?? The Artist as Storyteller - Essay by Bill Johnson about Paul Auster's City of Glass
A Story is a Promise


Bill Johnson's A Story 
is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling book cover


A fifth edition of my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, is now available on Kindle.

This new edition explores what happens when story characters become the extension of authors and suggests techniques for authors to create characters with fully realized inner lives.

Essays on the Craft of Writing

About the Author

The Artist as Storyteller

by Bill Johnson
A photo of Bill Johnson, author of A Story is a Promise and the Spirit of Storytelling.
What makes a storyteller an artist? My answer is that an artist is concerned not just with a story's movement and how it transports and affects an audience -- creating an action story that thrills, for example -- but with why an audience desires particular story experiences. The artistic storyteller uses a story to create an experience that illuminates some aspect of the artist's world.

A question I'm asked is, are the principles that an artist uses to create a story the same as those that apply to more simple, popular stories?

My answer is yes.

The purpose of this essay will be to break down, sentence by sentence, the opening page of a novella, City of Glass, written by an artist, Paul Auster. Following that review I'll explore how the opening page of the novella sets up the story's issues in a way that Auster resolves in an artistic, thoughtful manner. By showing how an artist like Paul Auster constructed a particular story, the principles of storytelling I've outlined can be seen to apply to the artist as well as the spinner of a few tall tales.

The Beginning

City of Glass opens with the first sentence...

"It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not."

This sentence raises a number of questions. Who is the narrator who knew it was a wrong number? What did this phone call "start?" Who is this someone "who was not".

This first sentence is constructed to entice readers into the world of this story. Note that while the sentence raises a number of questions, it does not take the form of a question, but a reader must keep reading to get answers to the questions raised.

This sentence meets a prime directive for a story's first sentence: the audience is strongly drawn forward to read the second sentence.

Second sentence...

"Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance."

An element of this story will revolve around chance and the nature of reality. The promise of the story is not withheld to create a revelation. Instead, it offers a context for the details that follow. When the details of a story lack context, a reader must memorize details, which becomes a tedious process.

Third sentence...

"But that was much later."

First the audience is deftly, quickly eased into the story, then the third sentence tells us that the narrator has gone on a journey, and the phone call in the middle of the night was its beginning. This sentence foretells that there will be more information later about the nature of the phone call, this idea of chance, and the nature of reality, and the audience must keep reading to find out what these revelations will be.

Fourth sentence...

"In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences."

Even though the writer slips in the phrase "In the beginning..." we're already deeply into the real beginning of the story. A nice touch. The "there was simply the event and its consequences" speaks, on one level, about plot in a story, this happened, so that happened. This sentence offers a kind of Newtonian world view -- event/consequence - - that the author will re-examine through the telling of this story and what it says about chance and the nature of reality.

Fifth sentence...

“Whether it might have turned out differently, or whether it was all predetermined with the first word that came from the stranger’s mouth, is not the question.”

The artist here is further defining the terrain this story will explore. He is telling the audience this story and its outcome will not turn on a simple examination of events in a Newtonian world that operates via cause and effect. Because this artist intends to take his audience on a penetrating journey of an understanding of chance and reality, he clearly orients his audience to that purpose.

Sixth sentence...

“The question is the story itself, and whether it means something is not for the story to tell.”

Life -- and a story -- as a quality of movement, and a perception about the nature of that movement must be made by the observer of the story’s world. The audience to this story is reminded that it is a participant in the story and its meaning. While the artist creates the story’s dramatic movement to illuminate a particular perception of the world, that perception is dependent on how it is perceived by the audience as well as the author’s intentions.

Note, on a level of story construction, how the audience comes away wanting to know more about the story’s narrator and the story’s issues. This first paragraph has done its job. It is beautifully written. Each sentence has a clear, direct dramatic purpose that communicates that this is a story about the nature of chance and reality.

2nd paragraph

First sentence...

“As for Quinn, there is little that need detail us.”

Beautiful introduction to a character, giving us a name and telling us there’s no real reason to pay attention. Which guarantees, of course, that the reader pays even MORE attention.

Note how the narrator of the story casually slips into a confidence with the story’s audience, “...is little that need detail US.”

The audience as a participant with the author in observing the events of the story.

Second sentence

“Who he was, where he came from, and what he did are of no great importance.”

The artist wonderfully plays off the normal perception of how to introduce a character, which means setting out who a character is in a way the audience is led to care about the character’s goals and issues within the framework of the dramatic purpose of the story. Auster, the artist, confounds that expectation in a pleasurable way that leads to a desire by his audience to know more about what we’re told we don’t need to know more about; and the deeper question -- why don’t we need to know more about this character? What’s the author up to? We have to keep reading to find out.

Third sentence...

We know, for example, that he was thirty-five years old.

Who is this “we” who “knows” about Quinn? By not asking a question, the artist asks a question.

Fourth sentence...

“We know, for example, that he had once been married, had once been a father, and that both wife and son were now dead.”

The artist coyly pulls us deeper into the story here. He’s hooked us on the question of this being a story about chance and the nature of reality, and now he’s offering us information in an off-hand way about a character we’re told is not important. Personally, I have to keep reading to find out what Quinn does or doesn’t have to do with this story about chance and the nature of reality.

Fifth sentence...

“We also know that he wrote books.”

It’s hard to escape the “aha” factor with this sentence. Is the author letting us know in a sly way that this “unimportant” Quinn is his stand in? Again, we have to keep reading as the mystery around Quinn and who he is deepens with every sentence that tells us he’s of no consequence.

Sixth sentence...

“To be precise, we know that he wrote mystery novels.”

Of course. What better setting for a story about the mystery of chance and realtity, than a narrator who writes mystery novels. It will be a natural meditation for him.

Seventh sentence...

“Those works were written under the name of William Wilson, and he produced them at the rate of about one a year, which brought in enough money for him to live modestly in a small New York apartment.”

This sentence both introduces a question -- why William Wilson -- while sweeping away another potential area of inquiry. Since our narrator has no need to money, he won't be pressed by a common issue. It also gives the story a place, New York.

Eighth sentence...

"Because he spent no more than five or six months on a novel, for the rest of the year he was free do as he wished.

This also translates to mean he has the time to become absorbed in the story's mystery.

Ninth sentence...

“He read many books, he looked at paintings, he went to the movies.”

He is a man aware of the currents of his times.

Tenth sentence....

In the summer he watched baseball on television; in the winter he went to the opera.

Again, by suggesting the details of this character’s life are unimportant, the author finds a clever way to give these details a sheen of importance.

Eleventh sentence...

More than anything else, however, what he liked to do was walk.

One begins to feel one is being set up for another revelation here.

Twelvth sentence...

Nearly every day, rain or shine, hot or cold, he would leave his apartment to walk through the city, never going anywhere, but simply going wherever his legs happened to take him.

This is the "simple" introduction of Quinn, this unimportant man, and the last sentence of the first page.

The rest of the chapter...

In the next paragraph, we're told that through walking without volition, he could bring himself to a state of emptiness.

In the past, Quinn had not been so empty, but he'd given up on the personality he’d been born with to let William Wilson, the writer, be his public self, while "Quinn continued to exist, he no longer existed for anyone but himself.”

Quinn, through William Wilson, keeps the world at a distance. Quinn even stops dreaming. Then comes the night of the opening sentence of the phone call. The caller? Someone looking to speak to Paul Auster, of the Auster Detective Agency.

The "hook" for this story has been set. The terrain for the story now clear. Later, at the end of the first chapter, the unidentified man calls again, and this time Quinn says that HE is Paul Auster, the detective, to find out more about the caller. The caller professes that someone means to kill someone, and only Paul Auster can help.

We are given almost no choice but to turn the page and start reading chapter two. The search for answers to this story's probing questions must continue.

Story Review -- Chapter One

Along with its artistic vision, this opening chapter plays to the principles of other well-told stories written in a more mundane fashion. It opens with a question that pulls us in, who is the caller? It broadens to, who is Quinn? It broadens again to, what relationship is Quinn the narrator to Auster, the fictional detective, to Auster, the novella's creator? Who is this person who will be killed without Auster's intervention?

Unlike the more mundane story that builds to one revelation, Auster creates revelations around a layered texture of drama around the story’s core dramatic issue: the nature of reality as it is expressed through chance and how a fragment of the receiver’s personality that must deal with a perception of an event. Auster, in this first chapter, draws us into this world with great skill and clarity of purpose.

The story continues...

In chapter two, Quinn as Paul Auster meets the phone caller, the wife of a husband she fears will be murdered by his father who’s being released from prison. She seeks to hire Auster/Wilson/Quinn to protect her husband. But this is merely the surface of the story. Auster sets out a deeper realm by having the son raised by his father as part of an experiment to find a way to return to a pre-tower-of-Babel world, where “things” have a fixed, understandable meaning that can be expressed in a pure language.

On a certain level, it’s a call for a return to a world of Newton, where one can confidently speak about the world as a kind of cosmic clock. Understand the mechanism, and you can predict events. With these characters, the author Auster can take his audience into a deeper mystery that what will be the outcome of this “case.” The real “mystery” of the story revolves around the author illuminating ideas about the nature of reality, personality and chance, a world that can exist outside of the Newtonian framework.

In the story, the narrator becomes obsessed with the mystery of the events and its characters, particularly with the old man and his ideas about the nature of reality. But the deeper the detective “Auster/Quinn/Wilson” becomes absorbed and obsessed with finding the “truth” about the old man’s intentions, the more berift he becomes of finding any kind of truth about what’s been happening in the story. By the end of the novel, Austerm the novella’s creator, appears as a character in this story. More illuminating, Auster the author is taken to task about his actions in the story by a character who serves as kind of an oversoul, one who sits in judgement on the activities of Auster and the characters and world he’s created.

This final frame for the novella creates a kind of continuum for the story that reveals a relationship between the fragment of the author that creates the fragments of characters who act in a way that creates a kind of fragmented truth for the story’s audience. This story beautifully explores the modern day terrain of what it means to live in an age where so many people appear as fragments not only to others, but to themselves.

At each stage of the story, the audience is taken not only deeper to the resolution of the story's surface mystery, it's taken into an examination of the role of chance upon the formation of fragments of personality.

While the story has a level of being acted out to solve its mystery, it also probes a deeper mystery of personality. Thus, the opening chapter of the novella is a set piece to take us into a first level of the story. Each chapter takes us through a corresponding series of revelations that both resolve the story's mystery while exploring the nature of personality.

Where a more straight forward story could be diagrammed as having an intermeshed plot line and story line, in this story the plot line also advances the reader along a story line composed not just of events, but of a perception of events designed to make the reader a participant in the ideas of the story, just as Auster the "author" of the novella becomes a character in the story's as a fragment of his personality.

To break down and diagram this story would be to reveal not only a series of events, but an examination of the ideas that underly the telling of the story itself. This, again, is the prime difference between the artist as storyteller and the writer of popular fiction. The artist creates a story world that asks the audience to explore their own terrain of thoughts and perceptions as part of taking in the experience of the story. Where a mundane story would ask, who's the murderer, etc., Auster asks, what's the nature of the self that asks these questions?

That difference in focus and intent is a prime difference between art and popular entertainment.

Auster is both an artist and a storyteller, a briliant writer who is a joy to read.

Top of page

Information about Bill's plays.