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A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling
by Bill Johnson
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Bill Johnson is the author of A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling is now available on Amazon Kindle, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004V020N0.
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A Story is a Promise
A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling offers exciting new insights into the craft of writing.
A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling offers a new paradigm for understanding one of the most difficult of all arts...writing dramatic, engaging stories. Step by step, the A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling workbook guides readers to internalize the principle that underlies well-told stories, that a story is both a promise and a promise kept. Step by natural step it teaches how to set out a story's promise in an active voice...the storyteller's voice. This process transports writers to a new sense of clarity about how the interaction of the elements of stories -- character, plot, theme, action, conflict, resolution -- create the effect of dramatic fulfillment.
A Story is a Promise is a journey of understanding into the craft of storytelling. Each chapter of the workbook includes questions designed to help writers perceive how the different elements of a story intermesh. The purpose of this workbook is not to replace other texts on writing, but to complement them, to add a deeper foundation of knowledge of the craft of writing. Many editors have found the workbook an invaluable tool in helping them to help other writers learn the craft of storytelling.
A Story Is A Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling
Perceiving that a story is a promise is a corner stone of a foundation for understanding the art of storytelling. This chapter takes a closer look at that foundation.
In the beginning... was the promise.
A story sets out its promise by offering details of life-like characters, issues, events and circumstances and editing and arranging them to move an audience toward a desirable experience of resolution. For example, when a story created around the issue of courage fulfills its promise, the story's audience experiences a fulfilling experience of courage. The story’s audience experiences the truth of the story’s promise.
Rocky promises to be a story about gaining self respect.
The Wizard of Oz promises to be about Dorothy’s dramatic journey to a new sense of who she is and her place in the world.
Romeo and Juliet promises to be a story about tragic love.
Popular stories are often designed to revolve around a promise of some human need being acted out to dramatic fulfillment.
This makes the events of a well?told story fundamentally unlike the vagaries of real life. The "true" facts of life generally don't arrange themselves to promise a story-like offer of fulfillment. If they did, a factual account of the suicides of two teenagers distraught that their parents kept them apart would create the effect of the story Romeo and Juliet. The two are not the same in mood, tone, or dramatic purpose.
A story's audience enters every story with a desire to perceive its promise. Often a story’s promise is set out through the introduction of characters designed to act out to resolution some clearly established issue arising from a story's particular promise. As such characters act to fulfill that promise, a story’s audience comes to feel such characters ring true and are "life-like." They should more correctly be called story-like, because it is through their actions revolving around a discernible dramatic purpose that a story's audience chooses to identify with them. Through internalizing a story’s journey to resolution via the actions of its characters, a story’s audience experiences being moved to a story’s fulfillment of its particular promise.
By editing away all the details not "true" to this process, a story becomes all the more "real" to an audience. That's why characters in stories about courage often perform impossible feats. Not because it's humanly possible, but because a story's audience demands that the actions of the story be story-like. That’s why characters not created around a clearly defined dramatic purpose can appear to be lifeless, cardboard cutouts. It doesn’t matter how carefully they are described or how "true" the details of their description. Carefully described characters acting to no discernible dramatic purpose can appear to be a lie, which leads a story's audience to turn away, just as we turn away from those who lie to us about their promises.
A story, then, is not created by assembling details that are realistic or true to life, it is created by assembling details that have a dramatic purpose that resonates with an audience. Details that are story-like in their design and intent. That evoke the world of a story is alive with a promise the storyteller understands how to fulfill in a dramatically pleasing way.
The same logic of understanding a character's role in fulfilling a story's promise applies to what details of a story’s environment a storyteller should set out. The answer, those details that revolve around setting out a story's promise in a way that make a story's world ring true. Details not revolving around heightening the effect of a story's promise, of evoking that promise being acted out, come across as a lie or as having no purpose.
When writers create characters, events, and descriptions that dramatically act out to fulfillment their story’s promise, such writing is innately satisfying. By being available upon the demand and needs of audiences, particular stories are empowering and satisfying to particular audiences. The romantic can read novels that fulfill a need of romance. The lover of action, the promise to experience heroic quests. The philosopher, stories that explore subtle nuances of thought. The lover of mysteries, stories that offer an enjoyable, convoluted journey to resolution. The lover of literary fiction, stories that explore the human condition.
That's why there's a story for every need, and stories that meet needs we didn't even know we had until a storyteller draws us in to experience a particular story. As long as people have a longing to have their curiosity satisfied; questions about life and existence explained and answered; a need to have issues of human need validated dramatically, there will be a desire for stories.
That’s why a story must promise something to its audience. For the writer to promise nothing in a story is to violate the unwritten contract of a storyteller with his or her audience, that they will transport their audience to a satisfying, stimulating resolution of a story’s promise.
How a storyteller suggests and fulfills a story's promise is set out in the following chapter.
What does your story promise its audience?
How do you introduce your story’s promise?
What events fulfill your story's promise?
In A Story Is a Promise, Bill Johnson posits that a well-designed story "promises dramatic fulfillment of our needs." Too often, says Johnson, writers embark on projects without first identifying the dramatic issue that is at the heart of their story. These writers--novelists, playwrights, and, clearly closest to Johnson's heart, screenwriters--would do much better, and save a lot of time otherwise spent writing in circles, by first identifying their key dramatic issue, Johnson says. Once they have identified a premise, which can be easily summed up (for Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Johnson offers "overcoming a shared catastrophe leads to renewal"), they can measure every word they write against it. Ask yourself, says Johnson, whether you can determine if "every character issue, event, line of dialogue, and scene description serves to dramatically advance the story." If the answer is "no," that event, dialogue, or description doesn't belong. If you find the concept unclear, don't worry--apparently, a lot of Johnson's students do, too. But once you understand what's at stake in your story, you will be better equipped to make all the decisions you need to make along the way concerning characterization, plot development, dialogue, conflict, and the like. With workshoplike questions at the end of each chapter aimed at the writer-in-process. --Jane Steinberg
Amazon Customer Review
I have never reviewed anything on Amazon before but I feel so indebted to Bill Johnson that I have to give him a review. I went to a big name film school for college and throughout the entire 4 years and thousands of dollars, I never learned more about storytelling then I did reading this 3 dollar kindle book. Bill Johnson really gives you the map to the maze. After 6 years of making movies, I had some idea on what made a story work and what didn't, but Bill Johnson really gives the theoretical groundwork to what makes a story resonate with an audience. Not only did the book corroborate some ideas that I already had but enriched them and gave me so much more to think about. Thank You Bill!
Amazon Customer Review
This is an excellent book. The author shows why some novels are page-turners, and why some are not. He talks about a novel's promise and premise, and how to make these work. I highly recommend this book to all new fiction writers - and to some not so new writers.
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