A Story is a Promise

Book cover of Bill Johnson's A Story 
is a Promise
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The Exorcist
A Review

by Bill Johnson
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For many writers the issue of how to structure the elements of a novel can seem a mystery only to be solved by writing toward understanding. Another path is to review the opening chapters of a well-written novel to explore how that author set that story into motion. What follows will be a review of the opening pages of The Exorcist. This review explores how the novel is constructed to be dramatic and engaging from its opening pages.

In The Beginning...

It is of prime importance that novelists cue their audience to the promise of their stories. This promise needs to be viewed as a separate issue from introducing a story's characters or plot. The actions of a story's characters only take on a clear meaning as they act out a story's promise. If that promise is withheld to create a revelation for a story's plot, it withholds from the story's audience a context for what the action means. Readers can typically only go several pages into a story without some context that gives the action meaning; after that, it's like wading through mud.

The Novel

In The Exorcist, William Blatty begins setting out the promise of his story on the first page of his prologue. On page three of the Bantam paperback edition (purple cover), opening paragraph, he writes,

He could not shake the premonition. It clung to his back like chill wet leaves.

What this premonition is and why it clings to the narrator's back is left to be revealed latter. More to the point, to get the answer to the question posed by these two sentences, the story's audience must continue reading. Therefore, this opening paragraph has met a prime directive of the opening paragraph of a novel: it has set up a desire for the book's audience to read the second paragraph. Novelists who fail to create an engaging, dramatic opening to their stories generally remain unpublished.

Note that Blatty has already given his audience a place for the location of the prologue simply by having a title page that reads,

"Prologue....Northern Iraq."

This is a subtle but important point. An audience in the beginning of a story craves to know where and when they are. Blatty satisfies that need in the simplest, most direct way possible. He simply tells the audience via the title page that the prologue opens in Northern Iraq. This saves him from needing to use the opening lines of the prologue to set out this information. Instead, he can focus on the more important issue, setting out the dramatic purpose of the story at the same time he sets the stage for his opening scene. Continuing with this process, Blatty lets us know that we are at an archeology dig in Iraq. While one set of words is used to create the time, place and feel of the environment of the scene, its heat and bleakness, other sentences cue the audience to the story's purpose.

An author creating an opening to a novel must always, on some level, serve this dual purpose of creating a vivid time and place while setting a story into motion.

In the second paragraph of the prologue Blatty writes,

The bones of man. The brittle remnants of cosmic torment that once made him wonder if matter was Lucifer upward-groping back to his God. And yet now he knew better.

Blatty just cued his audience that the drama of this story will revolve around good and evil, Lucifer and God and humankind. It also sets up another question. What is this issue the narrator now "knew better?" Again, it is a suggestive comment that both sets up the story's dramatic purpose while drawing the reader deeper into the story to discover the answer.

At the end of the second paragraph he writes,

The dig was over. What was beginning?

The author cues the audience through the story's narrator that significant events are taking shape. He started the audience along this particular path with his first two sentences by mentioned the premonition. Now, he moves them a beat farther along the path. It creates a quality of movement. Again, to discover the meaning of those events, one must keep reading.

Note that at the end of the second paragraph, we know more about the story than we do about the character perceiving these events. Blatty, like all successful novelists, has not confused introducing character and plot with introducing his story. If he'd simply found a way to introduce his characters and plot and not his story, the actions of his characters would lack dramatic purpose.

Third paragraph, a "dark shadow" appears over the prologue's narrator. These words are suggestive of the forces that will be unleashed in this story. A story's dramatic purpose reaches into every character scene and word in a story to give it meaning and purpose. Words, characters and events that exist outside of a story's dramatic purpose should be revised. They confuse the story's audience.

Looking at the dirt encrusted shoes of a local helping with the dig, the narrator thinks,

The man in khaki shook his head, staring down at the laceless, crusted shoes caked thick with debris of the pain of living.

The author continues to cue his audience to his story's dramatic purpose via the details of what he chooses to describe. Life is about pain. Continuing,

The stuff of the cosmos, he softly reflected: matter, yet somehow spirit. Spirit and the shoes were to him but aspects of a stuff more fundamental, a stuff that was primal and totally other.

Again, the author sets out the terrain of this story. This story will explore not just what is visible, but this "other" that underlies reality.

The author continues,

The shadow lifted. The Kurd stood waiting like an ancient debt... Once he could not have loved this man.

This last line is a very suggestive, very dramatic sentence. If "once he could not have loved this man," then what happened to our narrator? Again there's the arrangement of the story's elements designed to pull its audience deeper into the story. Note that as yet we don't know the narrator's name, how old he is, his background. We just know we're in a story written by a storyteller.

The man takes out his wallet and a Jesuit saying comes into view, "What we give to the poor is what we take with us when we die."

We now know this man has an association with the Jesuits, and the words on this card also speak to the dramatic purpose of this story. I know that even though I'm only on page two of this story (page 4 of the book) I've already made that statement a number of times. But I could make that statement while reviewing the first couple of pages of any well-constructed, popular novel. The authors almost invariably go to great lengths to cue audiences to the purpose of their stories. Readers confused about a story's dramatic purpose don't keep reading.

Next paragraph,

The leaves clutched tighter at his back. Something was waiting.

Direct, to the point, and chilling. Introduction of premonition, escalation of the dramatic effect of the premonition. Movement. This author never allows his story to be unmoving while piling up adjectives to prove how hot it is in Northern Iraq. He's always moving forward.

With the departure of the narrator, the author switches for a moment to the Kurd, who feels "strangely alone." That in the narrator's presence he felt "something like safety." Again, statements that raise the question, what was it that frightened the Kurd that he felt safe in the Jesuit's presence? Again, to get the answer to yet another question one must keep reading. While one is cued to the story's dramatic purpose, one is also drawn deeper into the story.

In the next scene and paragraph (page six), our narrator takes in some writing on an ancient piece of paper. We're left to wonder the message on the paper. Does it have anything to do with his premonition?

The Arab narrator of the scene -- a curator -- notes that the Jesuit -- still nameless -- now holds an amulet that called forth a demon for protection.

The curator says that he wishes the Jesuit were not going home to the states. Notice how this sets up the Jesuit's likely destination in an effortless way that also raises a question, Will the Jesuit stay or go back to the states? The storyteller always looks for a way in every moment they create to make it dramatic, a question, an anticipation of action, something with an outcome that draws the story's audience deeper into the story. One consciously creates and designs these moments. Struggling storytellers invariably creates statements, i.e., they prove what it feels like to be standing out in the open in Northern Iraq in the heat. Or they prove what kind of sense impressions the narrator would have as he stands in the curator's shop. Since those statements fail to advance the story, they are invariably unmoving no matter how well-written.

Leaving the curator, our Jesuit is almost run over by a cart driven by an Arab woman whose veil is "draped loosely over her face like a shroud." Again note the telling detail that fits in with the story's purpose of exploring the boundaries of life and death, good and evil.

As the narrator shortly leaves the city,

Nearing the ruins, he showed his pace, for with every step the inchoate presentiment took firmer, more horrible form.

Note the escalation of his premonition again. First the premonition is a chill, now it increases, looms more dangerously. This author never repeats his points. He gives them greater depth of meaning. He continues,

Yet he had to know. He would have to prepare.

Have to know what? Prepare for what? Again we must keep reading without slackening our pace. Also note that the audience is firmly cued to the idea that what he must prepare for is a battle between good and evil. That was made clear in the opening of the prologue. Now, the shape that battle will take is becoming clearer and more concrete. Again, movement of the story as it advances along its story line.

The narrator steps into what was once Nineveh, an ancient, feared city. Being there brings over him the feeling that,

And yet he was here, the air was still thick with him, the OTHER who ravished his dreams.

Very potent dramatically. Who is this other? Again note we still don't know this man's name and what he looks like, but we do know we're in a barn burner of a story.

He finds a statue of the demon Pazuzu, and he notes,

Abruptly he sagged.

He knew.

It was coming.

My skin just crawled. This is SCARY. But note, it's all suggestion and veiled reference. The author writes,

The orb of the sun was beginning to fall below the rim of the world.

A sentence that was shaped by the dramatic purpose of this story.

The prologue ends with the words,

He hastened toward Mosul and his train, his heart encased in the icy conviction that soon he would face an ancient enemy.

Brilliant, scary storytelling. We still don't know this man's name but we know what's looming in the darkness that he must face. We've have been offered ideas about what kind of convictions this man will bring to this fight. We have been led to feel quite convincingly that this story has begun and is moving forward. The prologue has moved us forward from a premonition to our narrator going to Nineveh where his premonition is clarified and made concrete. Movement of story. What this evil will look like is left for a later revelation, but that it will manifest is made clear.

This is a subtle, vital point. Without this setting out of the story and its story line about a battle between good and evil, the story itself would not move forward. It would only introduce the Jesuit as a character and begin the story's plot. Blatty took great pains instead to introduce his audience to his story.

Excellent structure and technique.

Story Notes

I want to make some overall points about what Blatty accomplished when he wrote the prologue for The Exorcist.

First, he used the prologue to clearly and concretely set out that this would be a story about a conflict between good and evil. By setting out I mean that he created drama around an anticipation of conflict and outcome around his story's core dramatic issue. One comes away from this prologue knowing a story about a battle between good and evil has been set into motion.

Another vital point, within those six pages Blatty establishes a quality of narrative tension around his narrator. By that I mean that it is clear that his narrator feels he must battle this evil coming into the world. It's a fight he cannot walk away from. When novelists create characters who fail to generate this quality of narrative tension around what's at stake for them, the writing in the novel tends to lose a sense of purpose.

Another point, a novel is created with both a story line and a plot line. Via his prologue, Blatty has introduced a story about this conflict between good and evil. That is one reason the story generates a quality of dramatic movement from its opening page. The prologue is six pages long. By the time one has finished reading it, one has advanced six pages into the story along its story line.

The plot line of the story begins when the narrator finds the amulet at an ancient site in Iraq and comes to realize it is a concrete manifestation of an evil returning to the world. Up until the opening scene of the story, he'd only had premonitions about the return of that evil manifesting. Therefore, the prologue both sets the story into motion while the plot heightens the dramatic advance of the story. That is the purpose of a novel's plot. By page six, one is six pages into the story and six pages along its plot line.

A plot is created from recognizing a story's movement, which in this novel revolves around the outcome of this battle between good and evil. When a writer fails to recognize or understand the movement of a story, they risk creating plot devices that are irrelevant to the advance of a story along either its plot or story line. Such plot devices, no matter how temporarily engaging, are always ultimately unfulfilling. By their nature they are "unmoving," i.e., incapable of heightening the drama around the story's advance along its story line.

Blatty has carefully constructed the opening of the novel so that it has a beginning to its story line intermeshed with his plot line. And the story will be acted out by a character determined to resolve what's at stake in the story.

Because he has designed the prologue to accomplish those goals, he has created an engaging, dramatic opening to his story. Every novelist considering an opening for a story faces the same issues. How to introduce the story and its story line. Creating a plot line intermeshed with a story line. Creating a character with the determination to advance the story toward resolving the dramatic issue at its core -- here, the battle between good and evil -- in spite of the obstacles generated by the story's plot.

Another note, Blatty has clearly constructed a story question for this novel. What will be the outcome of this conflict between good and evil? To get the answer, one has to read to the end of the novel.

Blatty also takes great care to make sure each moment of his prologue is written to be dramatic, to create an anticipation of an outcome. A novel can be considered a series of dramatic moments given dramatic purpose by its characters acting out a story's core dramatic issue. Understanding the larger dramatic purpose of the story, its story question, story line and plot line, Blatty had a clear focus on the dramatic purpose of each moment in the prologue. His writing always serves to heighten the dramatic effect of each of those moments in a way that contributed to the overall dramatic effect of the story and its advance along its story line.

A last note, I assume from the quality of his writing that Blatty researched its background and had a good reason for setting the prologue in Northern Iraq near the ancient city and temple at Nineveh. I also assume I may find out his reasoning through reading the rest of the book or I may not. The most important assumption I would make, however, is that Blatty had a solid reason for setting the prologue where he has. Some writers struggle because all their efforts go toward creating an opening that is artistic, subtle, suggestive, action-oriented, etc. Everything but concrete about setting out the dramatic purpose of their story.

This author displays an excellent understanding of the craft of writing a novel.

Continue to The Exorcist -- Page Two Review

Top of page Bill is author of The Combat Poets of Maya, a humorous science fiction novel in the vein of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.