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 on Kindle for $2.99, and also available on Smashwords for other ebook formats, including Nook, Sony, and Kobo.

Essays on the Craft of Writing
About the Author

Premise and Mystery
a Review of The Usual Suspects

by Bill Johnson

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A Story is a Promise and the Spirit of Storytelling is now available from Amazon Kindle for $2.99, and also available on Smashwords for other ebook formats, including Nook, Sony, and Kobo.
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Writing a mystery like The Usual Suspects on the surface may appear to be different than creating other types of stories. But, below that surface, it has a structure that can be explored and understood.

The purpose of this essay is to show how The Usual Suspects is constructed to have a mystery at its heart.

I'll begin by stating the premise of The Usual Suspects, then show how the story was assembled to act out its premise. I do this with the understanding that the writer of this story, Christopher McQuarrie, might have started with an idea for a character in the story, an idea for the story itself, or an idea for its plot, and then worked back to find his premise, which is:

A man with a powerful will can bend others to his purpose.

In this story, Verbal Kint, who appears to be a weak, talkative man among a group of ruthless gangsters and policemen, is in actuality Keyser Soze, a man of inhuman will and determination. I start with this revelation because I want to show how the story was constructed to make this revelation enjoyable.

Story and Promise

It is the nature of a story that every character in its world, on some level, have a purpose that binds them to the story's promise. In The Usual Suspects, every character -- policemen and gangster -- is shown to have a dominating, powerful personality. For example, when a drug dealer and his two bodyguards are cornered in an underground garage, all three fight to the death. Every character in this story is tough and determined. If they weren't, they wouldn't feel the pull of what's at stake in this story, whether one character can bend the others to his will. Characters who are weak -- with the exception of Verbal -- are not concerned about this issue of projecting their will onto others, would serve no dramatic purpose. Characters with goals not tied to a story's premise are irrelevant to the story's dramatic purpose, because their actions would have no affect on the story's course and outcome.

This is a vital issue to understand because by ensuring that all the characters in the story have issues tied into the story's promise, their actions advance the story. The story, then, has a beginning, middle and end. Events play out in the story in the order that they dramatically advance the story along its story line, irrelevant to the actual sequence events occurred or didn't occur.

To state the story line of The Usual Suspects in simple terms, one could say that its story line is...

The introduction of a powerful will attempting to bend others to its purpose. The complications that ensue over whether this powerful will can achieve its purpose. The fulfillment set up by the resolution of this powerful will bending all else to its purpose.

The reason understanding this simple story line is so important is that without this understanding, a writer risks getting lost in character and plot issues that DON'T advance their story along its story line starting from its opening scene. Instead, they create scenes that introduce their plot and characters. What this generally creates is a collection of events that don't create suspense around the fulfillment of a story, because their only purpose is to create resolution around plot and character issues.

Another detriment, readers have no context for what the opening action and details of character and environment mean. After a few pages, readers must begin to memorize details until a context arises. This quickly becomes either frustrating, tedious, or not worth the effort.

Poster for the movie The Usual Suspects. The Story The Usual Suspects opens in media res, in the middle of things, with a character named Keaton on a burning ship with several dead men about. He lights a cigarette and starts a fire that will kill him and another man on the ship. But the fire is temporary extinguished by this man standing above Keaton, who pisses on the line of flame. Note the symbolism, which arises from the idea that the powerful can "piss" on those less powerful.

The shadowy figure asks Keaton, "How you doing, Kid?"

Keaton, "I can't feel my legs, Keyser."

Because Keaton can't "feel" his legs, he can no longer use his body to act out his will.

Another point, since one element that plays out in this story is whether Keyser Soze exists, note how the audience is told up front, "yes, he does." It's a way to set this up as a revelation for the police, and for the audience when they realize the significance of the remark, but they still don't know Keyser Soze by sight. That's another revelation.

Keyser takes out a gun and two shots ring out. From the dock, a man watches from the shadows as the ship blows up in flames.

Note, in passing, the dead have no will. The fire burns them, they don't react. A minor point, but even dead bodies in this story serve a dramatic purpose.

At this point, the story's plot is about what, exactly, has happened on this ship. It's set up to pull the audience into the story and grab the attention of the audience. The opening scene moves us forward along the story's plot line. The opening scene, however, also advances us along the story's story line, because every scene in this story has this dual purpose, to advance the story along both its story line and plot line. To that end, a story's events, its plot, are intermeshed with its story, in this case about the power of will.

Cut to a prior time when Verbal is talking to a grand jury about a hijacking of gun parts and how it led to the events on the ship. Four suspects are brought in for interrogation. Note how all four of the suspects are unusually tough willed. Note also that Edie, Keaton's girlfriend, is also strong willed.

While these men are being picked up, we're introduced to Kujan, a detective, who picks up Keaton while he's trying to swing a legitimate business deal.

We then see Keaton, Verbal and the others in the police lineup. It's played for humor, but again note how TOUGH these guys are. They will not be cowed by the police.

We're then introduced to the men in the lineup. McManus appears to be the toughest guy in the group, then Todd Hockney, Fenster, and Keaton. Verbal sits to one side. It comes out that Keaton has "hung up his spurs," that he's gone straight, he's become a "lawyer's wife," as McManus throws it in Keaton's face. But note Keaton is so tough, he doesn't rise to the bait. He's too tough to be baited. He's also aware that somehow the lineup is a set up, that it shouldn't have happened.

McManus suggests they do a job, but Keaton wants nothing to do with it. Verbal's voiceover, "This was how it started."

Verbal, again, about these men, "They would never break. They would never bend down for anybody."

We cut back to the ship in San Pedro, the present, and an FBI agent. It turns out there were two survivors, and one person known missing. As the scene cuts away, we see a charred body in the harbor.

Kujan, who picked up Keaton in New York, arrives in Los Angeles. We find out that Verbal was one of the survivors from the ship, along with a man badly burned. This answers one question, that Verbal was the man on the dock who witnessed the explosion. The police suspect the killings on the ship revolved around a drug deal gone bad, 91 million dollars worth.

Jeff, a detective, tells Kujan that Verbal has been offered full immunity and that Kujan can't touch him. Kujan insists -- uses his will -- to make sure he's allowed to interrogate Verbal. Jeff insists that even the Prince of Darkness is in on protecting Verbal -- a reference to the devil that will be made several times. So this remark is not a "casual" remark. Just like every remark in this tightly written script, it has a dramatic purpose.

Kujan insists that Verbal must know something that hasn't come out yet. Specifically, Kujan wants to know if Keaton is dead.

Note, again, the audience has been let in on this, but not quite in a way they can be absolutely sure Keaton is dead. They know more than Kujan, but they can't be absolutely sure, either, that he died on the ship. They didn't actually SEE his death. So the storyteller arranges the elements of their story to operate on both the audience AND the story's characters.

Kujan is given two hours to break Verbal's story and get the information he wants. Note how this gives the story a particular time pressure. It's a technique to orient the audience. "X" must happen in 48 hours, etc.

Cut to the FBI agent who interrogates the burnt man in the hospital, who speaks in Hungarian. He speaks the name Keyser Soze, which captures the attention of the FBI agent, who orders an interpreter brought in.

Verbal is brought to Kujan. Verbal looks around the room. We only learn later WHY he looks around the room. Just as every line of dialogue in the story serves a dramatic purpose, so does the visual information we receive, and the order we receive it.

Kujan enters the room. Verbal greets him, "Nice to meet you." A real "wimp," we're set up to believe.

Verbal, true to his name, starts spilling out useless information to Kujan.

Kujan demands to know what happened after the lineup. Verbal asks for some coffee, which is refused, but he talks until he gets what he wants, i.e., he uses his will to bend the two more powerful men in his presence to his needs.

Kujan accuses Keaton of being a corrupt cop, a good thief. Verbal tries to light a cigarette, and fails because of his disabilities, which include a lame foot and hand. Kujan lights Verbal's cigarette, again bending to Verbal's will. Kujan tells Verbal, "I'm smarter than you." A statement the story will throw back in Kujan's face a thousand fold in a way pleasurable to the audience. That's why the writer has him make the statement, it sets this up as a contest of wills that it APPEARS Verbal will lose. The storyteller is always looking for a way to orient the audience to both the story's larger dramatic purpose, and to setting up dramatic confrontations and exchanges during the course of the story.

Verbal looks at the bottom of a coffee cup. This is a point that doesn't seem to have a dramatic purpose at the moment, but like every moment in this story, it does.

Verbal begins his narration.

After the lineup, Keaton met Edie in front of the police station. The other men from the lineup loiter across the street, expectant. Keaton had turned down an offer to be part of a job, but standing with Edie, he realizes he can never go "straight." The system won't allow it. Note how this point is just SUGGESTED. The dramatic purpose of the scene is to show Keaton coming to this realization, not his ACTING on it. That's the purpose of another scene.

Many writers struggle because their scenes don't have clearly identifiable dramatic purposes. Such scenes fail to move an audience, because they're left unclear about the purpose of a scene in relationship to the story itself. That's not to say a scene can't have a number of different levels, but a badly written scene has no clear dramatic purpose, it's just a series of events and actions and exchanges of dialogue that lead to the next scene and another series of weak exchanges.

Verbal goes to see Keaton. He tells him the proposed job will only happen if Keaton agrees to be part of it. Keaton refuses. To goad him, Verbal asks, "Is this your place?" (It's Edie's apartment.)

Keaton hits Verbal, who whines, "I'll probably shit blood in the morning."

Keaton gets in on the plan, but only if there's no killing involved.

The plan revolves around a taxi-service operated by rogue NY cops to ferry around drug dealers and smugglers in police cars. The gang robs a jewel smuggler riding in a police car, then set the car on fire. The press, tipped off by Keaton, are on the scene before the police. A number of policeman and officials lose their jobs when the taxi-service is exposed. Keaton has gotten back at the police for screwing up his legitimate business with Edie.

The gang decides to go to LA to hock the jewels and lay low. Keaton wants to tell Edie he's leaving, but Verbal tells him they'll miss their plane flight to LA. But the moment is developed for its drama, with Keaton and Edie almost seeing each other. Again, every moment in this story is played for its drama.

By taking Keaton away from Edie, Verbal once again uses his will to bend the tough Keaton to his purpose, although on the surface that's not apparent.

Kujan refuses to believe that Keaton loved Edie and wasn't just using her. Again it comes out that Kujan wants to know whether or not Keaton is really dead.

Cut to the hospital room, where the FBI agent discovers there were no drugs on the ship, that the deal revolved around buying people. Again, the burnt man claims he's seen the devil -- Keyser Soze. An artist is brought in to draw a picture of Keyser Soze based on his description.

Back to the interrogation, Kujan tells Verbal how Keaton once faked his death to avoid being arrested for murder. Note how this will tie in with what's really happening in the story, but right here it only seems like a background detail about Keaton. Kujan thinks Verbal has just been used by Keaton, which upsets Verbal. Verbal finally reveals something about a lawyer who works for Keyser Soze, Kobayashi . Verbal also tells Kujan that he's sure Keaton is dead, which leads into the next segment of his narrated story.

The gang go to LA and turn over their stolen jewels to a tough guy named Redfoot, who offers them another job. Keaton refuses, but later goes along.

Redfoot sets up another jewel heist which goes wrong, and turns out to be a drug heist. This upsets the gang. The FBI agent finds out that the deal gone bad involved the Hungarian mob and Keyser Soze.

Kujan uses this information to finally pressure the name Keyser Soze out of Verbal.

Continuing his narration, Verbal has the lawyer Kobayashi show up and explain who Keyser Soze is to that gang. That it was Keyser who set up the line up, and maneuvered them all to this time and place because he wants to use the services of these tough men. They are all given reasons for why they can't refuse. They will get 91 million dollars if they succeed. Soze can blackmail them through the bad jewel heist and Redfoot if they even consider refusing his job offer.

Kobayashi tells them Keyser needs some Argentine mobsters eliminated. Keaton asks why he shouldn't just kill Kobayashi. He shows him information that could be used to blackmail all the men. It comes out that Hockney DID hijack the truck with gun parts mentioned at the beginning of the story. A nice touch.

The FBI agent finds out that the deal gone bad involved a Hungarian mob and Keyser Soze.

Back to interrogation of Verbal. He says, "The greatest trick of the devil was convincing people he didn't exist." He continues, talking about Keyser Soze in Turkey, that "to be in power you didn't need guns or power, just the will to do what the other guy wouldn't." The heart of the story's PREMISE is in that statement. This happens in many action stories, that the story's premise is revealed by one of the story's characters. Again, this is because in a story, one creates suspense over a story's outcome NOT by withholding what the story's about, but by setting it out in the form of a story question.

In Verbal's narration of the story of Keyser Soze, the Hungarian gang comes and rapes Keyser's wife and kills one of his children in front of him. They mean to bend him to their will. Keyser kills his own family rather than have them used against him. According to Verbal, "He showed those men of will what will really was." Another statement that speaks to the story's premise. Keyser then hunts down and kills the men who killed his family. He becomes a myth, particularly when he disappears.

Kujan doesn't believe this story. Verbal, "The only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze."

Kujan pressures Verbal to testify against Keyser, but Verbal believes that Keyser will have him killed, then disappear.

Back at the hospital, they continue with the drawing of a picture of Keyser.

Fenster, a member of the gang, tries to run, but he's killed.

Keaton vows revenge on Kobayashi, who he thinks is the real Keyser Soze. Keaton captures Kobayashi, then learns he's meeting/holding Edie. Keaton realizes he's trapped, he must do what Keyser wants. Unlike Keyser, there are things Keaton won't do to get what he wants.

The gang goes to the ship. Keaton doesn't think it can be raided, but McManus thinks it can.

When the gang comes back that night for the raid, Keaton tells Verbal to save himself, and to tell Edie, "I tried."

The gang sets off on the raid to break up the drug deal. Hockney is killed in a way that suggests something, but it's not clear at the moment what.

Kujan to Verbal, why didn't he (Verbal) run? Because Verbal thought Keaton might do the impossible, and make the raid successful.

Keaton realizes there are no drugs on the ship. That the gang's been set up. In a cabin, a terrified man fears that Keyser Soze is on the ship. He's then shot by Keyser.

McManus drops dead at Keaton's feet saying, "Strange thing." A man with a gun shoots Keaton. Verbal, in the van, hears the gunshots. Verbal tells Kujan he saw Keyser, a man in a suit. We see the ship blow up in flame, and Verbal looking on in the ropes, the shot we saw in the beginning of the film. A police siren is heard.

Back to interrogation. It comes out that the man on the ship was a stool pigeon who was going to expose Keyser Soze. The Hungarians had come to "buy" the man as part of their plot to expose Keyser and gain revenge.

Edie had been brought in to be that man's lawyer.

Kujan insists that Keaton is Keyser Soze, that he had Edie killed. This is a major revelation. Kujan believes that Keaton programmed Verbal to do his bidding. "Why me?" Verbal asks.

"Because you're weaker than the others," Kujan replies.

Verbal breaks down. He appears to accept that Keyser was Keaton, that Keyser was a myth created by Keaton.

Then it turns out that Verbal is free to go. He tells Kujan he will not be a rat, he will not inform on others. He leaves the interrogation room.

The picture of Keyser Soze is finished at the hospital. It is faxed to police.

Verbal gets his belongings, including his lighter. He exits the police station.

Jeff talks with Kujan about the system in his messy office. "You have to stand back to see the system."

At that moment, Kujan realizes that Verbal pulled all the details about his "story" from details in the room, a black woman named Redfoot, etc.

Kujan runs out and sees fax of picture...that Verbal is Keyser Soze. The story's major revelation.

Verbal goes down the steps of the police station. Voices overlay comments about "the power of will."

Verbal to Kujan during interrogation, "My guess is you'll never hear from him (Keyser) again."

Kujan runs out to try and find Verbal/Keyser.

Repeat of Verbal's line, "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn't exist."

As Verbal walks down the street, his twisted body straightens and he becomes Keyser Soze. He gets into a car driven by "Kobayashi" and is driven away as Kujan looks for him helplessly.

Verbal, "And like that...(puff)...he was gone."

In hindsight, one can go back and review this movie and see how every line of dialogue spoke to the story's dramatic purpose. Every scene was true to acting out the story's premise as a question, could a person of great will -- Verbal/Keyser -- bend others to his will?

Answer to story question that arises from the story's premise, yes.

Note that part of this "yes" is proved out by Verbal killing Keaton, a man he appears to care about, and having Keaton's lover, Edie, killed, just as Keyser Soze killed his family to demonstrate his will.

In the story's construction, Verbal appears weak because that heightens the story's resolution/fulfillment when it's revealed that Verbal is Keyser Soze. In hindsight, the script's premise becomes clear. What also becomes clear is how every element of the story was constructed around fulfilling the story's premise in a dramatic way.

To write a story like The Usual Suspects, then, the storyteller can START with a clear understanding of a premise, and how to work out the elements of a story to create a plot that resolves the story in a way that heightens the dramatic pleasure of the story's fulfillment. A script that revolves around creating resolution -- this happened, so that happened -- can fail to create a quality of story-like fulfillment. This failure is so deadly because audiences enter a story's world with a desire to be moved. Watching/reading a lifeless sequence of events playing out is not MOVING in and of itself, no more than mechanically watching a clock tick off time is. Time ticking away can be made dramatic, of course, but not if the writer thinks that all it takes is creating a clock and setting up a deadline: "X" must happen within the minute, or "boom." That's plot. It's not story.

I have read scripts that instead of having a plot line AND a story line that intermesh are almost entirely plot. Depending on the quality of writing, they often have an interesting beginning that slowly slides into being boringly repetitious. A script that is 95% plot is a testament to a flawed conception of the whole idea of stories and plot. Struggling, inexperienced writers endlessly create plots that lack a compelling dramatic purpose that moves their audience. Such flawed story often have three acts, rising action, and resolution, but they lack the dramatic purpose and fulfillment of stories.

In The Usual Suspects, the story's ultimate revelation is both the resolution of the story's plot -- what happened on the ship -- AND the fulfillment of the story's premise -- could a powerful man of will bend all others to see what he wanted them to see? Yes. Dramatically yes.

Offering someone a story that is all plot is like offering someone who's hungry a beautiful painting of a meal. While a few people might enjoy that experience and find it a substitute for real food -- for a time -- most people want the satisfaction of a meal. A story satisfies an inner hungry just as food satisfies physical hunger. A story that doesn't satisfy the hunger of its audience is a painting of food, or, worse, sawdust arranged to appear to be food.

One last note about The Usual Suspects and how every element of the story -- even what appears to be a background detail -- has dramatic purpose. This story opens with a shot of moonlight reflecting off the water. The reflections all appear like the wavy lines one would see for a digital recreation of voices. This background detail sets out a question, who are these voices? How can we tell them apart? As we go around and view them, how are we to know which one is the telling us the "truth"?

The story answers that question in a satisfying, fulfilling way.

A photo of Christopher McQuarrie, screenwriter of The Usual Suspects.

The Usual Suspects is a wonderful story and plot. I applaud and admire its creator, Christopher McQuarrie, a master chef of the art of storytelling.

More about The Usual Suspects on the IMBD.

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