler.

Note also that this last sentences gives a name to Butler. The author has moved from the general to the specific. A problem in some manuscripts I read is that an introduction of a character will go from general to specific and back to general.

Continuing...

On this particular afternoon, Butler and Artemis were in Spain, and the bodyguard's Eurasian features were even more taciturn than normal.

Now we get some brief description of Butler and a question, why was his appearance more 'taciturn' than normal? We can expect an answer shortly. That begins that process of question, answer, question that draws readers in and deeper into a story's world.

His young charge was, as usual, making Butler's job more complicated than it needed to be.

This raises a question of why? And it says something about the relationship between Butler and his charge.

Artemis insisted that they stand on the sidewalk of Barcelona's Passeig de Gracia for over an hour in the afternoon sun, with only a few slender trees to provide them with cover from the heat or possible enemies.

An introduction to the 'young charge' here, a move from the general to specific about the location, and a question, why does Artemis insist on this location if they are in danger from enemies?

This was the fourth unexplained trip to foreign locations in as many months. First Edinburgh, then Death Valley in the American West, followed by an extremely arduous trek to doubly landlocked Uzbekistan. And now Barcelona. All to wait for a mysterious visitor, who had not as yet made an appearance.

This suggests back story, while also raising more questions; why didn't the visitor show at these locations? Who is the visitor? Why is meeting the visitor so important?

They made an odd couple on the busy pathway. A huge, muscular man: forties, Hugo Boss suit, shaven head. And a slight teenager: pale, raven-haired, with large piercing blue eyes.


Here we move from the general to the specific about these characters. First we're drawn in to be curious about these two, then we get the specifics about what they look like. Some writers struggle because they start with details about characters ahead of drawing in readers to want those details.

This isn't to say that describing characters can't be a way to begin a story, just that the intent should be to set a story into motion and raise and answer questions that draw readers in.

The story now continues with a dialog between Artemis and Butler that conveys their relationship and something about the expected visitor. Artemis relates that the visitor will only appear for a second.

Very interesting. We get a kind of answer about the visitor that just raises another question.

Artemis refers to a 'rift' in time that he expected the visitor to appear from. Again an answer with another question embedded.

The exchange continues with Artemis mentioning that going through puberty is leading him to be distracted by any pretty young woman in the vicinity. Something he believes he can control, which would make him 'the first' to do so.

And here, the author steps in.

And it was true. No other teenager had kidnapped a fairy, rescued their father from a Russian Mafiya, and helped put down a goblin revolution by the tender age of fourteen.

More back story to bring new readers about to speed about the exploits of Artemis and the plot lines of previous books.

Then, as Artemis and Butler prepare to leave...

A shape formed in the air. From nothing came a cluster of sparks and the smell of sulfur. Inside the cluster, a gray-green thing appeared, with golden eyes, chunky scales, and great horned ears.

This is the anticipated visitor, who as soon as it appears, disappears with Artemis.

Artemis and the demon pass through several times and dimensions, and Artemis knows he'll never be able to return home ... except Butler has keep a grip on Artemis and he has a charm on his wrist, which enables him to pull Artemis back to the present time and place.

But Artemis notices that two of his fingers have changed places in his dimensional travels, which raises the question:

What will happen now?

End of chapter.

We know something more about the visitor, but not the reason of the visit. That will be for another chapter.

What this novel demonstrates is how a story can be set in motion while also leavening in back story. I've read openings to novels where a writer couldn't get through a first sentence without trying to stop the storytelling and starting the lecture about past events.

The goal is always the same: set a story in motion in a way that your audience WANTS to know more about your characters and events. Fail at that, and all that information is just weights that sink your sentences into an impassable swamp.

The Lost Colony is an example of how it can be done.

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Writing for a Young Audience


Notes on Stinker's Return by Pamela Service

This novel is a sequel to a young adult novel about some children who get involved with an alien that inhabits the body of a skunk after its crash landing on Earth. I picked this up at the Redwoods Writing Conference in Crescent City just because I liked the title.

First paragraph:

The creaking of the porch swing mixed with the chirping of insects. Sitting side by side, Jonathan and Karen watched evening creep into the yard. A firefly flickered in the lilacs, another in the shade of the apple tree. A third wavered upward into the deepening blue sky to join the first faint stars.

A simple, clear introduction to the world of this story and its main characters.

It's beautiful, Karen thought.
It's peaceful.
It's incredibly boring!


This suggests that this characters want something exciting to happen.

Suddenly the yard exploded with barking: happy, frantic barking. Sancho, Karen's cocker spaniel, burst from the lilac bush chasing an animal. A black-and-white animal. A skunk!

This skunk turns out NOT to be Stinker, the skunk hero of the first novel. The appearance of a skunk naturally leads the two characters to talk about the excitement of their lives when Stinker needed their help, and the aftermath when the government denied his visit to Earth by discrediting the children. This leads Jonathan to lament,

"Which just goes to show," Jonathan said, "that life can stink even when you don't have a skunk in it."

This line sets up the first chapter and the reintroduction to Stinker back home. It turns out his unexpected sojourn to Earth has led to interstellar complications, and Stinker (Tsynq Yr) must return to Earth on a complicated secret mission to avoid an interstellar war.

The lives of Karen and Jonathan have the promise of excitement once again.

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Notes on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban


I chose this book after hearing about its great popularity. I wanted to see what the storyteller had done to set this story into motion.

Opening sentence:

Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways.

This sentence immediately raises a question, what makes Harry Potter unusual? This operates to pull the story's audience forward to the next sentence. On a story level, by suggesting the story has an unusual main character, the storyteller begins by suggesting this character is somehow larger than life. Some writers struggle because they create characters who are life-like or smaller than life, or remain ordinary while the storyteller sets up a plot. It also suggests a dramatic issue around Harry, since unusual boys generally have trouble fitting in. This sentence, then, suggests the story's promise to be about Harry's struggle to fit in.

For one thing, he hated summer holidays more than any other time of year.

This answers, in a small way, what makes Harry unusual. It also suggests he's a student, since he has summer holidays. While the sentence answer the first question, it raises a second, why does he hate the summer holidays? Just as the first sentence operates to draw an audience forward into the second sentence, the second sentence operates to draw the audience forward into a third sentence. Engaging novels are written one interesting sentence at a time.

For another, he really wanted to do his homework but was forced to do it in secret, in the dead of night.

This answers the question about why summer holidays, Harry is a student. But it raises a third question, why is he forced to do his homework in secret? Note, that because Harry is willing to do his homework in secret suggests he's a strong willed, determined character. It's hard to tell stories with weak-willed characters. It can be done, it's just harder to do.

Another question, student of what? Want the answer? You have to keep reading.

And he also happened to be a wizard.

The payoff to these questions. What is it about Harry that really makes him unusual? He's a wizard. Because he's a young wizard, the story promises to take its audience into Harry's interesting world; as Harry earns about being a wizard, so will his audience. It'll be a shared experience.

Note how this paragraph suggests the story's plot, the obstacles Harry must overcome to learn, while it also suggests the story, that something drives Harry to learn. This opening paragraph, then, clearly sets in motion a story with a main character enmeshed in a plot. The light, breezy tone of the story has been established as well. This opening suggests the ability of this storyteller to fulfill this story's promise.

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I break down other novels, plays, and films at my web site, A Story is a Promise. I teach this method of breaking down stories to help teach the principles of creating a powerful, dramatic novel.