A Story is a Promise


A Story 
is a Promise

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I review screenplays, novel manuscripts, and plays. I am at heart a teacher, so the basic goal of my reviews is to teach the craft of storytelling.

Essays on the Craft of Writing

About the Author

Understanding the Process of Storytelling
by Bill Johnson

edited by Lawrence Booth

revised 12/27/98

The craft of creating a dramatic story that engages and satisfies an audience has long been viewed as a mysterious process. The myth of storytelling holds that certain individuals are touched by a particular muse, and through some obscure, chimerical process, a story comes into being through them. Further, that those not visited by this muse must always view the creation of a story as an unexplainable mystery.

Those who view the creation of a story as an impenetrable mystery might be compared to those with no background in biology trying to understand the creation of a baby. One myth says that a baby arrives because a stork pays a visit, and that fanciful explanation seems as fitting as any.

Just like there is an understandable process for creating a baby, there is an understandable process for creating a story.

To illustrate that process, I'll use a simple story scenario set on a mountain. Two couples and one minor character act out the story. John and Mary Fagin are the story's primary characters. They are a couple in their twenties who have lost a first child within the last year. Kyle Hart and Louisa Ferris are secondary characters. Harrison Sorge, a sheriff who operates a rescue service, is a minor character. Other characters populate the story, but they won't be identified, to better keep a tighter focus on the process of creating a story.

The premise of the story: The courage to overcome fear leads to healing.

The story's dramatic issue is courage to overcome fear.

Its verb is leads to. It is through this process of courage being tested and the characters of the story finding the courage to overcome their fears that this story moves to its fulfillment.

The story's fulfillment revolves around healing. By having the courage to face and overcome their individual fears, the story's characters prove the story's premise in a fulfilling way.

Just as those desiring a fulfilling experience of love find that in Romeo and Juliet, those desiring to experience the healing power of courage can experience that via this story.

What's at stake over the outcome of this story is whether its characters will find the courage to find healing. This issue of understanding what's at stake in a story is vital. Only when a story's audience feels, believes, accepts that something is at stake over a recognizable issue of human need being resolved can the members of that audience be led to feel invested in the story's course and outcome.

Therefore, it is NOT the purpose of the opening of this story set on a mountain to simply introduce characters and their physical characteristics, but to introduce the dramatic issue at the heart of this story in a way that through the actions of these characters something dramatically at stake will be resolved. Hearing the promise of a story that potentially fulfills an issue of human need -- finding healing -- engages the interest of the story's audience. As the characters must overcome increasing obstacles to find healing, they heighten the drama over the story's fulfillment of its promise.

The deeper issue to understand here is that the members of the audience to this story do not approach it as blank slate. Many people have issues in their lives around courage, fear, healing. So a story that promises a journey of courage overcoming fear and leading to healing offers something of value to its audience. People who desire healing but who feel trapped by fear can, through this story, experience something they don't always get from life. To not suggest the story's promise through the actions and dialogue of the story's characters is to leave out of the story that which potentially draws the story's audience into its world.

This is not to suggest that characters introduce themselves and their dramatic purposes baldly. Just that the storyteller understand that something like introducing characters who are in grief by itself raises the question of whether they can find healing. By the choices of how and in what context storytellers introduce characters, they can communicate a story's promise. By how they tell a story, they can suggest their ability to transport an audience to the fulfillment of their story's promise.

Continuing with the story scenario, the story opens with John and Mary, Kyle and Louisa arriving on the mountain. What we learn about them as characters is that because John and Mary lost a baby, their relationship is in serious trouble, likely to end. What we learn about Kyle is that he's created a persona of being fearless. His plans for the day are that by putting Mary and John into a fearful situation where they must depend on each other, they will regain the love and faith in each other they have lost.

What we learn about Louisa is that she has created a persona of being unflappable and in control at times. Therefore, she ends up in relationships with men like Kyle in well-defined roles that preclude a heart-felt, and thus risky, intimate relationship.

The purpose of the story's dialogue and opening action is to set this story about courage into motion by suggesting, through the description of these individuals, what's at stake for them. In a few lines of dialogue it would come out that John and Mary have lost their baby and are ready to divorce. That Kyle has come up with this plan of climbing the mountain as a way to try and bring his friends back together and as a way to impress Louisa to complete his conquest of her. Louisa, as the story opens, is presented as someone who won't say "no" to Kyle because that would make her appear vulnerable.

The key issue here is that these characters start out "ripe" with a need to move toward a new sense of who they are. By putting characters with issues to resolve into a situation that will call for courage -- the climb up the mountain -- the story has an environment that offers a dramatic backdrop to the tests of courage each of the story's characters must face. As these characters ascend the mountain toward a physical goal -- reaching its summit -- an audience cued in to the deeper story about courage can assign meaning to their actions. As they ascend the mountain, their actions also make visible their ascent of, and encounter with, their own personal issues, internal obstacles, and desires. This creates an outward, visible manifestation of what these characters are experiencing, thinking, and feeling internally, and thus a sense of movement of the story toward its resolution and fulfillment. Their actions clearly arise from fulfilling the story's promise, which helps the actions of the story's characters 'ring true' to an audience.

The story's introduction raises the following questions:

  • What will the outcome be for John and Mary's marriage if they successfully climb the mountain?
  • Conversely, what will the outcome be if they fail to climb the mountain?
  • How will Kyle's persona of being fearless be tested this day? And what will the outcome be?
  • Will Louisa's persona of being cool and unfazed by life survive being tested by a trial of fear?

All these questions arise from the story itself. Because a well-told story naturally raises questions about its course and outcome, many writers confuse story questions with plot questions.

Story and Backstory

One method a storyteller uses to bring out information is a backstory. In this story, as the bickering between Mary and John reaches a boiling point, the story could cut to Harrison Sorge, the mountain's ranger. Through Harrison, an overview of why people climb the mountain to test their courage could be offered. Knowing Kyle, he could offer some information about Kyle's background.

Thus, the story's backstory serves several purposes:

  • it allows a minor character to offer insights about the story's dramatic purpose
  • it varies the pace of the story's intensity
  • it allows dramatic information to be introduced about the story's main characters

Story and Movement

While understanding what a story is about at its heart is a prime issue of storytelling, another vital issue is understanding a story's movement. A story is introduced in a way that its dramatic issue or idea is clearly at stake. Further, that this issue will potentially be resolved via the actions of a story's characters. These events must happen against the backdrop of a particular environment designed to heighten the effect of a story's movement toward dramatic resolution and fulfillment. So every act John and Mary take to avoid dealing with each other only serves to compel them to discover whether they have the courage to confront their fears. Their actions move the story itself toward its resolution and fulfillment.

The Story Scenario

As the story continues, John, Mary, Kyle and Louisa begin their ascent. The dialogue between John and Mary is brittle and uncomfortable. It reveals the depths of the distress of their relationship. Louisa asks Kyle why he's brought Mary and John on the climb. He reveals his plan to bring John and Mary back together by staging an accident and allowing them to rescue him. As John and Mary's bickering escalates, however, it appears the climb, instead of bringing them closer together, is tearing them apart.

The purpose of John and Mary's bad feelings growing worse early in the story is that it escalates the drama over the outcome of the story's central question: will the relationship of John and Mary survive being tested by what happens on the mountain?

Louisa, for her part, is angry at Kyle for using her as a prop, but she reacts by putting more ice on her persona. Ice Queen of a kingdom of one.

Because of Louisa's icy reaction to the story's events, Kyle feels his plan -- and therefore, he himself -- is being belittled. In that way the events of the story escalate the dramatic tension over the story's course and outcome not just for John and Mary, but for Kyle and Louisa.

Plot Points

As the climb continues, the climbers reach a point where Kyle must free climb a rockface to set up a passage for Mary, John and Louisa. Kyle feels he needs to reassert his sense of fearlessness to regain control of his intended purpose for the climb. His plan had been that he would purposefully put himself into a situation that he would appear to need rescue on this rockface. That by working together to rescue Kyle, John and Mary would grow close again.

Kyle climbs onto the rock faces, and he stages a "fall" that requires he be rescued. John and Mary try and help Kyle while Louisa looks on unflappingly, aware that this is all part of Kyle's "act." The attempts of John and Mary to help Kyle, however, contribute to Kyle having an unstaged fall/accident. This time, Kyle is badly hurt. Mary and John blame each other. Louisa, still thinking this is part of Kyle's game, reacts unfeelingly.Worse for the group, Kyle's fall starts a snow/rock slide that blocks their return path down the mountain.

If this were a screenplay, this scene would likely happen about page 25, plot point one, according to Syd Field. This is point in the story's movement where the action of the story must inescapably move forward. Kyle's efforts to "save" his friend's relationship has put them all in mortal danger that escalates the danger of John and Mary's relationship ending. Now, however, it's not just a question of whether John and Mary will be able to save their relationship: the story's escalated to will they survive this effort to rescue their relationship? Will Kyle survive?

The story places these characters in a grave situation from which they figuratively cannot go back, i.e. return down the mountain to a place of "safe" states of feelings.The underlying issue is that these characters have moved from needing to experience courage, to being placed in a situation where without courage they face death.

Kyle tells Mary and John his only hope is that they continue to ascend the mountain to reach its summit. There, they'll find a hut with a radio to call for help.

The story shifts here from the shadow play about courage, to the real thing. Movement. If John and Mary do not ascend to the mountain top and a radio transmitter, Kyle will die. It further brings what's at stake in this story into bold relief. Will they have the courage to overcome their fears? Now, for the audience as well, what's at stake is not simply the emotional well-being of these characters.

Note how the story arranges it elements to make more dramatic the story's journey to its fulfillment. The purpose of this heightening of the story's drama is that for its audience, the potential outcome of the story's fulfillment will be all the more deeply felt, and thus satisfying.

To complicate matters, John wants to make the climb with Louisa, which further enrages Mary. Not just enrages her, it is a knife to Mary's heart. It makes it appear that it's not a question of whether this relationship of John and Mary will heal, but if it will survive another ten minutes. Movement. Escalation of drama.

Louise refuses to go with John, even though she's an experienced climber. She's going along with Kyle's "game."

Mary wants to know why they can't just wait for help? Kyle tells her he won't last the night, they must ascend to the mountain's summit now. Mary and John, bitter and angry, set out.

As soon as they are gone, Louisa bursts out laughing, finding humor in the situation. Only then does she discover that Kyle is seriously injured. Louisa, she who doesn't want to be responsible for anyone else out of her fear of commitment, asks Kyle why she shouldn't just leave him. Kyle's answer: because he's afraid and he needs her. Louisa, angry, feels she can't leave Kyle. What Louisa fears in life -- intimacy and commitment -- is being forced upon her. Here the story's plot serves to heighten the dramatic effect of movement around this issue of courage for Kyle and Louisa as well as Mary and John.

Note how the story arranges it elements to make more dramatic the story's journey to its fulfillment by raising obstacles to its movement. The storyteller is always alert to what obstacles will block the movement of their story in a way that escalates the drama over its course and outcome. A story's plot operates to ensure a story's movement will be dramatic and potent, and thus fulfilling.

How a Story Uses "Time" to Create Drama

Time plays a significant role in this story. John and Mary must ascend to the summit before nightfall if Kyle is to survive. This escalates the dramatic pressure on them, and on the audience. As part of the story's backstory introduced by Harrison Sorge, a storm moving in will preclude not only Kyle being rescued, but also puts the lives of John, Mary and Louisa at risk.

"Time" is often a central element in a story, used to escalate the drama over a story's course or outcome:

  • "X" must happen in 24 hrs, or...
  • Joe must marry by 21, or...
  • Sue will die, unless "B" happens by...
  • If "A" doesn't happen in a week, a catastrophic evil will be unleashed on the world that can only be stopped if...

More About Plot Points

As the story progresses, John and Mary reach a rock overhang. They can't go around it. They must somehow work together to climb over it. But to climb over it is to risk death. To fail to climb it and reach the mountain summit and a radio is to risk Kyle's death. After losing their child, such an outcome would clearly finish their relationship and shatter them individually. The situation puts into stark relief what's at stake: Can they overcome their fear? Can they trust each other enough to make this final dangerous ascent? It is the very purpose of the story to put them into this situation where their courage and faith will face these severe trials.

Louisa, feeling trapped by Kyle's actions, finds herself losing emotional control. She threatens to leave Kyle. Kyle, still clinging to his "fearless" persona, tells her to go ahead. Louisa gets up and sets off.

Kyle, facing death alone, finds the courage to cast aside his persona and confess his terror of dying to Louisa. She initially turns away. She has no way to respond to a person in a state of intense feeling. But she can't leave, either. So listening to the fearless Kyle talk about his fears, Louisa, she of the cool exterior, is finally touched in an intimate way by another human. But she also knows that if Kyle dies, she will be scarred, and her exterior of ice permanently encasing her.

Note how the story brings this issue of what's at stake in the story for these characters fully into play. The story has escalated where it's not just a matter of healing relationships, but whether the story's characters will live or die based on the outcome of their efforts.

Resolution and Climax

The story places John and Mary, Kyle and Louisa in situations where they now face not just physical but emotional death. Only the greatest of courage will save them.

John and Mary risk a harrowing final ascent to reach the summit of the mountain. During the climb, each risks their life for the other. Finally reaching the summit, they find the transmitter that will signal help. With help on the way, Mary and John hold each other. In their eyes is the love missing at the beginning of this story.

Louisa does the one thing she thought she would never be able to do in life: as Kyle slips into a coma and death, she casts away all pretense and erupts with every heartfelt longing, need, desire, pain she's buried beneath her persona to keep Kyle from slipping away. In the heat of the moment, the Ice Queen melts. What has blocked Louisa is thrown off and she finally feels life directly.

Kyle regains consciousness. He feels deeply that he has not been abandoned, that Louisa has not left him.

Through this story's testing each characters courage through severe trials, each character moves to a place of healing and renewal. It is only when these characters have been pushed beyond what they would have thought possible that the sounds of a helicopter can be heard approaching.

Because this story journey has been dramatically presented, the story's audience also experiences how courage in the face of fear can lead to healing and growth. By these characters literally as well as physically ascending through barriers and obstacles, they gain healing.

The rescue of Kyle, Louisa, Mary and John is the story's climax of its plot. This is the movie's most-adrenaline producing moment. The story's fulfillment has two more scenes.

Story and Fulfillment

A year later, John and Mary are new parents, and clearly in love again. This is a visible and concrete fulfillment of their relationship healing.

Kyle and Louisa are also shown to be in a relationship not of two personas, but two humans with needs and desires who have decided to share the journey of life. Unlike the two people who used personas to keep others at a safe distance, Kyle does not need to appear fearless, Louisa unfeeling.

This would be the true, deeper fulfillment of this story. That what these characters were shown to most lack as the story opens -- what has set them into motion -- is fulfilled through the action/moment -- of the story.

Summary

Storytelling is a process. A process that involves understanding the dramatic issue or idea at the heart of a story and arranging a story's elements to bring that issue to resolution in a way that offers the story's audience a dramatic experience of fulfillment. The principles used to create the story set out here can be perceived in any well-told story. From James Joyce, Jane Austen, to the most simple action-adventure film, all well-told stories are created through a definable process. Neither storks nor muses deliver them.

Even stories born full-blown and full-grown in the imagination need the craft of writing to deliver them to an audience. The perseverance to take a story from idea to word and image. The willingness to revise, reshape, refine all a story's elements to a story-like purpose.

Again, this is not to preclude a writer from discovering a story as it is written. From creating a story ending so dramatic and fulfilling, the writer goes back to revise the story to fit its conclusion. From discovering characters so dynamic, they demand a story world in which to enact their dramatic deeds. From writing a script and going back to discover its story. But the storyteller who understands what a story is and the process of telling one has the tools to bring a story to life. However they come to that story: through characters, plot, inciting event, muse, stork, assignment, need for attention, desire for fame.

Such writers understand the craft of writing dramatic stories.

1996 Copyright Bill Johnson

The ideas expressed in this essay are developed more comprehensively in my workbook, A Story is a Promise , and in my on-line classes. Each chapter of the workbook concludes with a series of questions designed to help writers integrate this story as promise concept of thinking about stories. Each class is designed to take students from a story idea, through creating a potent, dynamic plot, to deep into the nitty-gritty of writing evocative, potent sentences and visual images.

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.