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

What a Plot IS
by Bill Johnson

Understanding what a plot is creates a foundation for an ability to create one. Unfortunately for most writers, they are consumed with the idea of creating the effect of what a plot does without first understanding what a plot is.

What a plot does is raise dramatic questions a reader or viewer will follow a story to its conclusion to get answers.

What a plot is is the process of generating questions around the outcome of a story's dramatic purpose that gives a story a dramatic shape and outcome fulfilling to an audience.

Romeo and Juliet is an example of a well-crafted plot. By loving each other in spite of the mutual hatred of their families, Romeo and Juliet set the story in motion. But it is the story's plot that makes the story's movement toward its fulfillment dramatic. By raising up the obstacles that block the love of Romeo and Juliet fulfilling itself, the story's plot makes the lover's plight more dramatic. Even knowing the story's outcome, the action of its plot -- moment by moment -- generates for the story's audience a dramatic experience of the power of a love that will not be denied.

In any story, as characters act to achieve goals, the actions of such characters should advance the story toward its resolution and fulfillment. Because other characters are driven to shape a story's dramatic purpose to their design, they are naturally in opposition. As different characters act and block each other, they generate new obstacles to each others progress. This escalates the drama over character goals, scenes and the story's outcome.

A plot operates around the effect of making a story's movement toward resolution and fulfillment dramatic. The catch is that it's only when a story is in motion that it has a movement to block. Without this quality of dramatic tension generated by a plot around a story's movement, a story appears to be a collection of incidents. The incidents may be dramatic individually, but collectively they fail to engage the interest of an audience. They fail because they lack a discernible purpose that arises out of resolving a story's dramatic purpose.

The key here is to understand that to describe a story about love is not to describe its plot. A story is about an issue of human need. A plot is what makes that issue acted out to resolution and fulfillment dramatic. To create a great plot about love is to turn what might appear to be a worn story idea, two teenagers in love, into Romeo and Juliet.

To illustrate how a plot grows from a story's premise, consider the novel The Hunt For Red October. On the surface, it appears to be a plot-driven thriller about a Lithuanian-descended commander of a Russian nuclear submarine attempting to flee to America and freedom. On a story level, however, it is about a battle between freedom and authoritarianism. This is laid out in the story's premise, The courage to battle oppression leads to freedom.

Because readers desire to experience that state where the values of freedom win out over oppression, they readily internalize this story's movement. Because the story in its every action proved its premise, it drew in readers. Its highly praised plot succeeded because it made the underlying conflict of the story, freedom battling oppression, clear and dramatic.

It moved its audience.

Its plot operated to make that movement dramatic.

When every character's actions revolve around a story's core dramatic issue, the actions of each character affect every other character. A well-designed plot ensures those premise-generated actions increase the drama around the story's course and outcome. That makes the story's journey to its ultimate destination more potent.

Tom Clancy succeeded in creating a great plot because he understood how to create a plot that manifested the movement of his story. Every character, situation, and action grew out of his story's promise and existed in the world it created. Since the story of The Hunt For Red October concerns freedom battling oppression, the story's plot made visible and concrete the playing out of that deeper level of story. To the extent a reader feels emotionally or thoughtfully connected to this story, they are engaged by its plot.

As the story of Hunt is clearly and powerfully presented, the readers sees/feels/experiences how the freedom they identify with battles the oppression they dislike/hate/want to see vanquished. That is why so many people had to read to the end of the book to get that story question answered:

Will Ramius make it to America and freedom?

They had been hooked on a deeper, emotional level. They had been led to care about the outcome. It was important to their own state of emotions, their own sense of what was right and just, their own sense of mattering.

Engaging the interest of an audience around an issue of human need invests them in the story's outcome. They want to know how it will turn out. They have to know how it will turn out.

When someone has to finish your story to see how it turns out, your plot has fulfilled its purpose.

The writer who doesn't see the connection between a story, its characters, and plot risks introducing characters or plot devices that confuse what's at stake in the story. That confuses a reader's emotional response/desire to pursue the story's journey of feelings, thoughts and sense impressions.

The answer for the struggling writer is to see that a plot is generated by a strong, well-realized story. It is not a substitute for a story. Setting up a situation common to action films, "Who's going to get out of here alive," is plot-like. Lacking a story issue, however, such films struggle to engage a wide audience.

To create a great plot, start with your premise. Understand how what's at stake in your story raises questions to which your audience desires answers. Understand that your plot should make the journey to get those answers potent and dramatic. When you start to write, be clear about the obstacles that block the movement of your story. How those obstacles force your characters to act with ever greater determination if they would shape the outcome of your story's outcome.

That's when you'll be told, "Wow! Loved your plot! How did you think of it?"

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