A Story is a Promise: The Essential Elements of Storytelling
Bill Johnson is the office manager and über volunteer for Willamette Writers. He is also a writer, story analyst, and teacher. I've attended Bill's workshops at Willamette Writers annual conference and read his 2000 book on writing, A Story is a Promise: Good Thinks to Know Before You Write that Screenplay, Novel, or Play. So I was looking forward to his presentation for this season's NW Author Series.
It was a lightbulb moment for me. As with riding, the trainer or teacher can repeat an instruction over and over, but until you're ready to grasp and apply it, the information just doesn't sink in. Yesterday, Bill's message (at least the main gist of it) finally sank in for me.
Within the first paragraph of your book and no later than the first page, you must inform the reader what the story is about. The author then fulfills the promise to the reader by telling that story.
Yeah, I know. Duh.
Bill drew a simple illustration to distinguish Story Line from Plot. The Story Line is a straight horizontal line from the beginning to the end of the story. On the left (beginning) is the underlying issue for the main character, on the right is the resolution of that issue. Arcing above the Story Line is the Plot. The Plot Line contains the obstacles the main character must overcome on the way to the story climax and conclusion. For example, the Story Line for the Harry Potter books is Harry's underlying desire to fit in. That is the story that J.K. Rowling promises to tell the reader. The Plot includes Harry's friends and enemies who help and hinder him on the way to his goal.
Bill called it the Dramatic Truth of the main character. The reader can relate the fictional character's underlying need to his or her own real life desires. Whether it is fitting in (Harry Potter), getting unstuck from a past experience (The Kite Runner), overcoming grief (The Lovely Bones), seeking redemption for a father (Star Wars), or desiring a second chance (The Sixth Sense) -- the reader/viewer can identify with these very human desires.
Once the Story Line is established, the role of each secondary and minor character serves to aid or derail the main character's journey. The plot raises the stakes with each obstacle the main character must overcome. Narrative tension is created when the reader internalizes the character's struggles. The reader/viewer experiences a deeper level of feeling with each rising level of obstacle and invests in the outcome of the story.
When introducing the Story Line the author can be blunt (Once upon a time....), but for best results the opening paragraph should raise a question. The reader is intrigued. Just how will the Boy Wizard go about fitting in? By opening with Question ➝ Answer ➝ Question the reader is sucked in. By continuing this format with each chapter the reader remains with the story to the conclusion.
Bill's new book, A Story is a Promise: The Spirit of Storytelling, is a revision of his previous book that adds a section on Deep Characterization. During the workshop Bill helped attendees practice deep character analysis through meditation. We closed our eyes and visualized our main character sitting with us in a room and let that character tell us his or her underlying desire. (Aha! Penarddyn wants freedom from fear! That's the Story Line for Galactic Empress).
Bill suggested that Story resonates with us because it is a release. Stories embody our own conflicting emotions as depicted by the characters. When the story resonates with the reader the final resolution can provide relief. We intrinsically seem to know when the Story Line is missing, even if we don't consciously know why we stopped reading the book or can't recommend a movie.
As a story analyst and editor, Bill sees so many novels that take pages and pages to get to the real story. The author provides detail about the appearance and back story of the characters, the location, etc., but arrives at the Story Line late (or not at all). As Bill says, "The quicker the storyteller communicates the role of characters and a story's events in fulfilling a story's promise, the more quickly an audience will desire to enter a story's world to experience its promise played out to resolution and fulfillment."