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 for $2.99 from Amazon Kindle.

This edition offers new, unique tools for creating vibrant story characters, how to outline a novel, and a guide to writing a novel, screenplay, or play, how to evaluate a manuscript, review a screenplay, and tools to revise a novel; and my new essay, Storytelling and the Superconscious Mind.
Essays on the Craft of Writing
About the Author

Premise -- Foundation of Storytelling
By Bill Johnson

Beginning a story in an active voice is a crucial aspect of storytelling. Creating a story premise can be a great help toward accomplishing that goal.

A story premise sets out a story's core dramatic issue, the movement of that issue toward resolution, and the fulfillment that resolution sets up for the story's audience.

Dramatic Issue

A story's core dramatic issue is the issue at the heart of a story's promise. Dramatic issues or ideas revolve around human needs. The need to be loved. To have control of one's fate. To feel needed. To be able to overcome obstacles. To be able to grow and heal from life's wounds. To understand and make sense of the events of life. To experience life in a deeply-felt way.

The important point is that storytellers be able to name the dramatic issue at the heart of the stories they are telling.

If perceiving a story's core dramatic issue is difficult for you, think about the issues in your life that you enjoy seeing acted out dramatically. Then put a 'name' on what that issue is. Does it revolve around finding love? Gaining knowledge? Avenging some wrong? Someone going from being a nobody to somebody? Good defeating evil?

Movement

The movement of a story describes the overall direction a storyteller moves a story to resolve its promise. For example, a story about courage will have characters and events acting to resolve that. The movement of the story might be described as overcoming, or confronting, battling fear, coming to a new understanding of what courage is.

If your story doesn't move somewhere -- across a physical landscape, through changing feelings, across a presentation of ideas -- it can't move an audience.

Fulfillment

A story's fulfillment is what concretely and visibly manifests the resolution of your story's promise...

and...

...the feelings and thoughts this resolution generates for a story's audience.

A fulfilling resolution for a story about courage could be that a fearful character discovers an inner sense of courage. This is fulfilling for an audience to the degree the story enables them to share this story journey. To feel what it is like to move from being fearful to courageous.

Another story might offer a fulfilling experience of romance.

Another might show someone pined down by life finding a way to move forward.

Another someone coming to terms with their grief.

To understand fulfillment, consider what your favorite stories lead you to feel or think. That is each story's fulfillment.

Lajos Egri in The Art of Dramatic Writing goes into great detail about what a premise is. Egri's premise for Romeo and Juliet: "Great love defies even death."

The dramatic issue here is love. Because readers desire to experience love in a fulfilling way, love as a dramatic issue is at the heart of many stories.

The movement of Romeo and Juliet is about love overcoming obstacles that escalate to include death. By defying even death, the story fulfills its premise. The word defying, then, describes the movement of the story.

Note that to defy something suggests active movement. From the opening page of the story, it's going somewhere.

Every premise must express an active quality of movement. Only that creates an anticipation of an outcome of a story's issues, events and character goals. If nothing goes into motion in the beginning of a story, there's nothing to be resolved, and no reason for an audience to feel engaged.

To manifest a story's movement, a story is populated with characters who feel compelled to act by what's at stake over the story's course and outcome.

Rocky, for example, acts out someone going from being a nobody to being somebody by overcoming insurmountable odds.

The characters in Romeo and Juliet who would love are blocked by characters who hate. The result is conflict. Characters who must love blocked by characters designed to hate. The unwillingness of both sets of characters to be blocked by the others moves the story forward.

A story lacking a clear premise risks being populated with characters whose actions fail to create drama. They act to no discernible purpose. Events happen, but lack meaning.

Lastly, a premise identifies what makes dramatically potent and concrete a story's fulfillment.

In Romeo and Juliet, the actions of the characters make concrete the story's fulfillment. Their actions offer the story's audience a fulfilling experience of profound love.

Characters simply having goals opposed by others does not make their actions story-like, however. It is by their actions moving a dramatic issue toward resolution of a story's promise that they become story-like. A subtle point must be understood. To describe the premise of Romeo and Juliet, or any story, is a separate issue from talking about a story's character actions, goals or plot issues. Romeo and Juliet is a story about great -- if tragic -- love. Its plot operates to make the story's fulfillment dramatic and deeply felt. Its characters act out the story to create for its audience this experience of great love.

A story that has no discernible movement around some recognizable issue appears to lack purpose. Even a story about the meaninglessness of life needs a dramatic focus to be engaging and satisfying.

Premise -- Foundation for Storytelling

A premise could be compared to a house foundation. It supports a well-constructed story. It is not meant to be artistic or original so much as clear and direct about setting out a story's core dramatic issue and what manifests its movement toward fulfillment.

To visualize a premise, think of a community burned to the ground. If you looked at it before the fire, every house would be unique in some way. After the fire, when all that's left are bare foundations, the foundations all have a similar quality. They all tend to look alike.

A premise is like that. It's not meant to be different, artistic, or unique; unlike any other premise. It's meant to set out a foundation that supports the more visible aspects of a story, its characters and events; just like a house foundation supports the more visible aspects of a house, its walls, roof, windows, etc.

A writer could start with the premise of Romeo and Juliet and write an entirely different story than Shakespeare. The story would be different because the writer would bring their "voice" to how they dramatically presented its characters, situations, events, issues and ideas.

Once you understand how to create a dynamic story premise, it will help you with every other element of storytelling:

  • What kinds of characters will populate your story.
  • Help you create plot events that serve to make your story's movement dramatic.
  • Suggest what characters actions and story events best manifest your story's fulfillment.
  • Or, you might write your story first...then explore it to see the premise that lies at its heart and use that to guide rewrites.

Summary

The ability to create a premise offers a writer an opportunity to understand the foundation of a story BEFORE they begin to write it. Such an understanding can help a writer avoid multiple rewrites in an attempt to "find" a story.

When writers understand a story's premise, they have a guide to setting out a story in an active voice from its opening words.

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