A Story is a Promise
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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

Perceiving What's At Stake In Your Story

by Bill Johnson

edited by Lawrence Booth

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

Why do a story's characters persevere to the end of a story?

The storyteller provides at the outset a clear indication that something of consequence is at stake in the world of the story. This compels the story's characters to act, in spite of any obstacles, if they would shape the outcome of the story, or help others shape its outcome.

Why do readers read to the end of a story?

To experience the journey to the story's outcome. In a well-told story, this offers a sense of story-like fulfillment, i.e., dramatic issues and questions raised by the story during its telling are answered in a way that is satisfying to the emotions, thoughts and senses of a story's readers.

Readers share in a story's journey and outcome through investing in the story's characters emotionally; thoughtfully through taking in a story's ideas and issues and how they're resolved; and via the story engaging their senses in a desirable way. Thus, as characters compete to shape the outcome of their personal goals and the story itself, a well-told story's outcome is inherently dramatic to the story's readers.

To create a state of drama over a story's outcome, the storyteller must understand: What's at stake in the world of the story.

What's at stake for the individuals in the story, and how that intermeshes with what's at stake in the story itself.

What's at stake in the outcome of individual scenes.

How the outcome of individual scenes and character goals moves the story forward toward its fulfillment in an engaging, dramatic way.

The purpose of this essay will be to:

  1. Help writers learn to identify what's at stake in their stories.
  2. Identify what's at stake for the individual characters.
  3. Learn to see what's at stake in particular scenes.
  4. Learn a way to test whether a character or scene fulfills its purpose by creating a sense of movement toward the story's dramatic outcome.

To understand what's at stake in the world of a story, look to the story's premise.

The premise of Romeo and Juliet: "Great love defies even death."

What's at stake in this story is, will great love be able to defy even death through the action of the story?

In Romeo and Juliet, the characters Romeo and Juliet prove that their love is greater than death. Thus, their actions make visible and prove the premise of the story.

In totality, the actions of ALL the characters in Romeo and Juliet act in a way that proves that great love can, indeed, defy even death. They do this by either aiding or abetting the actions of Romeo and Juliet, or blocking them, thus escalating the drama over the story's outcome.

A writer trying to see clearly what's at stake in their story should look to their story premise. Is the story about love? Fear of death? Fear of life? Rebirth? Redemption? Renewal? Some character conflict resolved through the action of the story? What must be overcome, changed, made different, by the telling of the story? That's what's at stake in the story.

Characters, through their actions, shape the outcome of the story. So character actions make the movement of the story to its fulfillment visible and concrete. Thus, a well-matched protagonist and antagonist can serve to make the action of the story's movement concrete, and thus available to be internalize by the story's readers, by generating suspense around the outcome of scenes and characters goals. But only when what's at stake in a story itself is visible can readers feel within themselves the drama over a story's outcome, and desire to internalize the story. Writers struggle when they keep what's at stake in their story obscured for a hoped for dramatic effect, or revelation.

In Romeo and Juliet, it's very clearly set out early in the story that Romeo is in love with the idea of love, and it's only then that his obsession focuses on Juliet. The story also sets out the consequences of what will happen if he openly professes his love for her, and she for him. Therefore, the story's drama is over whether or not Romeo and Juliet can find a way to be together. By finding a way to be together in defiance of every obstacle in their path, including death, Romeo and Juliet prove the premise of the story.

The pitfall for inexperienced writers?

That they confuse what's at stake for individual characters for what's at stake in their stories. Thus, they fail to make what's at stake in the world of their stories visible and concrete. Consequently it doesn't clearly motivate the actions of the story's characters toward a dramatic resolution for the story. And because a story's readers invest in character's actions as they act to shape the outcome of the story, if the consequences of character's actions are unclear in relation to the world of the story they inhabit, the drama over the story's outcome can come across as weak, confusing, of no particular consequence, or un-engaging.

Using another example, in the film Die Hard, the premise of the story:

"Courage in the face of adversity leads to growth."

On the surface, this is a story about a lone New York detective trapped in a building taken over by terrorists. What's most visible on the screen is the fighting among the terrorists; John McClane, the detective; and the squabbles between the LA police, the FBI, McClane and the terrorists. But what's at stake in this story is, can John McClane get back together with his wife?

By reuniting with his wife, he would prove the premise of the story, that having the courage to overcome a catastrophe leads to a renewal of the love between him and his wife.

So all the action of Die Hard serves as obstacles to John McClane shaping the outcome of the story in a way desirable to him. The fact that the action of the story is presented in fiery, explosive spectacle only serves to make more visible the obstacles he must overcome, and the lengths he will go to overcome them.

What's at stake in Die Hard, this issue of whether by overcoming a catastrophe John and Holly can be together, lets its viewers emotionally invest in the story's action. In proving its premise, that courage can lead to growth, they can feel that state of emotions within themselves, and the deep sense of relief and joy when at the end of the story/film, McClane and his wife do reunite. Once a story's readers/viewers become invested in the story's outcome, they'll follow a story through all its plot twists and turns. Humans are curious. Once we become engaged and invested in a story question, we WANT, demand to know the answer.

So a story like Die Hard is more than the sum of its visible action: good defeating evil, a lone cop battling terrorists. It's a story that raises an emotional issue that its readers can feel within themselves, and experience in a potent way in the story's dramatic outcome. Thus, the film offered a story-like, i.e., fulfilling experience, in a way that was engaging and dramatic to the emotions and senses of its viewers. So it found--and engaged--its audience.

In Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, several children are miniaturized by a scientist/father's invention. The action of the story is how, and if, the children can survive a trek across a back yard and be re-enlarged. But the story itself is concerned with whether the children and their families can overcome this catastrophe in a way that they rebond in a loving way, or break apart permanently.

The story premise: "Overcoming a catastrophe can lead to growth."

What's at stake in this story is whether these families can overcome this story's catastrophe in a way such that they grow and rebond. The catastrophe of the story sets the stage for this story. It compels the members of these families to act. So the drama of the story revolves around both the issue of whether the children will survive and be re-enlarged; while on a story level, it's about whether or not these children and their families will rebond.

The plot of the story is over how, and if, this re-bonding will happen, or what might prevent it from happening. That the issue is in such doubt escalates the story's drama.

The action of the story's plot, the and difficulties the children and their parents face, escalates the drama over how what's at stake in the story will be resolved; what the outcome of the story will be.

The consequence of these families not being able to overcome this catastrophe and rebond: the families and individuals will be permanently broken apart.

Because this story has a happy ending, these children and their families prove the story's premise. What's at stake in this story is fulfilled in an uplifting way.

If that's something the audience wants/needs to believe, that families going through a catastrophe can grow from the experience, the story--and its ending--engages emotionally.

In Batman Forever, what's presented to be at stake in the story is that Bruce Wayne/Batman must find a way to integrate the two sides of his personality.

What's at stake in Batman Forever gives direction to what kind of characters must populate this story: The Riddler and Two-Face, who personify Batman's conflict about his identify and thus make visible his inner conflict; and Robin and Bruce Wayne's therapist, who court/assist Batman/Bruce Wayne, but who also force him to confront his need to integrate his personality.

The action of the story, its plot, builds to a climax when Batman is confronted by The Riddler and Two Face with making a choice to save either Robin, his new companion, or Kidman, Bruce Wayne's potential new lover. So the action of the story serves to make visible what's at stake in the story. Can Batman/Bruce Wayne integrate as one personality in time to save his friends?

Because Wayne/Batman succeeds in reintegrating his personality, he is able to save both Robin and Kidman.

So every character in the story operates at some level to escalate the tension Batman/Wayne feels about his lacking a coherent, unified personality.

WHAT'S AT STAKE FOR INDIVIDUAL CHARACTERS --

Once the storyteller is clear about what's at stake in their story, they can more easily deal with what's at stake for individual characters. Keep in mind, however, that characters are in a story because they feel pulled by what's at stake in the story itself. Characters who don't feel compelled to act by what's at stake in a story will not be inclined to act forcefully and therefore should be eliminated from the story.

In Die Hard, what's at stake for the LA patrol cop who talks to John McClane via a radio is his grief over being involved in a shooting. Part of the climax of Die Hard is the patrol cop's shooting a terrorist, thus showing that he's overcome his grief and can now fully do his duty. His shooting the terrorist also ensures that John McClane will reunite with his wife, so his action as an individual also serves to help the story prove its premise. Were this not the case, the patrol cop would be an unnecessary character.

What's at stake for one of the terrorists in Die Hard is that he kill John McClane. The action of the story, his confrontation with John McClane, resolves this issue. His defeat, and later death, is one more obstacle overcome along the way to the story premise being proved.

Individual characters can have issues that they resolve within the world of the story. Individual characters acting to achieve, and achieving, personal goals are what gives a story its continuous pull on a reader's attention. Within the main question of how what's at stake in a story will be resolved might be dozens of individual issues and conflicts that are raised and resolved as a story progresses. However, each of these conflicts is included only because every one of them helps the story move toward its fulfillment. If this had not been true, it/they would have been eliminated from the script.

WHAT'S AT STAKE IN AN INDIVIDUAL SCENE

Just as individual characters or groups of characters can feel they have something at stake in meeting personal goals or in the final outcome of the story, a scene in a story can present something to be at stake.

In Batman Forever, Bruce Wayne goes to a party where a device created by Enigma is demonstrated. If Bruce Wayne enters the device, his identify as Batman will be revealed. Just as Bruce Wayne enters the device, Two Face crashes the party, for his own purposes.

In this scene...

What's at stake for Two Face as a character is finding and killing Batman.

What's at stake for Enigma is unmasking Bruce Wayne.

What's at stake for Bruce Wayne/Batman is keeping his identify masked.

What's at stake for Robin is his desire to confront and kill Two Face.

What's at stake for the therapist accompanying Bruce Wayne is resolving her feelings for both Bruce Wayne and Batman, making a choice about who she wants to be intimate with.

All these issues play out in this scene; all operate to push the story forward to resolving what's ultimately at stake in the story, Bruce/Batman integrating his dual nature.

So in any story, individual scenes will have some specific focus and purpose, with a discernible outcome. In totality, the scenes of a story move the story itself toward its fulfillment.

DRAMA AND A STORY'S READERS --

Understanding what's at stake in a story and for its characters is only one side of the story equation. The other side, just as vital to understand, is, how and why does what's at stake in a story engage the interest of a reader?

What's at stake in a story is something of consequence that is visible to the story's characters. Because a story's readers invest in the story through the actions of its characters, the readers can feel within themselves a state of drama over the story's outcome. But this happens ONLY if what's at stake is visible and of enough consequence that the readers can feel engaged by it. And this is where most writers who struggle with rejection fail. What's at stake in their stories is not made visible, or does not appear to be of any consequence. Therefore, their readers cannot feel any drama over either the story's outcome, or the outcome of goals for individual characters.

HOW TO TEST A CHARACTER AND SCENE --

How to test a character or scene to see if they have purpose in the world of a story is actually rather simple. Remove that character or scene from the story. If the outcome of the story doesn't change in some way, however major or slight, that character or scene has no effect on the story. If it has no effect, it has no reason to be in the story. It should be taken out.

Failure to take out an unnecessary scene(s) is a major source of failure for inexperienced writers. The fact that a scene is an interesting scene with exciting action is not reason enough to leave it in.

This test can also be used for plot devices, dialogue, conflict, and what should be described/shown in a scene. If they don't somehow add something to the story, if only to serve to advance the story's mood or tone, they should be taken out.

CONCLUSION --

A storyteller should be able to give an account for the purpose of every character in every scene in relationship to the story's movement toward fulfillment. How the storyteller keeps these issues clear is a personal one. Some writers might use 3 x 5 cards to make a note on the purpose of individual scenes. Others might write notes on what's at stake for the story, and what's at stake for individual scenes. Other writers might simply see their story and its characters in a flash and write and type as fast as they can to get it all down in a rough draft.

Whichever path one chooses to take, the purpose is, as always, to make sure the movement of the story toward fulfillment is clear, forceful, engaging and dramatic. That the action of the story fulfills the story's premise in a way that offers an experience in thought and feeling that is complete, and thus story-like.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG? --

Most often, inexperienced writers don't make visible what's at stake in their story. In a film, this means visible on the screen. In a novel, what's at stake can be presented via characters internal states of emotions as well as their actions; but it must be visible, compelling and of consequence, so it can be engaging. Readers can't be clear about something that is presented in a confusing way, or not shown at all, or is not presented as compelling; or left not shown to create a sense of mystery.

Secondly, the storyteller needs to be sure that what's at stake in their story is something that characters are willing and , eager, to engage in a conflict about. If a story's characters aren't moved to compete to shape the outcome of the story, the story's readers won't feel engaged.

This comes back to that question of being clear that what's at stake in your story is compelling, not just to your characters, but to your readers as well.

Third, the writer should be clear about the difference between what's at stake for individual characters and what's at stake in the story itself.

Again, go back to the story's premise to resolve this issue. The premise should be about your story itself, not individual characters. When the writer is clear about what's at stake in their story, they can then perceive more easily how, and why, that compels their characters to act.

Fourth, does what's at stake in the world of the story clearly power the movement of the story through the actions of the story's characters?

In a well-told story, it's clear that the characters feel the pull of what's at stake in the story. In a badly told story, characters can appear to be puppet-like, acting mechanically only to advance the story. If you're depending on artificial conflict and spectacle to engage your characters and your readers, you risk your story, paradoxically, being boring. Conflict and spectacle without meaning in terms of the story will cause the reader/viewer to disengage from the story, even though the conflict and spectacle are very exciting. They must mean something in terms of the story's premise, must move the story towards fulfillment. They can't be tacked on, even though it's frequently attempted.

To understand what's at stake in a story, and, just as important, what's not at stake in a story, is another path into the heart of understanding what a story is. Being able to develop conflict and characters acting toward a clear goal is a sure path to creating powerful, dynamic stories that compel a reader's attention and interest.

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