A Story is a Promise


A Story 
is a Promise

Essays on the Craft of Writing

About the Author

Anatomy of a Plot

Review of the Hunt for Red October


by Bill Johnson
A photo of Bill Johnson, author of A Story is a Promise and the Spirit of Storytelling.

Creating a plot is a preoccupation of many writers. This essay breaks down into its elements a story acknowledged to have created a compelling plot, The Hunt For Red October. Perceiving how the elements of this story worked together will help others understand the craft of creating a plot.

As always when setting up a story, start with your story premise. In the case of The Hunt For Red October, I've reduced its premise to three words: Freedom defeats oppression. This is what this story is about at its heart. Every character acts in a way that is tied into this premise, and their actions make the story's movement toward its fulfillment potent and dramatic. Because every character feels the pull of the story's premise and what its sets out to be at stake, their actions serve to move the story forward.

This story opens by introducing Ramius and his seething hatred of the communists, his oppressors; and his plan to flee Russia in the Red October, a nuclear missile armed Russian submarine under his command. By introducing Ramius and his plans as the Red October leaves port, the story is introduced in a state of movement. Ramius isn't considering his plans. As this story opens, he's acting on them.

As Ramius and the Red October leave Port, Ramius comes up against the first obstacle to his plans. Even though he is the Captain of the Red October, the other power on the ship is its political officer. To set in motion his plan to flee the grip of his oppressive masters, Ramius must do something about the Red October's political officer...his oppressor in residence.

Even thought we are only pages into this novel, two questions have arisen. Will Ramius be able to make it to freedom if he attempts to flee? That is the main plot question that this story will answer. This question is an important aspect of creating a plot, and it's why writers sometimes confuse what's at stake in their story with the main question raised by their plot, while the two issues should be considered separately. Considered separately because what's at stake in a story is what gives meaning and purpose to a story's main plot question. Struggling writers, however, often attempt to develop plot or story questions around character issues, goals, or the outcome of plot devices that aren't clearly tied into what's at stake in their stories. Those kinds of questions can fail to generate a compelling hold on a reader's attention, no matter how dramatic such questions might appear when considered in isolation.

The second purpose of a plot is create what I call scene questions that engage a reader's on-going interest. In this story, the first question we're being asked is, how will Ramius get around the ship's political officer? Note that the reader, if they feel drawn into Ramius's character, internalizes this dilemma and wants it resolved.

The dramatic answer to this question about what Ramius must do about the political officer if he wants to move forward with his plans? Ramius kills him.

By his action, he shows his utter determination to be free, whatever the price. Now there is no turning back. Ramius must go forward, in spite of any obstacles. The scene question has been answered. Will Ramius have the strength of will to put his plan into effect? Yes.

Note this plot issue: Once Ramius acts to move forward, his action resolves one question, but it escalates the story to a higher level of obstacles and conflicts that Ramius must resolve. That's the purpose of the plot, to generate this escalation of the story's dramatic tension to make its movement more potent, and desirable to be experienced to the story's audience.

The next series of obstacles Ramius must overcome are the Soviet submarines sent to hunt him when he doesn't report in. His failure to report is first seen as the probable result of an accident due to the sloppy construction methods common in the communist era of the Soviet Union. When it is realized that Ramius and the Red October act on the authority of Ramius now, his oppressors are forced into a state of movement.

Again, that's the purpose of the plot. Ramius' actions draw forth the obstacles that will block his further action.

Even as Ramius' superiors react, they must grope for an answer to what they fear. Is Ramius a madman commanding a nuclear submarine? A madman whose country they have ruthlessly oppressed?

At this point, an American navy submarine picks up the Red October's trail, and the activity around the search for the Red October. While the Soviet oppressors desire to keep this "problem" hidden and therefore under their control, it is moving beyond that. It's another escalation of the drama over the story's eventual outcome. It also serves to introduce the American characters who will manifest through their actions that freedom is already in conflict with oppression. Again, it's another story issue that's "ripe" as the story opens, not one that needs to be developed, but simply introduced in relationship to what's already been set into motion.

Characters, here, reveal themselves as they react to the obstacles the plot has placed in their path. As characters must act with greater and greater dramatic determination, their actions draw readers more deeply into a story.

Even though the Americans are simply reacting to events, their clear relationship to the story's premise gives their actions meaning and purpose.

To continue his quest for freedom, Ramius must elude Soviet submarines commanded by men he has trained, who have been ordered to find and bring him back, or destroy him. A whole series of scenes play out to answer the next story question. Will Ramius be able to outsmart and elude the other submarine commanders he trained?

The dramatic answer: yes.

Again, it's another step that escalates the drama not only for a series of scenes, but that ties into the overall drama over the story's outcome.

Eluding his fellow submarine commanders only serves to convince Ramius's oppressors that he has evil intentions, however. They go from fearing his motives, to ordering his destruction on sight. Again, resolving one issue doesn't make things easier for Ramius. It only escalates the drama over the story's movement. Not just for Ramius, but, just as important, for the story's audience.

During this series of scenes, the news of the strange occurrences of the Soviet fleet reach Washington...and CIA analyst Jack Ryan. At this point, the Americans fear what the Soviets might be up to. This is the very purpose of the plot, to find ways to array against Ramius not only the Soviet navy, but the American navy as well. Note that this escalation also puts the Americans and Soviet in potential conflict. That issue, too, grows out of the story's premise about the conflict between freedom and oppression.

The very fact that Ramius continues to overcome obstacles and move toward America, which represents freedom, generates even more fear and alarm in Moscow AND Washington D.C. Since his motives are unclear, all either side knows is that someone in control of nuclear missiles is acting on their own. It gives the Americans just as much incentive to track and find Ramius as the Soviets.

To ensure the destruction of Ramius, a Soviet attack submarine positions itself to move in for the kill before Ramius can break into open waters. In a dramatic confrontation, Ramius outmaneuvers his opponent and breaks into the Atlantic.

He now seems closer to his goal...but moving into the Atlantic and moving toward America causes severe consternation to the Americans. Should they destroy Ramius, now that they know he's a renegade in control of nuclear missiles? Jack Ryan suspects Ramius's true motives. Because he operates in a free system, Jack can voice his thoughts and work to convince others of the merit of his ideas.

The Soviets, trying to respond to Ramius' actions, are constantly hampered by their system that doesn't allow for intelligent, creative, on the scene reactions. All must wait for orders, or risk the reaction of an oppressive system.

Now the jockeying happens not only between the American Navy, Soviet Navy and Ramius, but between the Soviet and American government. Now the talk is of a potential world war if Ramius acts with hostile intent toward America. Will the world go to war over one man's desire to be free? Note how far this story has escalated the drama over its outcome, and the fulfillment of its premise?

It is the function of the plot to create this drama over the story's outcome and the question it raises: Can freedom defeat oppression? Will Ramius be able to make it to America?.

Jack Ryan's analysis that Ramius is on a quest for freedom carries the day. But it raises a new question for the Americans. Should they aid Ramius in his quest? Even if they wanted to, how could they? As the story moves forward, scenes raises questions that must be answered. As each scene question is answered, another rises in its place to make a claim on reader's attention.

For the Americans, Ryan has some ideas on how to handle the situation. Again, because he operates in a free system, his ideas are given credence. Note how this ties directly into the story's premise about freedom, in the same way that every character and character action is rooted in the story's premise.

To aid Ramius, Ryan is placed aboard the Red October. A new escalation of the story. Would this be considered an act of war if the American's have misjudged Ramius's intentions? Is this some kind of diabolical trick of the Russians to lead the Americans into a trap?

On the Red October, Ryan duels with a Soviet assassin determined to kill Ramius. These scenes again raise questions. Will the assassin get to Ramius? Or kill Ryan?

Ryan kills the assassin and saves Ramius.

Now we enter the end-game of the story. Every action is fraught with dramatic tension. Will Ramius make it? If the Americans rescue him, will they be compelled to return him to his oppressive masters?

Jack Ryan, working with Ramius now, has an idea. Again, because Jack operates in a free system, he has the initiative to come up with a plan to save both the Red October and Ramius. Others are also free to use their initiative to respond to Jack Ryan's requests for assistance. Working together, Ramius, Jack Ryan...and the men and women working in freedom to aid them, find a way to dramatically outwit Ramius's oppressors and bring him the last step to freedom.

Potent, dramatic fulfillment of story. Freedom has defeated oppression. Because we've internalized this story through Ramius, this story has a very, very satisfying, and fulfilling, ending.

The storyteller needs to see that the purpose of their plot is to escalate the drama over the outcome of scenes and character goals, and over the outcome of the story itself. To talk about the story's plot is to see that process of escalating the dramatic tension through the outcome of scenes, character goals and issues in a way that ties into the overall dramatic tension over the story's outcome. The story must never simply move forward, but move forward in a dramatic way that increasingly pulls on the attention and desire of the reader to experience the story's outcome.

To perceive what lies at the heart of your story, and how to bring that dramatically to life through your story's plot, is one more tool of the storyteller's art.

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