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

Conscious Storytelling


A Review of the Structure of Memento


by Bill Johnson

To consciously create a story is to understand why the elements of a story engage and reward the attention of an audience. A first step in this process is to understand what a story promises an audience. Is it a journey toward understanding, acceptance, fitting in, dealing with grief, gaining revenge, dealing with the ghosts of the past?

Introducing a story's promise in a dramatic context - in a way that suggests a need for the resolution - sets a story into motion.

A question I'm asked is, does suggesting the promise of a story make a beginning too obvious? It can. The obvious can also become a starting point to find a suggestive, elusive, engaging opening that still speaks to a story's deeper purpose.

Memento, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, is a story that suggests Nolan understands the craft of storytelling. Memento starts with someone waving a picture of a man shot to death. The time sequence goes backwards, with the picture fading out and being withdrawn into a camera. The blood from the shooting returns to the dead man, who comes back to life.

This opening suggests the story will go back in time. The opening also raises questions: who is the man with the camera, why did he shoot the dead man?

We go back in time to get these answers. The man with the camera, Lenny, is meeting with Teddy, the dead man. Lenny explains to Teddy that he has a handicap as they drive to the scene of Teddy's death. When they arrive at a deserted industrial location, Lenny goes into a building. He takes out a photo of Teddy with a note on it to 'not believe Teddy's lies, that he should kill Teddy.' Lenny then turns on Teddy with a gun. Teddy protests that Lenny only knows who he used to be, not what he has become; and that if Lenny wants the truth about himself, it's in the basement.

We then we cut back to a hotel room where Lenny explains to someone on the phone that 'Sammy Jenkins' had no system like Lenny. Who Sammy Jenkins is and what is Lenny's 'system' sets up new questions. Lenny explains his 'handicap' to a clerk, that he can no longer retain new memories since his wife's death and his being struck on the head. That answers a question, why Lenny takes photos, but doesn't explain why Lenny killed Teddy. The audience is always being drawn forward, scene by scene.

Next scene, Lenny tells the hotel clerk he doesn't want to see Teddy. Then Teddy shows up. We see on Lenny's wrist the note, 'Remember Sammy Jenkins.' Lenny tattoos information he wants to remember onto his body. That's part of his 'system.'

Going back in time again, we see a car registration with Teddy's photo and the name John Gamol. Lenny then takes off his shirt. Tattooed on his chest is a message that his wife was raped and murdered by a man named John G. What's important to Lenny, his story, he tattoos on his body, in the same way people are self- branded with ideas or feelings about their lives. In Memento, Nolan finds a creative way to make that impulse larger than life.

Lenny writes on Teddy's photo that Teddy killed his wife.

The story then cuts to Lenny on the phone telling someone the story of Sammy Jenkins. Cutting to this story-within-a-story happens throughout the film. Lenny was an insurance adjustor who turned down a claim by Sammy, who suffered a brain injury that left him unable to form new memories. When Lenny tells Sammy's wife that Sammy's problem is mental, she ultimately challenges this by asking Sammy to repeatedly give her insulin shots. If he's 'faking' and he loves her, he won't do something that could lead to her death. But he does. The quest of Sammy Jenkin's wife to discover the truth about her husband gives these scenes dramatic tension, while also giving the audience information about Lenny's condition.

Lenny goes to meet Natalie. He's written on her photo that she's helping him because she also lost someone. Natalie has a split lip and a black eye, which raises the question, who hit her? Natalie is the one who gave Lenny the information that ID'd Teddy as John Gamol. This explains why Lenny thinks Teddy killed his wife. Natalie asks Lenny to tell her what he remembers about his wife. As Lenny tells Natalie about his wife, this helps the audience 'feel' why Lenny is so driven on his quest to avenge her death.

As we go back in time, Teddy tells Lenny that Natalie is trying to set Lenny up to kill the wrong man. Who's lying? Teddy or Natalie? Or both? Why? We continue back in time to get the answers.

Lenny wakes up in bed with Natalie, who he doesn't recognize. She kisses Lenny and asks that he at least remember that, but it's clear he won't.

We then cut to the night before. Lenny arrives at Natalie's demanding to know 'who Dodd' is. He's a man with a bloody face in a photo Lenny took. Natalie reveals that she lost someone named Jimmy, that he went to meet Teddy about a drug deal and never came back. When Lenny sees a picture of Natalie and Jimmy together, he writes on a photo of her that she's lost someone.

We go back in time one more step, and Lenny wakes up to find himself in a hotel room with a man with a bloody face, Dodd, tied up in a closet. Teddy shows up and wants to know what's happening, but Lenny can't remember. But, because the story is going backwards in time, the audience knows they'll get the answer. Even with the time sequence reversed, the audience is always allowed a sense of scene to scene continuity, of being moved toward the answer to a question raised in a previous scene.

We then go back in time again to Lenny in a shower and hearing someone enter the hotel room. Lenny gets in a fight with Dodd and knocks him out with a bottle of liquor. Lenny then ties up Dodd, puts him into a closet, takes his picture, writes himself a note to get rid of Dodd, ask Natalie about Dodd, then Lenny calls Teddy.

We then go back in time, and Lenny is running in a trailer court. Lenny's already forgotten whether he's chasing someone or running from someone. He then comes across Dodd, who shoots at him, which answers the question of whether Lenny is the pursuer or the pursued. This was my favorite scene in the movie. The set up is perfect.

We go back again, showing Dodd originally trying to kill Lenny, which raises the question, why? Again we have an immediate and clear question that will be answered by going back in time. Because the story is like a puzzle piece, every scene must have a specific purpose, a specific shape and design.

The scenes continue to be intercut with Lenny on the phone talking with someone (we later discover is Teddy) about some missing pages in the police report about his wife's death. It comes out that the police suspected a drug dealer killed Lenny's wife.

The pace of the story picks up. Teddy appears at Lenny's car and warns him not to trust Natalie, that Lenny's 'business' in town is done and he should leave. Teddy asks Lenny how he got the car he's driving, the clothes he's wearing? Teddy tells Lenny that Natalie's boyfriend is a drug dealer. Again the next set of questions is being framed for the audience.

Teddy, to Lenny, "You do not know who you are; just who you used to be." This is when Lenny writes on Teddy's photo, "Don't believe him."

We then go back to a scene in Natalie's house. Dodd is someone who's being sent after Natalie because Jimmy disappeared after going to meet Teddy for a drug deal. Natalie wants Lenny to kill Dodd. To give him a reason to do that, Natalie provokes Lenny to hit her. She even tells him, "I'm going to use you." After Lenny splits her lips and blackens her eye, she leaves her house and sits in her car. Lenny frantically tries to find a pen to write himself a note about what's happening, but Natalie has removed all the pens and pencils. When she returns to the house with her split lip, she's able to convince Lenny that Dodd beat her up. This is a powerful story twist, changing entirely the audience's perception of why Natalie is helping Lenny.

We continue back in time to the moment Lenny drives up to the bar where Natalie works in Jimmy's car, and Natalie thinks he's Jimmy. She asks him if he's Teddy, and what happened to Jimmy?

As the story continues to go backwards, we discover that Teddy's is an undercover cop, James Gamol. That Teddy set up Lenny to believe that Jimmy was the drug dealer who murdered his wife.

We then go back to Lenny confronting Jimmy about killing his wife, and Lenny killing Jimmy and putting his body in the basement. This answers a question from the opening scene, the 'truth' that Teddy referred to. Lenny puts on Jimmy's clothes and takes his car. This sets out why Natalie thought Lenny was Jimmy. It also explains why Natalie set Lenny up to kill Teddy, to avenge Jimmy's death. It's a great story twist.

Teddy tells Lenny that Lenny killed his wife, that he simply made up the story about Sammy Jenkins to explain his overdosing his wife with insulin. That Teddy made up the story of John G. killing Lenny's wife to give Lenny's life meaning. That Teddy already helped Lenny track down the killer and take his life. Somewhere in all this is the truth. Or not. Teddy, "You made up your own truth."

Lenny gets into Jimmy's car with money and a gun from the drug deal.

In the story's final moment, Lenny thinks, "I have to believe my actions still have meaning-that when my eyes are closed, the world's still here."

Like most people, Lenny needs something to believe in.

One of Lenny's last thoughts, "Now, where was I?"

The audience has been shown the answer to that question. Great storytelling.

A storyteller who understands how to consciously design a story can use elements like time, POV, reversals in understanding to heighten the effect of a story.

For people who'd like to tell a story in a more conscious way, some final thoughts: Do you introduce your story's promise in its opening scenes? In a way that suggests a need for resolution? Does your story's promise arise out of an issue of human need?

Do your characters embody issues that lead your audience to identify with them? To want to experience a story journey with them?

Do you suggest that something at stake compels your main character to act? Something your main character can't walk away from, would risk death to overcome?

Is your plot designed specifically to block the advance of your story's core issue toward resolution and fulfillment?

Do you understand the dramatic purpose of each of your scenes? Do you see what would be missing from your story if you removed any one scene? If you can change or remove a scene from your story and not change your story's course or outcome, that scene lacks dramatic effect. If a scene doesn't impact your story's characters, how can it impact your audience?

Can you watch other movies, from art house films to simple action stories, and pick out how they introduced their promise? Fulfilled their promise?

Whether you start with answers to these questions or write to the end of a story to discover those answers, understanding how to consciously design a story's elements can help you build stronger, more potent story worlds.

(This article appeared in ScreenTalk, The International Magazine of Screenwriting.)

Top of page